The 2019 TV Club features Slate’s Willa Paskin, Vox’s Emily VanDerWerff, Vulture’s Kathryn VanArendonk, and Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya.
OK, I’m going to take the Fosse/Verdon bait. And I’m going to start with the scene from the show that hooked me. It’s a moment in one of the early episodes, a flashback to Verdon (Michelle Williams) and Fosse’s (Sam Rockwell) meet-cute. It takes place in a dance studio, starts out a bit prickly—despite being the Broadway star, she’s somehow trying out for the up-and-coming director—and climaxes in a kind of collaborative ecstasy, as they start to develop the choreography for “Whatever Lola Wants” and discover they are wholly in sync.
I’ve always been a sucker for moments like this, when a show or a movie catches the electric energy of people actually making a thing, when the participants fall into some kind of magical groove and the work and the pleasure become one and the same. Maybe my favorite version of that scene prior to Fosse/Verdon was the one from Hustle & Flow, where they’re recording “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” in a sweltering homemade studio and Taraji P. Henson hesitantly and then ferociously lays down the hook. But this scene in Fosse/Verdon tickled me just as much. It made me fall for the show just as surely, as the show would have it, as it made Fosse and Verdon fall for each other.
Fosse/Verdon actually did something to me that no other show this year did to quite the same extent: It made me do research. To want to do research. Watching that scene, and the first few episodes, I needed to know more about all of it. I wanted to understand exactly why Bob Fosse was such a legend and hero to the men making the show, all Broadway bigwigs themselves. As with so many people who were seminal, it can be hard to look at Fosse’s work now and understand what he did that was so special, because it’s everywhere. Fosse’s splayed limbs, metronomic body parts, red lips, and bowler hats are quintessentially Fosse, but it’s his whole sleazy, louche, dirty-sexy vibe that’s ubiquitous. And I also wanted to know more about Gwen Verdon, whom, despite being a four-time Tony-winning superstar, a world-class hoofer, and the woman who taught Marilyn Monroe how to be sexy and lampoon being sexy at the same time, I had barely even heard of.
A show needs to work on its own merits, without the viewer knowing very much about the history or source material it’s based on. And even when the viewer does know, she has to let it try and be its own thing, not some slavish retread of whatever she’s already familiar with. But it was Fosse/Verdon’s first few episodes that drove me to the supporting materials: The show itself piqued my curiosity! But once it was piqued, things got complicated. The show got way more interesting to me, but it also got worse. Everything I read and watched gave me insight into the compromises and workarounds required to make this show, which is all about … giving you insight into the compromises and workarounds (and inspiration and creativity) that went into Fosse and Verdon’s output.
The thing is, Bob Fosse was not just lecherous. He was a megalecherous sleaze, a cancelable lecherous skeeze. He would poke his boner into Debbie Reynolds’ back and ostracize dancers until they fucked him—and until very recently, this sexual misconduct was all part of his legend! The show decided it could not quite have him be like that. (It did include the dancer thing, but not the regularity of the dancer thing, for example.) Such a problematic man cannot be the sole focus of a TV show in 2019. Sonia, when you say Fosse/Verdon seems like the type of show that would have been a hit five years ago, this is what I take you to mean (though it also would have made a bigger splash when antihero shows were a going concern and prestige projects with movie stars weren’t a dime a dozen). Five years ago, the producers, including Broadway heavyweights Lin-Manuel Miranda, Thomas Kail, and showrunner Steven Levenson, would have just made the show they originally intended to: a show about Bob Fosse, tortured Broadway hero. Instead, they had to turn it into a twofer—not just a look at Fosse, but a reclamation project for Gwen Verdon too.
But the show, despite being aware of Verdon’s talent, primarily makes her a kind of long-suffering helpmeet, no longer in her prime, even though Fosse is in his. It doesn’t fully communicate the greatness of Gwen Verdon or the era-dependent idiosyncrasies of her relationship with Fosse. As deeply unwoke as it is, no one was more self-abnegating than the actual Gwen Verdon, who became the keeper of Fosse’s reputation and who willingly told people he “created” her. Trying to cater to 2019, Fosse/Verdon turns the volume down on both of its stars’ most striking attributes, such that they are muted and garbled. I know it sounds like I’m dinging this show, but actually what is happening is that, eight months after I saw it, it is still making me hot under the collar. In 2019 time, that might as well be 10 years ago!
What I am saying is: Where is the Reddit thread for dissecting Fosse/Verdon? It wasn’t perfect, but I wanted to think about it more than almost anything else I watched this year. It was a show about then that is also a show about now, something that was especially visible in what it bobbled. I remember so many gorgeous things from it: not just the dance scene, but Fosse walking off a balcony like he was stepping out for lunch, its exacting portrayal of the “everywhere you go, there you are” problem, the poignancy of Fosse and Verdon’s complicated but unconditional partnership. I mean, she was there when he died! They hadn’t been together for years! I can even hear Michelle Williams’ accent in my head. Oh, look, I have basically talked myself into putting it on my Top 10 list, if my Top 10 list weren’t already written. Let me grab some Wite-Out.
Scanning your Top 10 lists, I would please still like to hear about Barry, The Other Two, What We Do in the Shadows, David Makes Man, and, apparently, Mr. Robot. Some other provocations: I did not get Pen15 (though since watching the incredibly charming rom-com Plus One, I have become a die-hard Maya Erskine fan), and if one of you could explain it to me, I would appreciate it. Oh, also, I fast-forwarded most of the Kaitlyn Dever parts of Unbelievable because I just couldn’t—should I be embarrassed? (I’m not. Maybe more on that next time.) Also: Are we going to get through this whole thing without talking about the biggest TV phenomenon of the decade, though the critical establishment and the viewing audience are united in embarrassment that this was the case? Yes, I am talking about Game of Thrones.
Remember when people liked saying things like valar morghulis?