You can get a sense of everything that is wrong with Flesh and Bone, Starz’s new ballet drama—please, imagine cymbals crashing around the word “drama”— from the epigrams that lead each episode. Created by Moira Walley-Beckett, a longtime Breaking Bad writer whose credits include “Ozymandias,” the best episode of Breaking Bad there ever was, Flesh and Bone opens with a credit sequence that’s all grays and red and a Sarah McLachlan-Fiona Apple type belting out the moody lyrics “This is my obsession.” As the song fades, the episode title flashes onscreen, followed by a brief explanation. The first episode is called “Bulling Through.” Perhaps you did not know that means “To force through an unsafe situation to extricate soldiers from danger.” The second episode is called “Cannon Fodder,” and comes with a clarifying “An expendable soldier whose life is sacrificed for strategic advantage.” Then comes “Reconnaissance,” a commonly used word for which Flesh and Bone offers up the widely known definition. By the time the episode titled “MIA” arrived, followed by the definition “Missing in Action,” TBH all I could do was SMDH.
You will also note that the title cards frame the show in military terms. These are phrases that soldiers use in the pitch of battle. Because, you see, ballet is war. But why, oh why can’t ballet be ballet—a highly competitive discipline whose practioners abuse their bodies in the pursuit of beauty, a serious, grueling, and thematically powerful subject outside the masculine framework of organized violence? Flesh and Bone is more insecure than a toddler en pointe. It anxiously butches itself up, lest anyone conflate its focus on women and a female-centric art form with being sissy. It rubs viewers’ noses into broken toenails, angst, and incest, as though we might have missed the single-minded, psychologically damaged athletes at the center of the show for the tutus, or even one god-damned smile.
Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay), an ingénue from Pittsburgh, arrives in New York with some heavy baggage—literally, a suitcase full of books—and secures a spot in the American Ballet Company, overseen by volatile and controlling creative director Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels). ABC is populated by driven dancers who are beset by injury, rarely eat, pop pills, and mercilessly compete with one another and Claire. This only gets worse when Claire proves to be a prima ballerina, an incandescent and vulnerable talent for whom Paul develops grand plans. (Yes, the whole thing is very Black Swan.)
Claire has a dark history. She rarely speaks, cries easily, and trembles often. At the end of the first episode, her brother Bryan (Josh Helman), recently returned from Afghanistan, calls to find out where she is, while masturbating. This is just the first glimpse into a relationship that makes the Lannisters look high-functioning. Claire’s past makes her seem fragile, innocent, virginal. (“Am I looking at the last American hymen?” Paul asks her, in his characteristically blunt manner.) When a new dance requires Claire to be more sexual, or at least touch another person without seeming pained, she starts stripping, having been taken to a club by a fellow dancer, a trust fund kid who dances there on the side.
Flesh and Bone is, from the very start, pretty obviously a bad television show, a pretentiously somber affair punctuated by bursts of camp. Paul visiting the grave of a loved one, taking out a box of eggs, and hurling them at the headstone while sobbing “fuck you, fuck you” is one example of the latter, as is almost every other scene with Paul. Romeo (Damon Herriman), a gentle homeless man with apocalyptic visions, holding onto an orange Claire has given him for weeks, sniffing deeply and meaningfully on it at regular intervals, is another. But it wasn’t until Claire, in a kind of fugue state, bares her breasts to a room full of strange men while leaning on a stripper pole that Flesh and Bone elevated itself to a fascinatingly bad television show. (Claire’s stripper name is “Angel,” which makes her the Angel Claire: Flesh and Bone is the sort of show in which this allusion is supposed to mean something, but I couldn’t tell you what.)
I don’t want to get pedantic about the male and female gaze, but this show is so twisted about them, it is basically cross-eyed. The first time we see Claire dance, at her audition for ABC, we only see Paul’s face as he watches her move across the floor. The staring is part of what it is to be a ballerina—if not a woman—a gorgeous, graceful entity gliding across the stage. This is meant to be the irony of Claire’s plight. She is a woman terrified of being seen, who is seen by everyone; a woman who can’t connect with anyone, who connects with everyone who watches her perform. And yet, none of this armchair intellectualizing changes the fact that it is Paul’s approval alone— not even supported by one second of Claire dancing!—that establishes her worth.
Flesh and Bone is a television show by a woman, largely about women, and yet, once again, we are spending undue time in a strip club, watching a troubled woman disrobe. There are some theoretically sound explanations for Flesh and Bone’s stripping scenes—like it is making plain a connection between the ballet, which has already pimped Claire out, and the strip club, where she will soon be asked to perform Swan Lake by its cultured Russian mobster owner. And yet even granting that stripping is a powerful metaphor for vulnerability, I humbly submit that it is largely a male preoccupation. It seems to me the primary reason Claire strips is because it is tradition: stripping is in the serious drama (“serious drama”) playbook. It is a signifier of significance. And yet all it signifies in this case is that Flesh and Bone is one more deadly self-serious show poorly inspired by exactly the series whose company it longs to join. We’ll have to wait for another show to take ballet as unseriously as it deserves.