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.