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There are all kinds of prejudgments one can make that ultimately lead to missing out on a really exceptional television experience. Like not watching Friday Night Lights because it was just going to be about high-school football and teenagers. Like not watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer because of the title. Hell, Patriot is a terrible name, but also one of the best shows on TV. The point is, sometimes you need to watch to find out.
Which brings me to FX’s Fosse/Verdon, the eight-episode limited series about choreographer and filmmaker Bob Fosse and his dancer-actress wife, Gwen Verdon, and the tangled, poisonous marriage that fueled them both. Or, to put it in a way that appeals far, far less to me: It’s a miniseries about the people behind musicals.
I’m not really a musicals person. I’m really only about 50 percent interested in Broadway to start with, and that number dips precipitously if you add in dance numbers. So, given that most of Fosse’s life is associated with that art form in film (Cabaret, All that Jazz), stage (The Pajama Game, Sweet Charity, Pippin, Chicago, etc.) and television (Liza With a Z), and FX’s trailers for Fosse/Verdon were famous dance numbers associated with that work, my initial reaction was “pass” and, true to form, the series was reviewed by fellow Hollywood Reporter TV critic Dan Fienberg.
But here’s the thing — I certainly liked the look of it from a drama perspective, and initial clips of Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell were intriguing, plus the fact that there’s the FX pedigree. Oh, and a very clear history, as mentioned above, where TV series you thought were one thing turn into another.
So I decided to circle back and approach Fosse/Verdon after it had spun out some of those initial episodes to see if I could get into it. In the Peak TV era, ruling out viewers who might be prejudgmental is no longer a concern for networks, given the diminished importance of ratings. It’s so creatively freeing for writers to not be worried about broad appeal. Anyway, now that I didn’t actually have to review it, I was ready and willing to see if Fosse/Verdon could hook me in.
Here’s what happened: I liked the dance scenes best.
That’s not really an endorsement, though.
Fosse/Verdon is a lot of things, but mostly, after the first four episodes that have aired, it seems like an idea that was hatched in a room with a lot of talented people attached. Created and executive produced by Steven Levenson (Dear Evan Hansen, Masters of Sex) and Thomas Kail (Grease Live!, Hamilton), the series also has Joel Fields (The Americans) and Lin-Manuel Miranda as executive producers, joining Rockwell and Williams in those roles as well. What’s not to like there? And beyond the troubled marriage aspect, the scripts also address Fosse’s deeply destructive addictions (always good dramatic fodder) and the fact that Fosse and Verdon were friends with Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) and Neil and Joan Simon (Nate Corddry and Aya Cash); any time you can dramatize a biography that encompasses a multitude of talented, famous people, the better.
I could certainly see why, in a room, there’s nothing to pump the brakes — it has Emmy-magnet miniseries written all over it.
Kail and Levensen wrote the pilot with Kail directing; Levenson wrote the second episode with Kail helming again; then those duties were dispersed — and, in some ways, the series gets better, but mostly because it starts to find its form.
The trouble I had wasn’t the dance numbers. By the time they started to be used more heavily as a plot device — as in the fourth episode, “Glory,” when Fosse considers suicide and the people, mostly women, he’s used are urging him to do just that — it was a welcome break from the monotony of Fosse’s bed-hopping and Verdon’s tongue-biting support of him despite it all.
It turned out, quicker than imagined, that what Fosse/Verdon needed to be a better drama — the sole reason I was tuning in in the first place — was the use of more dance numbers to cover up the dramatic fault lines.
Now, that was unexpected.
Through four episodes, Williams is pretty fantastic and mesmerizing as Verdon, struggling to stay relevant as Fosse’s career takes off and she’s left not only to raise their daughter Nicole (Blake Baumgartner) but race into Fosse’s projects when he’s stuck because she’s the only one who can truly help translate his genius (the implication being, of course, that she’s no mere muse but a driving creative force).
The challenge facing Fosse/Verdon is partly that there’s less tolerance for this kind of story now — the underappreciated and uncredited woman behind the (usually awful) man is nearly as ubiquitous a narrative angle in the entertainment world as the nice white people who were really the heroes in a black person’s story of redemption. It’s dated, and tiring. And in Fosse/Verdon, there’s no end to Fosse using his position to sleep with everyone in his sight, from dancers to assistants to friends of dancers he’s already sleeping with. In the #MeToo era, this kind of abuse of power no longer gets a free pass just because “it’s a crucial and dramatic weakness in an otherwise brilliant man.” And simultaneously, there’s less and less sympathy for Verdon enduring it, even if you can understand her reasoning.
(Besides, television already has a Hall of Fame version of that story, told infinitely better and with more nuance in Mad Men.)
Of course, the counter-argument is that’s who Fosse was. Yes, and the counter-argument to that should be, in 2019, so what — it’s been done and it’s boring now. Maybe in the series’ second half, starting Tuesday, more of Verdon’s burden will become clear, but I’m not putting a lot of hope in that basket, because that’s not really the real life Fosse/Verdon story line. Verdon stayed by Fosse’s side until the end, which seemingly justifies another look at the flawed genius man with the long-suffering woman propping him up, because that’s their mini-tragedy, their flawed love story.
I’m not against the existence of such an exploration, I’m just arguing that when something has been done to death, true story or no, you’re going to get a lot of viewers preferring to look elsewhere.
I’ve enjoyed the Williams and Rockwell performances greatly, but the story arc isn’t compelling me to seek out more of it. I wanted there to be more dramatic heft to Fosse/Verdon. I wanted it to have — for a person less keen on song-and-dance numbers — another element that hooked me and carried me through the musical stuff. Instead, it has me desperate for a song-and-dance fever dream to keep me watching.
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