Since 2007, TV Club has dissected television episode by episode. Beginning this September, The A.V. Club will also step back to take a wider view in our new TV Reviews section. With pre-air reviews of new shows, returning favorites, and noteworthy finales, TV Reviews doesn’t replace TV Club—as usual, some shows will get the weekly treatment—but it adds a look at a bigger picture.
Dancing On The Edge, a five-part miniseries written and directed by Stephen Poliakoff (Bloody Kids, The Lost Prince), seems to have a juicy, exciting subject: an all-black jazz band trying to carve out a career for itself in early-1930s London, where both the music and racial integration were even-newer ideas than they were in America at the time. It’s also impressively cast: Matthew Goode, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Janet Montgomery, John Goodman, Anthony Head, Jacqueline Bisset, and Mel Smith (in his final performance) round out the leads.
Unfortunately, none of these actors have been given characters to play, beyond the broadest of outlines—and Dancing On The Edge itself doesn’t really have a subject. At its most decipherable, it’s less interested in telling a story or re-creating a scene than in trying to create a mood: fatalistic and full of doom, similar to the anti-nostalgic atmosphere of The Hour, which used the postwar period of the Suez Crisis to pinpoint the moment of British decline. Dancing is set before World War II, but stasis has already set in, and from the way Poliakoff depicts the society, nothing can really shake it up. It counts as a major triumph when Goode sneaks Ejiofor onto the bandstand at a party at the German embassy, and they have a good, self-congratulatory laugh watching the racist party guests stalk out of the room in disgust. It doesn’t help that the band’s music, which is meant to be groundbreaking, has so little lift to it. It’s only 1933; it would be ridiculous if they were shredding the tapestries with free jazz and John Zorn-style skronk, but the effort to sound old and margarine-smooth is palpable. The music is dragged further down when the singers join in, and that’s a major problem, because according the script, the addition of singers is supposed to be the masterstroke that enables the band to connect to a larger audience.
Amid all the hand-wringing about the end of the empire and the rise of the Big Brother-style security state, The Hour did manage to pass for a thriller. Dancing On The Edge has zero interest in thrills, even though a murder is central to the plot. The band is just starting to achieve success, but when a dead body turns up at the hotel where it plays, suspicion quickly settles on Ejiofor. It makes no sense whatsoever that anyone would suspect him, and that seems to be the point: Rich, powerful men who find themselves in a spot of trouble can easily get themselves out by directing everyone’s attention to a black man, and most people will be happy to go along. Suddenly, people are muttering about how it was only a matter of time.
Poliakoff may not fully recognize that his heavy-handed attack on racism is packaged inside an old-fashioned, equally heavy-handed depiction of the unwholesome nature of homosexuality. Goodman is motivated by his unspoken, but unmistakable longing for his young, glassy-eyed boy Friday (Tom Hughes), and their relationship is so queasily masochistic that it undercuts the notion that Goodman’s character is an all-powerful master of the universe. On the few occasions anyone dares raise the subject of exactly what Goodman and Hughes mean to each other, people suddenly talk as if they’re in a Terence Rattigan play, nattering vaguely about “strong feelings.” Maybe this is supposed to be a reflection of the mores of the period, but it sometimes feels like the series itself has the heebie-jeebies.
The only times Dancing On The Edge doesn’t move like molasses are during the brief moments of excitement or pleasure, such as the farewell to Ariyon Bakare’s band manager or the scenes of Ejiofor and Montgomery snuggling in bed together. Poliakoff races through these high points eager to get back to his lecture-hall style of dramaturgy. Goode manages to summon up enough charm to see him through in style, but Ejiofor seems poleaxed by the passive, victimized nature of his character—he’s as stiff and polite as a waiter in an expensive restaurant helping a rube pick out a wine. This show doesn’t dance—on the edge, or anywhere else. Instead, it lumbers straight into the tar pit.