‘Flesh and Bone’ Is More ‘Black Swan’ Than ‘Bunheads’

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A hyper-competitive ballet company is such an excellent setting for a television show — Built-in conflict! Built-in ensemble Cast! Built-in eye candy! — it’s a wonder no one’s attempted it until 2015. Of course, someone already has, sort of, and her underserved audience is likely a good portion of the audience Starz had in mind when the network ordered Flesh and Bone to (limited) series.

Amy Sherman-Palladino’s Bunheads, may it rest in peace, now occupies a prime spot in the Pantheon of Premature Cancellation, right next to Freaks and Geeks and Enlightened. Like both those shows, and unlike former pantheon members like Twin Peaks and Deadwood, there’s no real chance the small-town ballet drama will see a revival as a miniseries or even a movie. Too recent (it went off the air just a couple years ago) and too cult in its appeal even for Netflix, which already has another Sherman-Palladino project on its hands, Bunheads is gone for good. Fans’ next-best hope is for a new show to capture its quippy, heart-warming appeal.

Unfortunately, Flesh and Bone is not that show. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, the writer best known for her work on Breaking Bad, Flesh and Bone shares Bunheads’ subject matter but almost nothing of its tone. Instead, the series buckles down on the darker side of both the ballet world and its characters’ personal lives, a valid approach that nonetheless yields too many clichés and too few innovations.

Our heroine is Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay), a 21-year-old dancer who flees her abusive, working-class home in Pittsburgh to join the fictional American Ballet Company in New York City. Claire apprenticed for the Pittsburgh ballet three years ago, but she’s been caring and providing for her disabled, alcoholic father ever since. Now that her older brother Bryan (Josh Helman) is home from Afghanistan, she’s finally free to pursue her dreams — though her escape has more to do with Bryan’s return than a desire to ditch her dad.

Once in New York, Claire heads straight for an open call at the ABC, and the resulting audition throws a visual curveball that, to mix some metaphors, made my ears perk up. Until more than halfway through the premiere, we don’t see Claire dance at all; instead, we see the effect of her tryout on the company head’s face. And yet that formal novelty is quickly snuffed out by the rapid succession of stereotypes Claire encounters as she acclimates to the company: the tyrannical creative director (Ben Daniels), the territorial Ukrainian prima (Irina Dvorovenko), the jealous roommate with an eating disorder (Emily Tyra).

Claire herself, for that matter, is something of a liability. Her character arc, from little girl lost to self-possessed woman, is familiar to anyone who’s heard the name Daenerys Targaryen, but she spends more than half of Flesh and Bone‘s eight episodes stuck in the first half of that equation. And though vulnerability makes sense for someone in her circumstances, it’s hard for an audience to connect with a protagonist whose primary personality trait, beyond her dancing, is teetering constantly on the verge of tears. I found myself identifying a little too much with a journalist who notes, mid-interview, that “there’s no there there” when it comes to Claire.

All of these characters pale in comparison, however, to the spectacularly ill-conceived Romeo (Damon Herriman), a homeless man who seems to live in and around Claire’s building with zero interference from management. Romeo’s clearly schizophrenic, but he’s treated like a near-clairvoyant idiot savant who’s there to serve as Claire’s cryptic guardian angel, not an actual person. With no direct connection to the ballet company at the miniseries’ center beyond his physical proximity to Claire, Romeo’s as unnecessary as he is tone-deaf, a depiction of mental illness as sensitive as Empire’s recent blink-and-you’ll-miss-it treatment of PTSD.

But if character, as exemplified by Romeo, is Flesh and Bone‘s weak point, the dancing functions as precisely the visual draw it’s supposed to. Walley-Beckett has enlisted a murderer’s row of television directors, a roster that includes alumni of Game of Thrones (Alik Sakharov), The Walking Dead (Stefan Schwartz), and Luther (Sam Miller). Each of them showcases the considerable talents of the cast, many of whom are former professional dancers themselves — Hay was a soloist at the Dresden Semperoper Ballett, and Emily Tyra, who plays her roommate, was with the Boston Ballet.

It’s engrossing viewing, and it plays directly into what might be Flesh and Bone‘s saving grace: its release strategy. Starz will air episodes week by week beginning this Sunday, but it will also make all eight installments available to binge online. And while mercurial directors (at one point, Daniels’ character actually screams “GET OUT OF MY SIGHT”) or complaints about a talented newcomer’s “small-town virgin” vibe won’t come as a surprise to anyone who’s seen Black Swan, they do make for an addictive, soapy drama, especially when they’re washed down with gorgeous choreography.

Still, Flesh and Bone lacks the fundamental grace of the art form at its center. True to both its Aronofsky influences and premium cable roots, the miniseries ventures into some dark thematic territory, tackling sexual abuse, sexual assault, substance abuse, and even human trafficking in its limited run. But it’s hard to take in the sex, drugs, and Balanchine and not think of another ballet series, one with dialogue and dramedy as nimble as its dancers.

Flesh and Bone premieres on Starz at 8 pm on Sunday, November 8th. You can watch the premiere for free here.