From the moment it was first announced, FX’s flashy new miniseries Fosse/Verdon — debuting Tuesday at 10/9c; I’ve seen five of the eight episodes — seemed to come with its own pre-written Emmy campaign. It has all the trappings of the kind of Hollywood biopic that usually rakes in awards: spot-on celebrity impersonations, copious amounts of drugs and booze, a time-spanning narrative that requires a heavy slathering of old-age makeup. But despite stellar performances from its two lead actors, it never really breaks out of that established biopic framework enough to tell a fresh and compelling story. It knows all the steps, but can’t find a way to bring any new life to the dance.
Oscar winner Sam Rockwell stars as legendary Broadway choreographer and director Bob Fosse, and Fosse/Verdon opens with him directing the film version of Sweet Charity, which turns out to be a costly flop. He rebounds, though, to direct Liza Minnelli in Cabaret and win an Oscar, a Tony and an Emmy in the same year. Oscar nominee Michelle Williams co-stars as Fosse’s equally legendary wife, Tony-winning actress Gwen Verdon, who is actually his secret weapon, working as a key (and uncredited) collaborator on his most famous productions. But even she gets fed up with Fosse’s rampant infidelity: When he asks her to fly to Berlin to help him on the set of Cabaret, she pointedly asks, “Am I going to be unhappy when I get there?”
Die-hard theater nerds will appreciate Fosse/Verdon as a richly detailed time capsule of 1970s showbiz, in all its kitschy glory: The vibrantly colorful recreations of classic Fosse productions are a treat to watch, and at times, it manages to capture the intoxicating highs of Hollywood success. But the narrative heart of Fosse/Verdon is the tumultuous relationship at its center, and all of its decade-skipping time jumps can’t do much to mask the foundation of well-worn biopic clichés it’s built on. It’s as if the characters are preserved in amber, speaking from a pre-ordained script. (Even Verdon complains in the middle of a fight with Fosse that she’s heard this dialogue too many times before.)
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The biggest cliché of all is Fosse himself, the prototypical artistic genius whose talents outweigh his glaring flaws. He’s a temperamental perfectionist, raging against studio bean counters; he’s a hopeless drug addict, strung out on a prodigious array of uppers and downers; he’s a scared little boy, in trite flashbacks to him tap-dancing for his drill-sergeant dad. It’s Tortured Artist 101, and it’s all too by-the-numbers to provide any insight. Plus, these days, Fosse’s “womanizing” ways stick out like a sore thumb. (He nearly forces himself on one of his dancers, and when she turns him down, he replaces her in a musical number, saying coldly, “She doesn’t know how to take direction.”) Fosse/Verdon never fully grapples with the consequences of his monstrous behavior, and too often lets him off the hook. Daughter Nicole Fosse is a producer here, and at times, the series plays more like a child’s fuzzy, nostalgic recollection of her parents than a clear-eyed portrait of two industry giants.
Thankfully, Rockwell and Williams are so damn good, they almost make you forget you’ve seen all of this a thousand times before. Rockwell beautifully captures Fosse’s tired eyes and ever-calculating mind — and he’s surprisingly fleet of foot, too. Williams positively transforms as Verdon, with a breathy, old-Hollywood voice and placid smile that recall Katharine Hepburn. In fact, I wonder if Fosse/Verdon would have been stronger if it had focused on her. (Verdon/Fosse, perhaps?) Verdon struggles to find good roles after her Broadway glory days have faded, and there are shades of FX’s previous Feud: Bette and Joan in her desperation to hang onto the spotlight.
But that comparison gets at Fosse/Verdon‘s fundamental flaw: It feels like a season of Feud… except one that’s drained of all the signature Ryan Murphy flair that make his shows worth watching. I can’t help but think that Murphy would sink his teeth into a story like this and come away with more profound conclusions than “showbiz is tough” and “infidelity is bad.” Rockwell and Williams are shoo-ins for Emmy nominations this summer, it’s true, but the material they’re given here never quite rises to meet their level.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: FX’s Fosse/Verdon is a richly detailed, well-acted Hollywood biopic, but never digs deep enough to offer genuine insight.