Sunday, November 8, 2015

Pilot Talk 2015: Flesh and Bone

Every TV season, networks bring out a new crop of shows, in hopes that they'll be the next big hit.  Pilot Talk is devoted to figuring out whether these shows are worth your time based on the first episode.

Sundays at 8:00 PM on Starz

Going into 2015, Starz's dark ballet drama Flesh and Bone was one of my most anticipated new shows of the year.  Part of that was due to its pedigree, which boasted show-running from Moira Walley-Beckett (most famously known for writing Breaking Bad's "Ozymandias" episode), a pilot directed by David Michod (Animal Kingdom, The Rover, Enlightened), and cinematography by Adam Arkapaw (Top of the Lake, True Detective).  Part of it was caused by fierce longing for my beloved Bunheads and the desire to see something -- anything -- involving ballet, even if the similarities stopped there.  But as time passed, hesitance began to mingle with that excitement.  First, there was the news that the show had been changed into an eight-episode limited series: rarely a good sign for something initially conceived to run for multiple seasons, but especially ominous for a show on a network known for renewing series for additional seasons before the previous one has even aired any episodes.  Then there's been the uniformly negative tweets about the show from TV critics in the past few weeks.  It was looking like Flesh and Bone was going to be the biggest disappointment of the year.

Now that I've seen the pilot, I don't think it's the dud everyone is making it out to be.  In fact, I quite like what I've seen so far.  Much credit is due to those involved with this project who made me excited about it in the first place.  Though Walley-Beckett isn't able to exhibit the storytelling chops she showed on Breaking Bad yet, there's some solid, impactful dialogue in this initial episode.  (Occasionally it devolves into too much "fuckity fuck," but that's to be expected on Starz.)  And the partnership of David Michod and Adam Arkapaw gives the pilot a muted look, but one that is crisp and beautiful nonetheless.  Flesh and Bone provides a gritty, insider's look at the fascinating world of ballet.  Best of all, it feels real and authentic, probably helped by the fact that all of the actors are also professional dancers.  Michod shoots all the important details with precise close-ups, as we see toenails fall off, shoes come apart at the seams, and limbs stretch in impossible directions.

The moments where actual dancing occurs are absolutely breathtaking.  There's a poetry to the way these bodies are able to move, and when the story falls away to simply showcase this artistry is when the pilot is at its best.  Unfortunately, the further it gets away from the action -- as it does more often than you would like -- the less successful it becomes.  We're introduced to main character Claire (Sarah Hay) as she escapes an unsatisfying life in Pittsburgh to try out for the American Ballet Company in New York.  She's an archetype we've seen again and again, and the "bright-eyed, bushy-tailed newbie gets turned out by the seedy world she enters" arc feels a little by-the-numbers.  Along the way, there's a detour into a storyline about an exotic dance club, and it almost seems like we spend more time there than in the ballet studio.  There's also some material involving the homeless man (Justified's Damon Herriman) who lives outside of Claire's apartment.  Oh, and because this is Starz, there's tons of sex and nudity.  But the whole time, you'll wonder when you're going to get back to the real goods: the ballet.

Critics have had some problems with the series' tone, many tossing around the phrase "misery porn" to describe it.  They certainly aren't wrong to apply that label, but the show doesn't deserve all of the negative connotation that comes with it.  So far this show seems relentlessly bleak, piling on as many "dark cable drama" trappings as possible, but at least it's grim in a compelling way.  It's that mixture of being dour but digestible that makes Flesh and Bone so fascinating.  At least for now, the show seems like its reaching for something, and though it could fall flat on its face in the next seven weeks, it's interesting enough that I'm more than willing to give it a twirl.

Grade: B

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