Sam Rockwell (left), Michelle Williams
Photo: Craig Blankenhorn (FX)
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The box-office receipts and award nominations for Bohemian Rhapsody say otherwise, but there are few cinematic genres in need of a complete overhaul as much as the celebrity biopic, whose rhythms and tics were long ago absorbed by pop culture at large and reconstituted as parody. 12 years after Walk Hard, it’s almost startling to tune into the premiere of Fosse/Verdon and see a party scene in which Bob Fosse (Sam Rockwell) refers to his friend Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz) by his first and last name mid-conversation, as if they’re sitting under a tent with Dewey Cox and the Beatles. How are onscreen biographies still being made this way, with their elbows firmly planted in the viewers ribs, with the childhood traumas still spilling out in exposition, with the orgiastic highs stitched together into a fast-forward slide into rock bottom? Didn’t Tim Meadows tell us multiple times that we didn’t want no part of this shit?

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For FX’s eight-part take on the professional and personal partnership between Fosse and Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams), a case of biopicitis isn’t just inevitable—it’s hereditary. This story’s already been told once before, in one of the most distinctive specimen of the genre: All That Jazz, a semi-autobiographical fantasia in which Fosse dramatized his nearly lethal decision to finish a movie while simultaneously getting a musical on its feet. The behind-the-scenes pedigree for Fosse/Verdon, based on the Sam Wasson doorstop Fosse, is just as impressive: In addition to Academy favorites Rockwell and Williams, there’s showrunner Steven Levenson, who wrote the Tony Award-winning book for Dear Evan Hansen, and director Thomas Kail, who took home his own Tony for helming Hamilton. Hamilton himself, Lin-Manuel Miranda, is an executive producer, as is Joel Fields, one half of the team that supervised The Americans.

The ambition of the piece rises to the level of those vaunted credits, if not necessarily their quality. In a chronologically scrambled tale of its titular subjects coming together, splitting apart, and forever driving one another to new creative highs, Fosse/Verdon mimics the former’s cinematic panache, while occasionally moving with the grace of the latter. The miniseries allows for some autocritique, repeating the potshots that haunted Fosse throughout his career: That his achievements as a director and choreographer were little more than “style” and “flash.” Fosse/Verdon combats those dismissals with its own rendition of that style and flash, its jump cuts and fantasy interludes depicting all the sweat, elbow grease, and inner turmoil that went into the razzle dazzle. It keeps the miniseries from sinking too deep into biopic predictability, but it can’t disguise a disappointing turn from the typically reliable Rockwell, or his inability to strike up any romantic chemistry opposite Williams.

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More crucial to this version of the story is the argument that even the most personal-seeming showbiz accomplishment is rarely a solo act. On stage and on set, in rehearsal spaces and cutting rooms, Rockwell’s testy, insecure Fosse is propped up by Williams in the role of his muse, spouse, and sparring partner, Verdon. Watching Bob win the Best Director Oscar for Cabaret through a haze of faux-over-the-air static, Fosse and Verdon’s daughter Nicole (Blake Baumgartner) asks why she didn’t earn a thank-you, but her mother did. “Because you didn’t help direct his movie, darling,” Williams whispers back, calling back to all of the scenes we’ve already seen of Gwen flying to Germany and stopping by editing sessions to pull Bob and Cabaret out of a tailspin.

That mix of acrimony and esteem is the dance that Williams and Rockwell do most impressively. You have to hand it to them for the metaphorical choreography, but Fosse/Verdon tiptoes around the genuine article: When Rockwell has to cut a rug, it often looks like he’s channeling his self-consciously goony moves from the similarly unorthodox Confessions Of A Dangerous Mind; a reenactment of Damn Yankees’ “Who’s Got The Pain” is blocked and cut in such a way that relieves Williams of the most demanding steps. Another of that show’s signature numbers, “Whatever Lola Wants,” forms the backdrop for their meet-cute, its themes of seduction and temptation refracted through their nascent flirtation and games of one-upmanship. Even there, the friction is more potent than the ostensible attraction.

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And maybe that competition is what Fosse/Verdon is trying to sell more than any legendarily explosive love affair. For Bob, the beats are familiar, perfectionist-creator stuff, his struggles underscored by the sound of a younger Fosse tap-dancing for approval that never comes. There’s some novelty in that stylistic flourish, or an All That Jazz-like sequence that drops a suicide attempt into the finale from Pippin, but that particular catastrophic fall must contend with a standard-issue meteoric-rise montage of pills, discos, limos, and women. The races Gwen runs—against her public perception, against cultural expectations placed on a wife and a mother, against Bob’s long shadow and wandering eye—feel further from their sell-by date, though have their own precursor in Feud: Bette And Joan, another revisionist backstage FX miniseries about a turbulent relationship that spun out cinematic gold.

In Gwen’s struggles to be taken seriously outside of musical theater, in her being passed over for the big-screen Sweet Charity and her unacknowledged contributions to Fosse’s other films, Fosse/Verdon wants to pose questions about who gets to be considered a creative genius. But in doing so, it also flattens its leads out into ciphers, recognizable hairstyles and dialects with relatable weaknesses whose stories are primarily interesting because we know they belong to two heroes of the American stage and screen. Such characterization gets stretched thin when it’s the basis for a whole hour of TV, but in small doses, it’s quite entertaining: Butz finds a surprising amount of range in the single, grouchy note Fosse/Verdon gives its Chayefsky, serving as both cantankerous foil and occasional Jiminy Cricket to Bob.

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He’s also around for the best of the five episodes screened for critics ahead of the premiere, a brief respite from the flash that sends Gwen, Bob, Paddy, Nicole, and Neil Simon (Nate Corddry) out to a beach house to grieve and spend too much time drinking in close quarters. Largely confined to a single, immaculate set, “Where Am I Going?” operates like a one-act play in the midst of Fosse/Verdon, where the performers get a little more space to breathe and play people with regrets, jealousies, and heartaches that don’t only matter because they also have whole trophy cases of major awards. It’s not without its moments of shop talk—the episode is set in the lead-up to Fosse’s big prestige play, Lenny, and Gwen arrives with the intent on persuading her estranged husband to do Chicago (so it’s an All That Jazz prequel, basically)—but the human drama is felt more keenly here than anywhere else in Fosse/Verdon. To be true to its subjects, to do something a little new and exciting, the miniseries needs its maximalist embellishments. But just this once, when it opts not to leap into the fire box, Fosse/Verdon’s search for meaning and fulfillment doesn’t seem doomed from the start.

Recaps by Gwen Ihnat will run weekly.

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