'Z: The Beginning of Everything': TV Review

Courtesy of Amazon Studios
A sort of tender curiosity.
1/27/2017

Amazon's breezy new Jazz Age series explores the tumultuous life of Zelda Sayre, wife to novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald.

It begins at the end, with a close-up of a luxurious high heel shoe lying next to a tarp-covered dead body in a burned-out building. Those familiar with the story of Montgomery, Alabama-born socialite Zelda Sayre will know who that corpse is and how it got there. But Amazon's jaunty new series Z: The Beginning of Everything — adapted from Therese Anne Fowler's novel Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by The Killing executive producers Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin — doesn't rush toward a reveal. Gotta leave the door open for more seasons, after all. And to be fair, there's plenty to explore in Zelda's raucous existence, much of it related to her famous husband, the alcoholic novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, with whom she became an iconic Flapper-era celebrity.

As played by Christina Ricci, Zelda is at once defiant and fragile, though the former quality mostly wins out in this batch of 10 half-hour episodes, all of which were made available for preview. The first season covers the period from Zelda's first meeting with F. Scott (David Hoflin) in Montgomery to the initial months of her pregnancy with the couple's only child, Frances. The duo is kept apart until the end of the pilot episode (directed with buoyant momentum by Tim Blake Nelson, and shot beautifully by ace cinematographer Tim Orr), after which comes a courtship that feels a bit too daytime soap opera in all its longing glances and teary declarations of love. It doesn't help that, as with many pilot-to-second-episode transitions, the editing and shot compositions become notably more TV-ish.

Zelda and F. Scott's relationship is less about devoted romance, more about dizzy co-dependency. So the show finds a nice groove about halfway through, after husband and wife settle in Roaring '20s Manhattan and proceed to tear the town apart. F. Scott is riding high following the publication of his first novel This Side of Paradise, passages of which (as with much of his work) were appropriated from or inspired by Zelda's own letters and diaries. The middle section of the series has a woozy, endless-party feel to it that culminates in a recreation of one of the more famous Zelda incidents involving a drunken spin in a revolving door.

From there, the couple escape to a seaside hideaway where F. Scott attempts to complete work on his second novel and Zelda becomes increasingly restless. There's only so long she's willing to play second fiddle, and there are hints in the first season's final stretch of the dark emotional places the series may go should it continue. It would certainly be a shame if Ricci didn't get to more fully explore her character's rawer facets. (This Zelda really does need to cut loose in Paris with Ernest Hemingway. Can Corey Stoll reprise his Papa from Midnight in Paris?) This is in every way a tailored star vehicle, but the actress throws herself fully into every scene, playing up Zelda's the-world-bows-to-me! aggressiveness, while always hinting at the aching, delicate spirit underneath.

Hoflin, an Alexander Skarsgård clone if ever there was one, has little to do beside look arm-candy handsome at her side. He's hardly credible as an impassioned, voice-of-his-generation author (the series is least convincing when it shows him nervously navigating NYC's critic, gossip columnist and publisher circles). But he nonetheless makes a good physical foil for Ricci — the blond, blue-eyed chopping block into which she can wield her axe-like witticisms and insults.

The supporting cast, fortunately, is a full-on delight. David Strathairn is entertainingly stoic and disapproving as Zelda's father Judge Anthony Sayre. Jim True-Frost brings famed book editor Maxwell Perkins to nerdy, lightly scolding life. Lucy Walters splendidly embodies poet Edna St. Vincent Millay, looking down her nose at almost everyone she meets. Best of all are Christina Bennett Lind and Natalie Knepp as sisters and fellow Montgomeryites Tallulah and Eugenia Bankhead, the series' cloche-hatted Greek chorines, always in a state of snide amusement, however inappropriate the situation.

Production company: Amazon Studios
Creators: Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin
Based on:
Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald by Therese Anne Fowler
Cast: Christina Ricci, David Hoflin, David Strathairn, Kristine Nielsen, Jim True-Frost, Corey Cott, Christina Bennett Lind, Natalie Knepp, Jamie Anne Allman, Holly Curran, Maya Kazan, Lucy Walters, Jun Naito
Directors: Mike Barker, Neasa Hardiman, Minkie Spiro, Wash Westmoreland, Tim Blake Nelson
Writers: Dawn Prestwich, Nicole Yorkin, Doug Dorst, Marcus Gardley, Kit Steinkellner, Ian Deitchman, Kristin Rusk Robinson, Lydia Woodward

Premieres: Friday (Amazon)

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