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'Fosse/Verdon' Wiggles And Kicks, But Fails To Satisfy

Michelle Williams gives it her all as Gwen Verdon in <em>Fosse/Verdon</em>.
Eric Liebowitz
Michelle Williams gives it her all as Gwen Verdon in Fosse/Verdon.

If you could bottle the keen curiosity the new FX series Fosse/Verdonhas about the details of both Bob Fosse's genius and his destructive, dishonest, sexually harassing, emotionally abusive behavior, you would perhaps have a little bit of curiosity to spare to make up for the project's limited interest in what it all meant for Gwen Verdon and countless other women he treated like hot garbage.

The first tell that this highly anticipated limited series cannot live up to its aspirations for itself is that while it is called Fosse/Verdon, the book it's based on is called Fosse. It isa better idea, in theory, to make a series that's about Fosse and Verdon and the collaboration that brought forward musicals like Chicago, Sweet Charityand Damn Yankees. Unfortunately, the series isn't really about both of them, except that both Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams — playing Fosse and Verdon — are stars. It's more like a twist on an old joke: "But enough about Bob Fosse. What did Gwen Verdon think about Bob Fosse?" [Note: They've only made five episodes available to press, and there are eight total.]

The Sam Wasson book Fosse, on which the show is based, is less a biography than a graduate thesis on Fosse's genius and, incidentally, a vigorous counterpoint to objections to his behavior that might scratch up his legacy. Most seriously, it raises the spectre, which the show pursues, of Fosse having been inappropriately sexualized, and perhaps sexually abused, by strippers in the clubs he worked in when he was 13 or 14 years old. That's obviously a very troubling story of trauma and it deserves to be told. Unfortunately for those hoping that sexualized girls would receive the same careful thought, the very same book unironically compliments the "killer rack" Verdon had at 15 when she was dancing "nearly naked" in front of "loud and hungry men." (Wasson is careful to point out also that she didn't have technique and was only there because of her sex appeal. At 15.)

Television and film never tire of these stories, it seems — men who are brilliant geniuses but who are awful people because of their terrible pain. Phantom Thread, Steve Jobs, Mad Men, it's an entire genre: The man is monstrous, but he's got his reasons, and you can't deny the talent, and women can't help wanting to either have him or mother him. It's clear the the executive producers of this series are fascinated by Fosse, and it's no wonder: they include Broadway hot properties Lin-Manuel Miranda and his Hamiltondirector Thomas Kail, as well as showrunner Steven Levenson, who wrote the Tony-winning book of Dear Evan Hansen.

What's less clear is what exactly the show is supposed to illuminate. There aren't enough new facts here for the biography aspect to be the point; it's supposed to be shedding light on something. It's just not clear what.

We watch as Fosse's overt, textbook sexual harassment of a dancer, in which she refuses to sleep with him and he then humiliates and demotes her, is brushed past like just one of his many complexities. Verdon goes on to tell him privately, in a moment treated as a gentle pearl of wisdom, that his new protege and future paramour Ann Reinking knows she's so good that she doesn't have to sleep with him to get a part. (She later does anyway, of course.) The unstated assumption is that men with power coercing women into sex only works on women without enough talent, which is absolutely appalling in its tone-deafness. Meanwhile, the dancer Fosse harassed remains a flat character, ultimately deciding to sleep with him because, presumably, she doesn't have enough talent not to. And then she vanishes. She doesn't matter.

There's an interesting directorial choice here, sometimes used very effectively, in which quick cuts connect brief moments into impressionistic montages, where you barely register what shots you're actually seeing, only the effect of the whole sequence. In one of them, Fosse looks down at interchangeable, random women in his bed, which, again, is all part of illuminating his pain and his emptiness. Again, the root of this weird angle on the situation seems to lie in Wasson's book, which insists that sex with dancers in his shows was "an opportunity for Fosse to learn about and merge with his female collaborators." For the most part, of course, those "collaborators" were people who worked for him. And if you can't learn about your collaborators other than with sex, you probably should stop collaborating with people you don't know. (That's not to even mention "merge with," which: ew.)

What happened to those women? How many of them had their careers interrupted, their reputations damaged, their hopes dashed — how many of them watched their opportunities wither because he grew bored with them, or spoke ill of them? How many of them felt degraded by the way he treated them? That's not part of the story, even though how Fosse feels about them very much is. The only thing about them that's part of the story is how much he didn't give a flying fig about them, and that's regrettable.

This is ironic in part because it seems like part of the very reason for the show to exist is to address itself to the other side of the genius coin: Gwen Verdon. But unfortunately, despite heroic efforts from Williams to imbue Verdon with life and roundness and complexity, the script simply doesn't give her enough to do. Every scene with Williams in it is more interesting than every scene without her in it, and it's not because Rockwell isn't living it up as Bob Fosse — he very much is. But the portrayal of Fosse is unfortunately one that reads as a cliche. The character presents as a powerful man who poaches in self-pity from morning until night, and who, when presented with challenges, calls a woman he's hurt in the past and asks her to fix it. In Verdon's case, he often asks her to fix a show he can't manage to complete. She, on the other hand, is always a bit of a surprise, both hurt by Fosse and somehow sick of him, working around him to get Chicagostaged even though he wants to do other things.

[A side note: The book Fossetells the story of Fosse deciding to do Chicago —which was Verdon's idea — as a kindness, a "valentine," essentially a thank-you gift to her after treating her so badly for so many years. But then, as soon as the show runs into trouble, Wasson talks about how Fosse was angry that Verdon "rop[ed] him into it." There is perhaps no better example of this kind of toxic genius than wanting to be patted on the back for the kindness of doing a project as a gift, then blaming the gift recipient when you become unhappy in the work.]

Had Verdon been treated as Fosse's equal in this series, it would have been a lot better. Had Fosse/Verdonbeen interested in interrogating the ways in which the contributions of women are erased by men who don't know the difference between a muse who inspires you and an uncredited collaborator who did some of the work for which you're being praised, then maybe. Maybe it would have worked out. Williams and Rockwell are doing their best, and the show honestly looks great. But it feels misbegotten, and unless there is a wild swerve in the last three episodes that pushes in the opposite direction from the worst instincts on display in the book — in which case I'll see you back here for a wrap-up — you'd be better off watching a collection of YouTube dance numbers.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Linda Holmes is a pop culture correspondent for NPR and the host of Pop Culture Happy Hour. She began her professional life as an attorney. In time, however, her affection for writing, popular culture, and the online universe eclipsed her legal ambitions. She shoved her law degree in the back of the closet, gave its living room space to DVD sets of The Wire, and never looked back.