(Editor’s note: The following review covers the first 5 episodes of Fosse/Verdon.)
The Pitch: We know Fosse/Verdon is set to be a tragedy about 13 minutes in when Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell), in mid-daydream, casually walks off the balcony of his New York City apartment. For a diehard perfectionist, the suicidal ideation makes a certain kind of sense. The director’s last picture, 1969’s Sweet Charity, just tanked at the box office, costing Universal Pictures $20 million. And if the surrealist touches don’t clue you in enough, the intermittent title screens should: “Hollywood 19 years left,” “New York 18 years left.” None of it sounds good.
But before the inevitable fall, FX’s new eight-part limited series offers glitz and glamour in spades. It’s showbiz, after all. Rockwell and Michelle Williams play Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon, one of Hollywood and Broadway’s most successful creative partnerships (Cabaret, Chicago, Pippin). He’s a director and choreographer. She’s a dancer. They work together with a symbiosis that might have even made John Lennon and Paul McCartney pause. But Fosse has his vices of the usual sort: drugs, booze, women. His rise to the top depends on a delicate tap dance. Fortunately, for a while at least, he’s one hell of a dancer.
More Fosse Than Verdon: While it’s appropriate for the series to give Gwen Verdon equal billing in the show’s title, like so many stories from yesteryear, this is really a series about Bob Fosse. It’s his demons that must be overcome. It’s his creative genius that needs to be nurtured. And it’s his rise and fall that serve as the show’s true arc. Williams (who if the Emmy gods are just will get major attention for her performance) does a marvelous job as the strong-headed, no-nonsense Verdon, but her character is very quickly pushed offstage into more of a caretaker role.
In the early episodes, Fosse/Verdon watches the latter play emotional supporter to her husband’s mood swings, serve as their daughter Nicole’s principal caregiver, and give motherly advice to Bob’s future lovers, dancers often half his age. Save for one scene when a young and spunky Gwen first meets Bob for an audition, quickly picking up the steps and improvising on the spot, the show doesn’t give enough of a picture of the master artist Gwen Verdon was. Her career spanned nine decades, and at one point she won 5 Tonys in 6 years, but these aren’t really the moments on which the series focuses.
Legends in a Modern Time: A major criticism Fosse/Verdon seems destined to face, regardless of its ominous title screens, is the disorienting effect of its early time-hopping. If you don’t already have a cursory knowledge of Bob Fosse’s career (Sweet Charity, Cabaret, and Damn Yankees play most prominently early on), you may have a hard time keeping up with where Gwen and Bob are in their complicated love affair.
Where the series finally finds its footing — and dare we say, actually gets good — is around the third episode, “Me and My Baby”, when Gwen (via flashbacks) remembers the dangers of starting in show business as a naive teenager surrounded by much older and more inappropriate men. It then makes perfect sense why tensions flare between Gwen and Bob present-day, when he leaves their preteen daughter alone in a hotel room with an older man. The scene also gets your brain percolating: Wait, it’s a young female artist, pinned down in frightening situations by Hollywood gatekeepers. Bob Fosse was a gatekeeper as well, whose time and place was often unaccountable at the height of his popularity. You see where we’re going with this.
It’s an inevitable part of the zeitgeist that awe for a legend’s artistry must be balanced with the shitty things those same legends may have done on the side. Fosse/Verdon is at the very least conscious of this obligation. One especially damning juxtaposition comes when an episode alternates between Fosse pleasurably laying on the receiving end of oral sex, while his credits flash onscreen: 3 Emmy nominations, 1 Oscar, and how much entitlement?
A Star is Born: Due to the time period, and the gravitas of its complicated male lead, Fosse/Verdon sometimes captures a similar mood to Mad Men. In the fifth episode, “Where Am I Going?”, something of a Sally Draper effect also adds some much-needed momentum to the series. Gwen and Bob’s preteen daughter Nicole (Blake Baumgartner) is shown growing up via nannies and self-taught independence through the earlier part of the series, but as the show reaches a sort of climax (Bob seems poised for self-destruction, overworking and ignoring doctor’s orders of rest and lithium), Baumgartner emerges as a talented, magnetic actress. She’s troubled in the ways that young girls eclipsed by their parents’ careers often are, and as the final third of the series unfolds, it’s impossible not to hope that she at least emerges from the inevitable fallout intact. For as magnetic as Williams and Rockwell are, it says something for another performer to command your attention. But Baumgartner definitely has something here.
The Verdict: Whenever Bob Fosse veers toward a nervous breakdown, the writers of Fosse/Verdon play with a creative motif: He starts tap-dancing in his mind, a throwback to how he felt as a preteen dancer, never able to please the critical eye of his choreographer father. No wonder he can’t handle anything less than perfection. Well, Fosse, some bad news for you: the miniseries bearing your name is just good through its early stretch, not great. The main culprit is the sequencing of the narrative: It takes far too long to ground the audience, which means it takes far too long for the audience to invest. But once you’re there, the show plays with the nuances of exactly how much emotional energy you owe to the people you care about — a timeless dilemma, really. When is someone being an artist, and when have they crossed over into being a prick? There may never be a better time than now to pose that very question.
Where’s It Playing? FX on Tuesdays, beginning April 9th.