In the first episode of Z: The Beginning of Everything, a new Amazon series based on Therese Fowler’s 2013 novelization of the life of Zelda Fitzgerald, 18-year-old Zelda Sayre spies her future husband, F. Scott Fitzgerald, at a party in Montgomery, Alabama. Dressed in a blush green tutu and matching headband, Zelda is performing a ballet routine for the room when Scott locks eyes with the Southern belle. Time slows down; the air grows hazy; suddenly, they’re the only two in the room. It’s a moment meant to indicate the magnetic attraction between the famed literary couple. But, like so many moments throughout the first season of Z, the near-mystic connection between Scott and Zelda just doesn’t quite reach the audience.
The series, which hits Amazon on Friday, rests on the chemistry between its leads and their ability to project the youthful chaos of their early years as a couple — years famously spent boozing around the country while Fitzgerald rose to the top of the literary food chain. With her big eyes and round face, Ricci is a convincing enough Zelda. But at 36, the actress is almost two decades older than Zelda as we see her in the show’s first season, as is the Swedish-Australian actor David Hoflin, 38, who plays Scott. Ricci and David Hoflin have zero spark, and while they both look great, they also look their ages. The result is a frustratingly limp series that squanders its source material — the Fitzgeralds themselves, often called America’s first celebrity couple.
Z begins in Montgomery, where Zelda grew up the youngest daughter of a Supreme Court justice. The first few episodes depict Zelda’s growing restlessness in Montgomery during the final months of World War I, when she and her friends did their patriotic duty by partying with soldiers going off to war. When one soldier asks if she’ll wait for him, she responds kindly but firmly: “Probably not. I don’t wait for anyone.”
The series clearly wants us to see Zelda as a free spirit, an intelligent, passionate woman who wrote, painted, danced, and lived for the moment. We’re told Zelda is smart and spirited; we hear a few elegant lines from her diary, and we see her swig from bottles of Champagne. But through a combination of lazy writing and poor casting, the character never develops past a sketch of a Southern party girl chafing at the constraints of social mores. As Scott, Hoflin is wooden and uninspiring, apparently paralyzed by the pressure to portray one of the country’s greatest literary heroes. Both actors are too self-consciously playing period roles, which stiffens their performances, and neither invests their respective characters with the youthful vitality that these figures represent — a problem that could have easily been solved by casting younger actors.
But Z is Ricci’s passion project. She’s the one who optioned the book on which the show is based, Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, and according to the show’s production notes, it was Amazon that suggested making the book into a series rather than a movie. Even at a fairly short season of ten half-hour installments, though, there’s far too much filler in Z; in early episodes, Scott and Zelda are barely in each other’s presence.
Creators Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich clearly assumed or at least hoped there would be a second season, because the first only encompasses the early years of the Fitzgeralds’ marriage. It should be the couple’s honeymoon period, but there’s absolutely no heat between Ricci and Hoflin, and the direction is disappointingly prudish considering the subjects. That’s the trouble with turning real-life events into a TV series, and especially one that tells its tale chronologically — you may not get a chance to reach the end of the story, and even if you do, the journey might not be worth the destination, or even the trip’s highlights.
Ultimately, Z simply fails to portray these larger-than-life figures as living, breathing, complicated people. It’s as if they’re sprung from the collective memory of American literary history, fully formed and completely unsurprising, even if you don’t know a lot about the real Zelda and Scott. The couple’s brief appearance in Midnight in Paris — played by Alison Pill and Tom Hiddleston — was far more memorable and dynamic than anything we see over the five hours of Z’s first season.
There are a few bright spots; I’d watch a whole show in which Eugenia and Tallulah Bankhead (Natalie Knepp and Christina Bennett Lind) and Edna St. Vincent Millay (Lucy Walters) gossip over tea at the Ritz. But overall, Z lacks the oomph, the chaos, the explosive spark that lit up the Fitzgeralds’ relationship and turned them into literary legends. Sure, the lush 1920s set decoration and costumes are a treat for the eyes. But if it’s the spirit of the period you’re really after, pick up one of Fitzgerald’s books.
The first season of Z: The Beginning of Everything lands on Amazon Prime on Friday, Jan. 27.