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Review: Far-fetched ‘Flesh and Bone’ on Starz aims for grit, which means lots of sex

Far-fetched ‘Flesh and Bone’ on Starz aims for grit, which means lots of sex
Sarah Hay and Ben Daniels in a scene from “Flesh and Bone.”
(Patrick Harbron / Starz)
Los Angeles Times Television Critic

Dear American Television:

Enough already with the stripper poles.

I realize that, in some circles, the stripper pole has been reclaimed as a tool of empowerment, a symbol of unapologetic female sexuality rather than servitude. It is also, apparently, an excellent form of exercise. And there is nothing wrong with examining a centuries-old profession that, like ice-road trucking and deep-sea fishing, deserves respect, decent wages and a safe work environment.

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On television, however, the stripper pole is usually just a handy way to wallpaper shows on cable with writhing, half-naked women.

Certainly it should never be used as the spine of a series that purports to be about the ballet world.

For months now, Starz has promoted “Flesh and Bone,” which premieres Sunday, as a powerful and unflinching look into the world of New York ballet. Creator Moira Walley-Beckett didn’t just write for “Breaking Bad” — she was also a dancer. Many of the “Flesh and Bone” cast are ballet professionals. Like “Black Swan,” “Flesh and Bone” promised to root its character drama in this fascinating and unexplored world.

Alas, the word “gritty” was also used with great abandon in early promotions and so, in a sense, we were warned. In the world of modern drama, “gritty” is shorthand for extreme violence and/or disturbing sex scenes. And since “Flesh and Bone” follows the story of a young, talented and troubled ballerina, gun battles and the bloody habits of serial killers were probably off the table.

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But there is “gritty” sex aplenty.

Indeed, we meet the main character, Claire Robbins (Sarah Hay), cowering in her bedroom. In a quick pan that could be titled “Stark Contrast for Dummies,” we see it is filled the symbols of childhood — the dolls, the ballerina figurines — and padlocked from the inside. Outside, a young man angrily demands admittance. Instead, Claire goes out the window and straight to New York.

There, dragging all her baggage behind her (get it?), Claire goes straight to an audition for the American Ballet Company. She almost bombs because the witchy female judge (with, oh, yes, a Russian accent and a fluffy dog) doesn’t like her and the equally witchy (read: gay) male director Paul (Ben Daniels) can’t understand why she bailed on the internship she got at the Pittsburgh ballet when she was 18.

Because she had to work as a welder to support her grandmother and … no, wait, that’s “Flashdance.”

Well, Claire had her reasons, and she persuades Paul to let her dance and she is, of course, Amazing. Not that we get to see her; we get to see Paul’s face seeing her. This may be a commentary on the male gaze, but it’s also very annoying because, as we find out in subsequent scenes, Hay is a powerful and exquisite dancer.

Such a powerful and exquisite dancer, in fact, that it quickly becomes impossible to reconcile Claire the performer with Claire the person.

Enough already with the stripper poles.
Mary McNamara, Los Angeles Times Television Critic
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Even emotionally fragile young women do not become a real ballet dancer accidentally, by copying dance moves in their rooms or practicing at the local gym while no one is watching. It takes years of rigorous training, classical education overseen by professionals and practice with equally skilled peers.

Even “Flashdance” didn’t pretend Alex had somehow taught herself to be a professional ballerina by running in place super fast.

So as tempting as it is to pitch Claire as an ever-flinching, wide-eyed naïf in the Big City, a gal who Just Doesn’t Understand why all those other dancers are being so mean to her, who doesn’t even know to turn her cellphone off during rehearsals of her first day at the American Ballet, it is simply absurd.

She may be damaged — possibly her defection in Pittsburgh was caused by a mental breakdown — but this woman is a real true ballerina, and that takes strength, focus and a lot of ambition.

‘Flesh and Bone’

Ben Daniels in “Flesh and Bone.”

(Starz)

None of which is addressed in any meaningful way — the physical demands of ballet are reduced to a few jokes about eating, lots of elegant stretching and one bloody toenail that will shock only those who have never met a young dancer/skater/runner/soccer player.

But then “Flesh and Bone” is not so much about the dance world as it is about Claire recovering from incest and reclaiming her sexual power. Which, through a plot twist so contrived I cannot bring myself to describe it, requires that she start stripping.

Yes, my friends, such is the message of “Flesh and Bone” — you cannot overcome sexual trauma or be a proper ballerina until you embrace the pole.

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Fortunately, this pole is found in a club frequented by clientele so high end they appreciate the dance more than the nudity, a club run by a Russian mobster who also worships the ballet and takes the fragile Claire under his wing.

He is just one in a cast of ludicrous characters that include Claire’s predatory ex-Marine brother who follows her to New York, a cokehead diva, a tough little rich girl and, of course, Paul, who is so stage-queeny he has a Latino rent boy who strokes his face and calls him “Papi.”

I could go on — there’s also a homeless guy who lives below Claire’s stoop and has clearly seen “The Fisher King” far too many times — and “Flesh and Bone” does, for eight episodes.

Hay is a marvelous screen presence and does the best she can with what she has been given, which includes more and longer close-ups than even Meryl Streep could meaningfully sustain. Daniels too has moments of brilliance in which Paul reveals the sacrifice and stress high-profile artistry demands, when he is not being scripted into throwing hissy fits.

Given that “Flesh and Bone” is a limited series, Walley-Beckett could have easily told a much simpler tale with greater effect — it’s not as if ballet drama is such a crowded field that a writer needs a new twist. Instead, she weighs down the real drama with clichés, lurid B plot and lots of absurd nudity.

So, yes, one could watch “Flesh and Bone” simply for the ballet scenes, which are absolutely splendid. But be warned: You must pay for them in pole-dancing.

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‘Flesh and Bone’

Where: Starz

When: 8 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

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