“Flesh and Bone” is the new limited series from Starz about the gritty underbelly of the New York City ballet. If that sentence makes you giggle a bit because it has both the words “ballet” and “gritty” in it, well, that seems to kind of be the point. The series comes from the mind of Moira Walley-Beckett, the master behind some of the best episodes in “Breaking Bad,” including the nerve-shattering “Ozymandias.” Like her previous series, “Flesh and Bone” seeks to destroy the disparity between the sacred and of the profane. Many have already grown skeptical about the show, going so far as to compare it to the reviled “Showgirls.” Yet, while the series does fill the screen with beautiful people engaged in exploitative and overly-sexualized activities, “Flesh and Bone” seems use tropes of premium-cable dramas to say something not only relevant to the world it creates, but to the greater landscape — and intersections between — contemporary art and entertainment.
The show follows Claire (Sarah Hay, “Black Swan”) as she runs away from her troubled home in Pittsburgh to become a ballerina in the prestigious American Ballet Company. The leader of the company is Paul (Ben Daniels, “Locke”), a sociopathic artistic director who believes his dancers are his property. Though many might compare the character to Vincent Cassel’s sex-obsessed director from “Black Swan,” Daniels seems more concerned with maintaining his power rather than just sleeping with his dancers. Daniels is an intimidating force in the pilot, even if the character might be one we’ve seen elsewhere, whether in “Black Swan” or “Whiplash.” Unfortunately, it’s a character whose reality never stretches beyond the veil of believability. There really are people out there — whether in film, music, theatre or journalism — who do sink this low, while relishing their unchecked authority over those who are vulnerable.
With the same gothic sensibility Walley-Beckett brought to “Breaking Bad,” the repressively polite world of ballet is ironically juxtaposed with the sordid underbelly of exotic dancing. This aspect of “Flesh and Bone” — along with its pervasive use of nudity and sexuality — might draw the series its most criticism. Yet what separates “Flesh and Bone” from other premium-cable dramas is that the nudity has a purpose connected to the overarching themes of the show. “Flesh and Bone” is very much about the male gaze and the physical, emotional and psychological punishment it inflicts on those caught in its sight. In his world, director Paul is god, and all must shape themselves according to his vision.
In a manner, the show feels like an apt companion piece to the Cinemax original series “The Knick,” giving us the sordid details allowed by premium cable — whether that be the gore in “The Knick” or the sex in “Flesh and Bone” — but just in a subversive context.
The ballet, in a fashion, can be looked at like premium-cable, itself: an environment in which the wealthy and powerful indulge their baser instincts under the guise of sophisticated cultural engagement. After all, premium cable might have given the world “The Sopranos” and “The Wire,” but it’s also been the home of “Max After Dark.”
Whether or not, Walley-Beckett is intentionally playing around with premium cable’s reputation for both cutting-edge art and deliberate exploitation remains to be seen, as the show has yet to achieve the same nuance as “Masters of Sex.” However, Walley-Beckett succeeds by providing the viewer with an almost voyeuristic frame in which to pull back the curtain on a seemingly high-brow form of art.
Neither the world of strippers and gangsters nor that of the ballet is necessarily appealing to Claire and, like “Breaking Bad,” Walley-Beckett intelligently negates the notion of a high and low path. In both worlds, the characters are thrown to the dogs; the only choice they really have is which pit they’re more comfortable being devoured in.
There are many who have already criticized the show, and not without reason. Some of its characters become cliché (the dominating dance teacher, the street smart fellow dancer, the prudish main character); however, in the hands of Walley-Beckett and director David Michod (“Animal Kingdom”), the pilot manages to transcend its lesser qualities to deliver a perverse, entertaining hour of television, and hopefully only the first entry in Walley-Beckett’s oeuvre of original dramas.