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FX’s Fosse/Verdon is either a masterpiece or a disaster

Sam Rockwell plays Bob Fosse and Michelle Williams plays Gwen Verdon in a show for theater geeks and fans of complicated marriages.

Sam Rockwell as Bob Fosse, and Michelle Williams as Gwen Verdon.
Sam Rockwell plays Bob Fosse, and Michelle Williams plays Gwen Verdon, in a new miniseries devoted to their tempestuous relationship and creative partnership.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

You should know that I’m a sucker for Broadway musicals, for stories about deeply broken and co-dependent relationships, and for structural gimmickry. And as such, I devoured and adored the five installments I’ve seen so far of FX’s new Fosse/Verdon, a glossy eight-episode miniseries about a Great Man Who Is Also A Terrible Human, the Underappreciated Woman Who Loves Him, and the genuinely fantastic stuff they made together.

Your mileage may vary. I loved it, but the miniseries is either a masterpiece or an utter disaster, and I’m not sure how much room there is between the two in this case. The show it reminded me most of was The Americans, not just because that show’s co-showrunner, Joel Fields, is involved in this project, and not just because a handful of its writers are writing on this, too. No, both series are about the impossibility of those inside of a marriage to understand each other and those outside of it to understand the couple as a unit. And they’re both about how easy it is to use toxicity as a crutch.

But The Americans’ central spies were fictional, even if some of the things they did “really happened.” Multi-award-winning director and choreographer Bob Fosse (played here by Sam Rockwell) and his longtime estranged wife, the actress and dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) really did exist, and if we gain something from trying to understand how he was such an asshole, or what kept drawing her to him, etc., we still have to factor in that all of this happened to real people, many of whom are still alive.

The women Fosse used and discarded and harassed and mistreated were real. So were his many addictions. So were the deeply rooted mental health issues and suicidal ideations he refused to deal with. The show doesn’t soft-pedal any of this, but it also sort of does merely by existing. Bob Fosse created great things. And Fosse/Verdon can never escape how often it finds itself in the canyon between “great artist” and “terrible person.”

But remember how I said this might be a masterpiece? I meant it. Because if Fosse/Verdon isn’t quite the excoriating biography of Fosse or the retroactively celebratory biography of Verdon anyone might have expected or dreamed of, it is a deeply fascinating portrait of Fosse/Verdon, a third person formed out of the two of them, who has shaped our modern world.

Is Fosse/Verdon just for theater geeks?

Maybe not, but it helps if you know what Damn Yankees even is.

If you come in to Fosse/Verdon without a great knowledge of who Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon were, the show doesn’t offer a lot of easy hand-holding. (It probably knows Wikipedia exists, but let’s set that aside.) It begins in 1969, when Fosse’s first film, a movie version of Sweet Charity, which he had directed on stage to great acclaim, is about to flop, a career setback plenty of people would never recover from. It’s a time when people don’t want Bob without Gwen, and that clearly rankles him just a little bit, because one of the people who doesn’t want Bob without Gwen is Bob Fosse himself.

But this is also a turning point. Verdon is about to descend the ladder of fame, a victim of show business sexism. She’ll have to scrap and scramble to get parts worthy of her talents, and her career never hits the same heights as it did in the 1950s and ’60s again.

And Fosse is about to direct 1972’s Cabaret, one of the greatest films ever made. He’ll win an Oscar for it, then two Tonys and three Emmys for entirely different projects, all in the same year. (He’s still the only person to ever have done this.) His next two movies, 1974’s Lenny and 1979’s All That Jazz, will both receive Best Picture nominations. And as if that’s not enough, he’ll also direct and choreograph the original production of Chicago on Broadway in 1975. (With Chicago, it’s Gwen no one wants if they can’t have Bob — a brutally swift reversal of fortunes.)

From there, Fosse/Verdon moves both backward and forward in time. The second episode chronicles when the two first meet, on the 1955 musical Damn Yankees, where the electric choreography they conceived of together (though only Fosse was credited) essentially rewrote the rules of American dance. (Fosse’s choreography is all about creating tension between the body and the direction of its movement — he didn’t invent the Moonwalk, for instance, but it’s very much in harmony with his choreography, if you need a broadly famous example of something similar.)

The third delves into Verdon’s past, and the fourth Fosse’s darkest night of the soul (at the height of his success). It’s only in the fifth episode (the last I’ve seen) that the show brings all of its many ideas crashing into each other, complete with a terrific cast of modern Broadway types playing ’70s Broadway types (Norbert Leo Butz as Paddy Chayefsky!).

There is clunky stuff scattered throughout. The resolution of the fourth episode, for instance, rankles with its too-pat explanations for why someone like Bob Fosse might not commit suicide, while continuing to smoke and drink and snort their way to death. (Fosse died of a heart attack in 1987 — by Verdon’s side, through some stroke of coincidence that would feel forced if it hadn’t really happened — and the miniseries counts down to this moment with a gleeful solemnity.)

The series is certainly aware of the monstrous elements of Fosse’s personality, particularly the way he would make sleeping with him a virtual requirement for young, pretty, would-be chorus girls. But it’s never quite sure if it should say something damning his behavior or let the audience make up its own mind.

Fosse/Verdon knows it’s making a show about Bob Fosse in the era of #MeToo. The show is just so narrowly focused on the Fosse and Verdon partnership, its main attempts at underlining how bad Fosse could be mostly amount to Verdon and Fosse’s later girlfriend, Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley), telling him he’s not a great guy. This has the curious effect of turning them into the long-suffering wives of a cable drama antihero from the 2000s, even as the show clearly longs to afford them perspective equal of Bob Fosse’s, more than it wants to show what these women have in common with Breaking Bad’s Skyler White.

Now, on a series about a fictional antihero, I’d say this is the point — the audience is supposed to be morally mature enough to realize that what the hero does is wrong. But the very real legacy of Bob Fosse, the way that you can see how his steps influenced essentially any music video or stage musical you might stumble upon, the way that both Cabaret and All That Jazz are among my favorite films of all time, makes it harder to commit yourself (or maybe just myself) to the idea that his corrupting appetites somehow influenced his greatness. (That said: I do appreciate the way the series acknowledges Fosse was the victim of sexual abuse as an adolescent, without ever making that an excuse for his own abusive behavior.)

If you know that Fosse did all of this stuff, it becomes so easy to simply write it off as the cost of creativity, of making something great. That may be inherent in the very genre of the biopic, and wrestle though it might, Fosse/Verdon can never quite escape its deteriorating orbit, plunging closer and closer to the black hole that is its central subject, because it knows, deep down, how essential he is to American art. That could have tanked the whole project.

And yet ... it doesn’t. Because, deep down, this is a fantastic show about a marriage.

The true hero of Fosse/Verdon is Fosse/Verdon

Bob Fosse wasn’t a great guy. But he made some great things. To what degree should we idolize him? That’s the central question of this show.

The big idea of Fosse/Verdon, the thing that’s supposed to keep it from becoming just another antihero show, is that it elevates the prominence of Gwen Verdon, showing just how much of a creative constant she was in Bob Fosse’s life. Even when the two were estranged, he needed her to bounce ideas off of — and often to save his ass.

Turning Gwen Verdon into Fosse’s creative equal is a smart idea that often pays dividends. But it also flattens her life story into: “She was every bit as talented and creative, but limited by a society that had little value for women.” That’s true! At the same time, this conceit too often reduces her within the show’s schematic to “a talented woman,” instead of “Gwen Verdon.” The handful of story points devoted to pre-Fosse Verdon largely boil down to personal struggles and issues with motherhood. They rob her of a humanity that Williams’s tremendous performance restores, at least in part.

This might have worked if we got a good sense of why audiences so loved Verdon at her height, of why her dancing became so instantly iconic and beloved. The show’s head writer, Steven Levenson (who also wrote Dear Evan Hansen), its pilot director, Thomas Kail (director of Hamilton), and its producer, Lin-Manuel Miranda, know plenty about what makes somebody kill on stage. But perhaps because Williams isn’t as technically precise a dancer as Verdon (who could be?), they’re never able to quite convey it, even as they try.

The show also accidentally stacks its own deck in favor of Fosse by cribbing cheekily from his most famous films. The quick flashes of footage meant to convey a character’s jumbled thought process from Cabaret and the elaborate fantasy sequences from All That Jazz — they’re both here, in ways that are sometimes great and sometimes exasperating. But the movie you really have to see to understand Fosse/Verdon, the one which ultimately brought me closer to the “masterpiece” than “utter disaster” camp on this show, is Lenny.

1974’s Lenny is the least watched of Fosse’s three Best Picture nominees nowadays. It’s a somewhat conventional biopic of comedian Lenny Bruce (played by Dustin Hoffman), but one that nevertheless keeps darting through time, following its subject backward and forward, and focusing almost as much on his darkly inscrutable marriage to Honey Bruce (Valerie Perrine) as his comedy. While the film is ostensibly a portrait of Lenny, both Hoffman and Perrine received lead acting nominations at the Oscars.

That’s ... pretty much Fosse/Verdon, right down to the way Lenny can never bring itself to stop idolizing its often unsympathetic subject. And like Lenny, Fosse/Verdon is most interesting when it’s about what happens to two people who know they probably shouldn’t be together but keep getting drawn back together by some invisible pull. Fosse isn’t good for Verdon, not as a husband, not as a friend, not as a co-parent of their child. But he is good for her (and she for him) as a creative collaborator, as another half of one shared, artistic brain.

And Fosse/Verdon is as good as anything I’ve ever seen at depicting the cost of sharing that brain, of having a relationship you should leave, except it’s the only place you can get this one particular thing. The series’ best scene — and one of the best you’ll see on TV this year — comes in its second episode, when the two meet for the first time and begin working on a routine from Damn Yankees, giddily excited less at the prospect of finding someone they’re attracted to than someone they’re artistically simpatico with.

For all of Fosse/Verdon’s faults when it comes to depicting Fosse or Verdon separately, it always understands just why they would keep collapsing themselves into a unit, even after so much toxic water under the bridge. Neither was going to find that frisson with somebody else. And if Verdon spent much of her life after Fosse’s death (she died in 2000) trying to preserve his legacy, well, maybe that’s best understood as her trying, somehow, to recapture that moment, in a dance studio, when everything seemed possible, and things weren’t yet broken.

Fosse/Verdon airs Tuesdays on FX at 10 pm Eastern. Episodes will be on FX’s streaming platforms after air. I watched five out of eight episodes for this review.

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