22nd Nov2015

‘Flesh and Bone 1×07: Full Dress’ Review

by Gretchen Felker-Martin

“A little pain is a fact of this life. To feel it is a choice. I choose no.”

Paul said it way back in the premiere: a ballerina’s job is to make the arduous look effortless. Full Dress takes that thought and runs with it, giving us a full hour of people trying desperately to cover up flaws, faults, and mistakes. Some of it, like Jessica’s desperate quest to cover up her embezzlement, is a nerve-fraying good time. The rest is yet another hour that hammers its theme home at the cost of any sort of sense of momentum. There’s a compelling idea for an episode buried in the mess, a sort of bloody, desperate rush to the finish line cemented by a deal with the devil, but the series has invested so little time in building up the tension of the impending ballet, in connecting the characters to one another, or in exploring the interior mind of its cast that it all just sort of lurches around before the finish attempts to tie an undeserved bow on the entire ordeal. Especially tepid is the subplot involving the theater suffering mechanical difficulties, a weak twist the show doesn’t even have the gumption to commit to.

It’s difficult to find new ways to express that Flesh and Bone just can’t quite get it together. Six out of its first seven episodes are overdone or worse, all largely because of their focus on form over function. The fantastic M.I.A succeeded in synthesizing the show’s thematic ambitions with what’s actually happening on screen and in the minds of its characters, but Flesh and Bone relapsed into mediocrity with F.U.B.A.R and stays there with Full Dress. False faces and grinning through the pain should be a home run for a terse, tense show about ballet, but Flesh and Bone never really became the show it so obviously wants to be. Its creative energies are spread too thin over a cast of blandly unlikable characters whose journeys amount to an extended PSA on dysfunction incurred during the pursuit of perfection, its camera only intermittently worth remarking on, its writing too often reliant on shopworn cliches.

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Perhaps no single element stands out as so plainly out of place as poor Romeo, clairvoyant roof-dweller, amateur parkour runner, and builder of too-precious Home Alone-style transit systems. He’s a wannabe hole in everyday life, the kind of inexplicable weirdness better shows sublimate into the banal and everyday like The Sopranos did with the painting in Dr. Melfi’s waiting room, or like The Wire did every time Marlo Stanfield opened his mouth. But by eschewing this incidental quality, Romeo becomes an object lesson in telling as showing’s watered-down substitute. “Here’s a weird man,” the show practically screams every time he’s on screen. “He’s the fantastic element and his presence suggests a larger moral and spiritual context to the show’s highly specific universe.” What we’re left with is a weird dude, someone impossible to reconcile with the world around him.

For a show about ballet, Flesh and Bone has remarkably little grace. It’s only ever shown itself to be capable of doing one thing at a time, and then often inelegantly. With that out of the way, let’s spend some time talking about what went right. Kiira and Jessica bring home the hour with MVP performances as two very different women on two very different ledges. Kiira’s blistering ire at Paul when he threatens, with typically overdone sliminess, to sideline her in favor of Claire gives actress Irina Dvorovenko real meat to sink her teeth into. She absolutely sells her complex brew of desperation, fury, and heartsick loss as she flings point shoes and insults with equal facility. Calling Paul a “busboy with a bad back and a rich boyfriend” suggests a rich, tangled history between the two that I wish had gotten some attention.

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“Beauty dies. It can’t last,” Kiira’s dealer, Jasper, tells her when she comes to him requesting a shot to numb her injured ankle so that she can dance on it and keep her lead role. His hangdog misery and her incandescent eagerness, her utter disregard for her body and health, capitalize on the actors’ strong chemistry to evoke what she must know is his unrequited love for her in the withering light of her need to dance until she destroys herself. “Good!” she says when he warns her that she won’t even fell it if her stress fracture splinters. That she crushes a friendship and possibly her own body for a part Claire gets is excruciating, but the worst turn of the screw is that Kiira’s bid to reclaim pride of place is so spellbinding and beautiful. She executes her rehearsal not just flawlessly but with real soul, and then Claire simply comes along and does it better. It’s a stark and quiet end to a story that could easily have spun out into melodrama.

Jessica’s hunt for Sergei, meanwhile, puts actress Tina Benko’s talents for twitchiness and high-strung anger right in the spotlight. Her roachlike drive to cover up the money she embezzled to keep her daughter in fancy kindergarten makes for some of the most entertaining footage Flesh and Bone has aired to date, recalling a posh Walter White with her stammering fabrications, inability to accept responsibility, and explosive bursts of temper. Her pleading with Daphne, laced with impossible to suppress insults about the silver spoon in the younger woman’s mouth, is hilariously awful and her crabbed posture and nervous chain-smoking as she peruses tax documents and Sherlocks her way from the ABC books to a Chinese laundromat to Sergei’s strip club (which she walks into with purpose and then promptly out of with a delightful gobsmacked expression) is strong potboiler material.

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If the moment Jessica shakes hands with Sergei is overplayed as a deal with the devil, the heavy-handedness doesn’t entirely erase the horror of that man and his associates loose in the halls of the ABC, or the fun of all the missed connections and clashing motivations that led the accountant to Sergei’s strip club office. Claire’s “he’s not what you want him to be” to Daphne earlier in the episode is sharply insightful, serving as a rebuke to the privileged dancer and to every audience member who ever enjoyed affable, toothless portrayals of mobsters and pimps. Her shrill refusal to lower her voice when Daphne tells her Sergei’s sex slaves aren’t her problem gives Sarah Hay a chance to flex her pipes, uniquely tuned to high-pitched fury, and lands with more poise than anything in the bait-and-switch scene that is Claire’s internal breakdown and external perfect rehearsal, an inelegant segue to Kiira’s bravura departure.

With one episode left in its special limited run it seems unlikely that Flesh and Bone can collect itself into a coherent image, but a show that can deliver a deft, affecting, smarter-than-the-audience story like Kiira’s or a powerhouse episode like M.I.A is still well worth watching.

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