Flesh and Bone, Starz's new eight-part limited series set in the competitive world of ballet, is the brainchild and passion project of Moira Walley-Beckett, an Emmy Award-winning writer and producer of Breaking Bad who's responsible for some of the AMC drama's finest hours. But not even the woman who wrote Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias," one of the single greatest hours of television to date, can make the bleak Flesh and Bone soar.
The frustratingly opaque drama seeks to demonstrate the harsh realities and personal sacrifices it takes for one to make it in the world of professional ballet, but beyond the technical accomplishments of its actors, many of whom are also professional dancers, there's not much to rave about. The plot, if there is one, is unappealing, most of the characters who make up the show's ensemble fade into the background while others still don't even merit names, and there's far too little actual dancing, which is a shame because it's the one thing the show does remarkably well. That's probably to be expected, though, given the actors' backgrounds and the fact the choreographer for the series was Ethan Stiefel, a former principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre who also starred alongside Flesh and Bone's own Sascha Radetsky, another former ABT dancer, in the 2001 film Center Stage.
The series stars Sarah Hay as Claire Robbins, a 21-year-old dancer who, after taking a few years off for reasons the show hints at but doesn't reveal during the drama's early episodes, leaves Pittsburgh to audition for the fictional American Ballet Company in New York City. She makes the corps on her first attempt, and later so impresses the company's artistic director Paul (Ben Daniels, who embodies the barking stereotype with relative ease) that he decides to commission a new ballet built entirely around her. He wants to make her a star, but he also needs to make her a star for the sake of the company, and her new role as the future prima means she has to do anything and everything to please the company's biggest benefactor.
But the series stumbles when it attempts to open up the “real” world of ballet. The word "ballet" conveys a certain lightness and a sense of innocence. The clean lines of female dancers' slim, nimble physiques resemble those of a young undeveloped girl, and because many of them are so small, many adult dancers don't even get their periods because they haven't got enough body fat. Ballet is considered to be soft, feminine, and romantic despite the fact not all ballets actually embody those traits. But regardless the reason for the perception, Flesh and Bone is determined as hell to reveal the ugly truth and paint the darkness within the art. Unfortunately, the series works too hard to combat the notion that these women are fragile, virginal beings by revealing its various female dancers embody characteristics meant to color them as hard and the world in which they inhabit as unforgiving.
Kiira (Irina Dvorovenko), the aging reigning star of the ballet, has a drug addiction that threatens her performance while Claire threatens to usurp her starring role. Mia (Emily Tyra), Claire's unfriendly roommate, flaunts her sexuality and uses it almost like a weapon to compensate for not being good enough. And yet another wealthy corps dancer, Daphne (Raychel Diane Weiner), moonlights as an exotic dancer at an exclusive strip club that feeds her desires as a wild child. At the outset, Claire is none of these things. She's a young, broken woman attempting to escape Pittsburgh, which the series wants us to believe is a sad, backwards city populated only by Steelers fans and incestuous assholes. Claire is scared of her own body and uncomfortable in her own skin and at the outset she is largely the picture of the virginal ballerina. As the series progresses it treats Claire's sexual awakening like it's magical, or the first time a series has ever attempted something of this level. Not only is that not the case, but the series takes far too long to unravel Claire's insecurities and make her anything more than the young girl we met in the premiere. And the arrival of her brother Bryan (Josh Helman), a marine who's recently returned home, adds little to the story as he is even less interesting than she is.
Flesh and Bone's greatest failing is that it earnestly believes it is telling a new story when it's actually just repeating one we've seen many times before. Claire is haunted, but the series doesn't really care to explain why. The characters surrounding her could be interesting, especially Damon Herriman's homeless Romeo, but they're never explored beyond their superficial personalities. Flesh and Bone wants to evoke emotion the way a ballet would, and it wants to show the effort that goes into making ballet look effortless, but seeing how the sausage is made leaves little to be desired here. I expected better and wanted more from Walley-Beckett, and in that sense, it's a real shame Flesh and Bone isn't a better drama. But hey, if you're looking for a well-written series featuring innovative dances and likable characters, Bunheads is now available to stream on ABC Family.
Flesh and Bone premieres Sunday, November 8 at 8pm on Starz, but the series premiere is available to stream online now.