A key moment in Paul Verhoeven’s Showgirls finds Elizabeth Berkley’s Nomi Malone insulted for being a stripper and for failing to understand her place in the scantily clad Las Vegas prancing hierarchy.
“I’m a dancer!” Nomi protests defiantly, though viewers of the dreadful camp classic know that, as a stripper, Nomi is savant, but as a dancer, her skills have to be taken on faith.
But what if they didn’t? What if Nomi truly were both a gifted stripper and also a trained and exceptional dancer? What if the same compulsion that drove Nomi to writhe on paying customers’ laps also made her brilliant on the legitimate stage?
Enter Starz’s new limited series Flesh and Bone, which masquerades as an alternatingly realistic and operatic look at the world of professional ballet, but plays as something closer to Showgirls en Pointe.
The mixture of tonal miscalculation, absurdly out-of-place characterizations, Starz-friendly exploitative raunch and fleetingly lovely dancing is almost certain to win fans prepared for camp lunacy, but, goodness — the disappointment for those viewers excited to see creator Moira Walley-Beckett take the reins of her own show after years of superlative writing and producing work on Breaking Bad.
Flesh and Bone is the story of Claire (Sarah Hay), who arrives in New York City fresh off the bus from the industrial hinterlands of Pittsburgh — an apparently nightmarish dystopia of workman’s comp, Steelers fans and incest. In two days, and with very little dancing evidence to help the audience corroborate, Claire goes from doe-eyed scrub to future prima when she captures the attention of barking artistic director Paul (Ben Daniels). This threatens the company’s drug-addled existing prima, Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko), foments jealousy with frequently topless roommate Mia (Emily Tyra) and captivates whimsically mentally ill homeless man Romeo (Damon Herriman). Claire may dance like a dream, but something is missing. Is it something she can only get from her psychotic and way-too-attached former soldier brother, Bryan (Josh Helman)? Or can the fulfillment Claire seeks be found spinning around a pole at the classy strip club owned by hammy Russian dance enthusiast Sergei (Patrick Page, channeling a more culturally astute Boris Badenov)?
Whether her mentors are demanding she expose her marrow or recommending she bleach her anus, all anybody wants Claire to do is let the audience see what she’s got inside, and isn’t that what dancing is maybe truly about?
Oh, no. It’s more than that.
Every episode of Flesh and Bone is titled after a military maneuver, a conceit that adds little. You can look at each episode and understand why it was titled “Reconnaissance” or “Boogie Dark,” but the answer is usually the most superficial parallel imaginable, a problem that isn’t ameliorated by the decision to define the terms in comically simplistic terms at the top of the hour. Oh really, “Full Dress” is “When soldiers wear full combat gear”? And that’s the title for your episode with the ballet in tech? Very sophisticated. And “MIA” means “Missing in Action”? You don’t say!
And who exactly thought that it was some grand and worthwhile revelation that ballet is like war? Once military divisions and ballet groups shared the collective “corps,” that profundity went out the window. The contrast between the grace and fluidity of ballet performance and the arduous brutality of its preparation has been the backdrop for almost every filmed representation of the art form, from The Red Shoes to The Company to Black Swan. Straining muscles, detached toenails and unhinged obsession are as much a part of the ballet archetype as barking artistic directors, effeminate pianists and snooty donors, but Walley-Beckett presents every cliche as if it were some fresh insight, and only in rare cases does she have the time to get under the skin of any of the characters.
The sheer number of underdeveloped or one-dimensional supporting characters after eight episodes is perhaps the biggest frustration of Flesh and Bone because it leaves the show’s whole world feeling underdeveloped and unrealized. The eighth episode — and this really doesn’t count as a spoiler — climaxes with several opening-night performances, but as the dancers were mobilizing to go onstage, it was hard not to ponder how few of them had even been given names, much less characters, much less shared any lines of dialogue. If a dancer wasn’t on So You Think You Can Dance or yelled at or near-molested by the predictably unpredictable Paul, there’s little chance they make an impression here.
The first episode, which Starz already has put online, is the only one that really concentrates on the behind-the-scenes struggle at the company, and the finale is the only one that concentrates on the sometimes impressive results of that struggle. In the more ballet-heavy moment, the series sometimes works. The relationships and stresses in the company briefly feel authentic, and the original ballet written and choreographed for the show is also convincing and amusingly beats you over the head with its story of a young woman going through a spiritual and sexual awakening.
That leaves ample time in the middle for detours that range from awful to hinting at a better show nobody had the time or desire to make — or perhaps a better show or movie that somebody already made, since Romeo’s material plays like outtakes from The Fisher King.
I get that Flesh and Bone is trying to deliver an oblique or impressionistic narrative like you might find in a ballet, favoring emotional swells over plot points, but too often that’s an excuse to cover things that don’t work on any terms.
Claire’s irresistible attraction to the world of stripping? Well, I can rationalize that it’s a takeoff on the Hans Christian Andersen story that gives title and theme to The Red Shoes, but it’s also hilarious in this context. It’s easy to take Claire’s brother as a malevolent force of nature more than a character, but when Helman’s performance ranges from terrifyingly intense while topless to terrifyingly intense while fully clothed, it’s like the Terminator has stumbled inexplicably into a story not designed to contain him. And the bits of business Claire becomes involved with at the strip club are meant to be taken as insubstantial distractions from her destiny, which is easy with an underdeveloped love interest the show clearly has no interest in, but less easy when we’re talking about human trafficking. And the bits and pieces only add up questionably by the end of the eight episodes, putting a lie to Starz’s claim that Flesh and Bone went from original series to limited series because it told a close-ended narrative. It does not. It does reach an ending, but my reaction to most of those resolutions was, “Is that all there is?”
Given that Flesh and Bone was cast with dancing and not acting in mind and given that those dancers were only sometimes given characters, the performances here aren’t bad. Hay dances beautifully and gives Claire enough interiority that you know something is haunting this woman, even if it’s hard to understand what it is. Because their roles are more manic or connected to their emotions, both Tyra and Raychel Diane Weiner, as Claire’s tour guide in the glamour “dancer by day, stripper by night” life, get to be more dynamic than Hay and upstage her in ways that probably undermine the “Claire is the future of ballet” undertone we’re required to take for granted. A special note of pity to Tina Benko, who appears surprisingly high in the credits, but pops up once per episode so that she can be a plot device in the seventh and eighth hours — a plot device that amounts to a moment of alleged drama that fizzles.
The men will be at the center of the show’s inevitable camp re-evaluation, with Herriman never exactly nailing down what his character’s mental illness actually is, Helman embodying a robot who never was programmed with an American accent properly and Daniels roaring through lines like “We serve Veuve Clicquot if I have to give blow jobs on the corner to pay for it” with total commitment. You’ve seen dozens of no-filter directors and producers like Daniels’ Paul onscreen before, but because Flesh and Bone is eight hours, you’re rarely had to put up with their caricatured largesse for so long at an unrelenting stretch.
An assortment of fine directors including David Michod, Adam Davidson and Alik Sakharov make sure that Flesh and Bone looks polished, but like the scripts, even they sometimes forget how to showcase the dancing. The dancing is where Flesh and Bone works best, but, like Nomi Malone, sometimes it protests too much.
“I’m a dance show!”