Two artists enter into a creative and romantic partnership, in which the wife frequently comes to the aid of the troubled husband while he soothes his soul (and ego) in a variety of self-sabotaging ways. It’s not a terribly original tale, all things considered, but I had high hopes for FX’s latest stab at prestige television nonetheless. Who wouldn’t? Central stars Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams are a powerhouse duo, but the series is also stacked with talent behind the scenes as well. Considering this is a show about a musical director and one of the biggest stars Broadway ever produced, it makes sense that the showrunner would be Dear Evan Hansen’s Tony Award-winning writer, Steven Levenson, while Hamilton’s Thomas Kail and Lin-Manuel Miranda are also listed amongst the executive producers. But what really gave me hope was the title — that all important “/Verdon” that seemed to indicate this was truly the story of a partnership.
And it is. Almost.
The thing is, it’s still mostly about Bob Fosse (Rockwell). It’s his internal life we witness, with memories frequently weaving across his present. And based on the ever-evolving countdown present in the title cards between settings (“Hollywood, 19 Years Left”, “Washington DC, 8 Minutes Left”) the entire show is going to be structured around his demise (he collapsed in Verdon’s arms while on their way to a revival of Sweet Charity in Washington DC in 1987). Sure, the series does seem to be trying to intentionally unpack the tired notion of the tortured artistic genius by pointing out that, hey, no man is an island. Bob Fosse always had Gwen Verdon (Williams), a Tony-award winning Broadway dancer who came into their marriage with more fame and success than Fosse had, and who very actively contributed to the success he went on to gain. At one point, in the premiere episode, Fosse begs her to come to Munich where he’s shooting Cabaret, saying, “I need you” — a sentiment his producer, Cy (Paul Reiser), echoes to Gwen when she arrives. Both professionally and personally, Fosse needs Verdon — and everyone knows it. She soothes his producers, translates his vision to his dancers, and still acts as the reliable parent to their daughter (and, frequently, to Bob himself). And though Bob may rebel against it, by philandering or trying to leave her at home when he takes another gig, he always comes back to her.
Point is, the show makes the argument that Fosse did not achieve all of his efforts on his own — but even as it emphasizes the importance of their partnership, it still doesn’t offer the two characters equal focus. And that’s a shame, because Michelle Williams is practically a force of gravity in the way she sucks your attention when she’s on screen. Don’t get me wrong, Rockwell is doing what Rockwell does best (play sympathetic, fragile and destructive men), but I wanted to follow Verdon’s journey far more than Fosse’s because, frankly, I’ve seen Fosse’s story countless times before. Hell, I’ve seen his story as told by himself (All That Jazz is a helluva movie, after all!), but I mean I’ve seen stories just like it before — men who are talented and driven and broken, and the women who coast along in their wakes.
But the way Verdon knew his strengths and weaknesses, and believed in him, and accepted him, and struggled to support him without losing herself? That’s a story I don’t know. I’d love to see flashbacks to what shaped her, or what drove her to dance, the same way we see Fosse’s memories. And maybe we will in future episodes! Nicole Fosse, their daughter, was an adviser and executive producer on this project, which is a good sign. Still, the impression I get is that, though Fosse/Verdon makes sure there is room in the spotlight Gwen Verdon, she’s still caught in the long shadow cast by Bob Fosse.
Header Image Source: FX