The troubled alpha male once walked the television earth as its undisputed king. Don Draper (Jon Ham) cheated, raged, and threw money directly at Elisabeth Moss’ face. Walter White was The One Who Knocked. Over a decade earlier, Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini), was Tony Soprano. All were dangerous in their own way, but excused for their immense genius — whether that be in advertising, premium meth making, or organized crime.
Fosse/Verdon's take on Bob Fosse is the latest TV descendant of these unsavory men. Yet, Fosse's consistently bad behavior — the behavior that very much anchors FX’s inspired-by-real-events limited series — is no longer endearing or charming, no matter how well the dancer jazz hands his way through time and his iconic choreography continues to endure. Fosse/Verdon, premiering Tuesday, April 9, is a painful watch because of it.
Technically, the decades-spanning cable drama is about the tumultuous marriage and professional creative partnership of Broadway greats Bob Fosse (played by Oscar winner Sam Rockwell), who also directed Cabaret, and wife Gwen Verdon (four-time Oscar nominee Michelle Williams). We can thank the couple for a number of iconic musicals, from Sweet Charity to the modern day version of Chicago. For people who don’t have a PhD in musical theater — or remember exactly what Gwen Verdon was up to in 1969 — a bit of background on this central duo would likely be helpful.
Fosse/Verdon offers no such salve.
The limited series, produced by the couple's daughter Nicole Fosse and Lin-Manuel Miranda, jumps directly into Fosse and Verdon's late 1960s movie production of Sweet Charity. It is up to you to figure out that is the film the duo is working on, and, as real-life news stories confirm, that film was a disastrous flop. Premiere episode “Life Is A Cabaret” goes through those major beats in less than 15 minutes, without any exposition for the Fosse-Verdon newbies watching at home. It’s so confusing that many will likely spend the same amount of time Googling what in the kick-ball-change is going on. Especially since the series initially forgoes date markers in favor of insertions that share foreboding promises like “18 Years Left.” It’s up to you to realize Fosse/Verdon is counting down to Fosse's 1987 death.
It’s possible the show is so cavalier with its setting because such grounding specifics aren’t the point. Instead, this is a study in a suffocating, life-affirming, life-ruining relationship. Verdon, a multiple Tony winner, is a powerhouse in her own right. Fellow Tony-favorite Fosse is destined to win an Oscar, a shelf of Emmys, a BAFTA, and a Palme d'Or from Cannes. However, none of that gold will ever be enough for Bobby. The problem with Mr. Fosse is eventually summed up with one druggy limo conversation between the choreographer/director and his best friend Paddy Chayefsky (Norbert Leo Butz).
“It’s not that the world is bullshit, you’re bullshit,” Paddy tells Bobby. “So if you’re bullshit, and they’re giving you an award, they must be bullshit, too. You could win 100 of these, Bob — it’s bullshit all the way down.”
With that self-pitying ethos following his every move, Fosse poisons the lives of the women around him. His seaside separation from Verdon is so self-serving, it will make you want to throw a jazz shoe at your television. However, the narrative around the icon goes from irritating to disturbing by fourth episode “Glory,” which follows the aftermath of Cabaret’s success and the director’s following project, Pippin.
Fosse uses rehearsals for the sultry musical as his own personal sexual hunting ground. Women acquiesce to his aggressive “flirtations” because they want to advance their careers — even Verdon recognizes as much during a quick visit to rehearsals. In a post-#MeToo world, none of this is adorable. So, the montages of Fosse bedding various young female employees desperate for success may be triggering for some viewers. The prolonged scene of him forcing himself on the one dancer uninterested in his advances as she begs him to stop is enough to make you want to turn off your TV forever. It's a fact that becomes even more true when you see the unexpected resolution.
All of this darkness could hypothetically be balanced out if Verdon was given enough screen time on her own or served as a true judge of her estranged partner’s more monstrous turns. Unfortunately, we don’t get a solid glimpse into her until third episode “Me And My Baby,” which also stands as the best episode of the five critics received. The installment shows us Verdon at her most independent, while also investigating how stories of Hollywood-adjacent abuse unfolded before phrases like “sexual harassment” or “assault” were taken seriously by the masses. It’s an admirably complicated and messy tale, and the kind of material Michelle Williams deserves.
Yet, the actress is often made to spend her time reinforcing Fosse's worst qualities. In one of the most chilling scenes of Fosse/Verdon, Verdon explains to her legal husband’s new girlfriend Ann Reinking (Margaret Qualley) the upside of slogging through Fosse's most egregious misbehavior. The answer is one of the greatest, most earnest defenses of creative male genius, no matter the cost, ever committed to film. It’s heartbreaking.
You’ll want to shake Reinking and tell her to get out of the house. Thankfully, you don’t ever have to enter it.