At its most biting, Netflix's figure skating soap Spinning Out is a complex and deeply felt family drama about how ambition, mental illness and athleticism grind against each other and wear each other down. At its drippiest, the show is a histrionic "emerging adult" (aka gritty YA) melodrama drowning in superfluous love triangles. Uneven but mostly engrossing, it combines the unflinching class struggles of I, Tonya, the star-crossed romance of The Cutting Edge and the disability-as-tragedy goopiness of Ice Castles. This series would be totally at home on Freeform were it not for the free-flowing sex, drugs and profanity.
Created by veteran TV writer Samantha Stratton, a former competitive skater herself, Spinning Out explores the graphic, real-world psychological extremes intrinsic to Olympic training. (In other words, this is no Disney's Ice Princess, a movie I indeed paid money to see at a movie theater in 2005.) Kaya Scodelario, who broke through as live wire Effy Stonem on British teen classic Skins, stars here as Kat Baker, a rough-around-the-edges young figure skater traumatized after sustaining a public and gruesome skull injury on the ice. Unfortunately, the emotional fallout from the accident is only the beginning of her problems, which include generational poverty, an abusive bipolar single mother, a history of bloody self-harm and a bipolar diagnosis all her own that may derail her career. (Mental illness is poison for a sport built on pristine femininity.)
Broody Kat is a powerhouse of an athlete, but the accident effectively killed her confidence. Her last resort is to become a coach, but when even that uninviting option withers away, she resigns herself to a bleak future waitressing at the local Sun Valley hotel while watching younger skaters forever outshine her (including her lonely little sister Serena, played by The Hunger Games' Willow Shields, who must be used to acting as sacrificial lamb).
Hope arrives in the form of a bratty bro (Evan Roderick), whose rich daddy offers to pay for her training if she agrees to become Justin's pair partner. To them, she's merely a tool to get the kid to Olympic gold, but she ultimately doesn't mind being used as long as it will help her break free from her mother's toxic stronghold. If you truly have zero idea of how jagged Kat and slick Justin will chemically react to each other, let me point out their skating program is choreographed to Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet."
Romantic clichés aside, Spinning Out's refusal to adhere to trite character archetypes keeps the narrative pulsing. Kat isn't a femme fatale and Justin isn't a hunk with a heart of gold — they're both more richly drawn than that, especially when responding to Kat's vacillating mania and depression. Ultimately, however, I was less interested in their will-they-or-won't-they danse macabre than the surprising inner lives of the show's matriarchs: Carol (January Jones), Kat's loving/flawed mother; Mandy (Sarah Wright Olsen), Justin's warm but haunted stepmother; and Dasha (Svetlana Efremova), Kat and Justin's convivial Soviet-born coach. Refreshingly, there isn't an icy witch in the bunch and each actress is luminous in her respective role. These three convey what happens not when the dream is still dangling, but when the dream has long past.
Jones in particular lends gravity to the show, which threatens to float off into the silliness stratosphere if not for Carol's damaged naturalism. The actress — who honed the art of pained motherhood on Mad Men — plays a woman beaten down by life, driven out of competitive skating thanks to a teen pregnancy and forced to contend with psychosis only barely managed by medication. She's often despicable to her daughters, at times a grueling stage momster hungry to live vicariously through their successes.
But Carol's guilt, insecurity and awareness of her limitations almost always redeem her (she's an inconsistent character by design). In one genuinely chilling scene, we watch as she vindictively scratches off Kat's face from their family photos after a fight. Later, mother and daughter share a brutally realistic verbal altercation at the hotel where Kat works, and it slowly dawns on the young woman that her mother's antipathy is outside of her control, as mom's actually undergoing a psychotic episode. (Jones' woundedness pairs well with Scodelario's dark charisma. These women are masters of self-gaslighting, ignoring their instincts and explaining them away as symptoms.) As the child of a parent who struggled with mental illness, I can attest to the heart-aching muddiness of these rows — where does your mother end and the disease begin? The series is a superb example of mental illness explaining but not excusing abusive behavior.
Between Spinning Out, GLOW and Sarah DeLappe's 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama finalist The Wolves, about a high school female soccer team, I am enjoying the current resurgence of the "female sports drama," a genre that flourished in the 1990s and early 2000s with classics like A League of Their Own, Girlfight, Love & Basketball, Bend It Like Beckham and Million Dollar Baby. In its best moments, Spinning Out dissects the sacrifices of women's athletic dreams: eating disorders; exorbitant expenses that destabilize families; young bodies vulnerable to injury and predatory coaches/medical providers; and the lack of formal education that could provide Plan B career opportunities. These issues localize around Kat's isolated teen sister Serena and her spitfire best friend Jenn (Amanda Zhou), two young people facing social ostracism within their skating club for disparate reasons.
While the plot goes round and round in circles for the second half of the season, offering half-baked romantic plotlines and theatrical displays I have historically dubbed "TV Bipolar," Spinning Out ultimately treats Kat and Carol's mental health disabilities as an everyday part of the human experience. The story may be woolly at times, but its humanity is as clear as ice.
Cast: Kaya Scodelario, January Jones, Willow Shields, Amanda Zhou, Evan Roderick, Svetlana Efremova, Mitchell Edwards, Sarah Wright Olsen, Will Kemp, David James Elliott, Zahra Bentham, Kaitlyn Leeb, Johnny Weir, Charlie Hewson
Executive producers: Samantha Stratton, Lara Olsen, Joby Harold, Tory Tunnell
Premieres: Wednesday, Jan. 1 (Netflix)