Towards the end of the fifth episode of Fosse/Verdon — the FX limited series that chronicles the personal lives of the legendary Broadway duo— actress/dancer Gwen Verdon (Michelle Williams) tells her choreographer husband’s new girlfriend exactly how he operates. “See here’s the thing about Bob; he’s so sweet and he’s so charming. He tells you whatever you want to hear, and then you realize he’s a liar,” she says flatly about Fosse (Sam Rockwell). He wants to be free, she explains, for his art (heavily implied air quotes). “And what do you get in exchange? Oh right, nothing.”
Here, Verdon is allowed to sum up with Fosse/Verdon is all about: essentially, a repetitive dynamic of Bob Fosse asking for things — demanding them, even — from his wife Gwen Verdon, and giving her nothing in return. He respects her opinion and creative vision, and she is very clearly the silent hand guiding his “genius” that manifested in directing movies like Cabaret and theater productions like Pippin. He’s the name who gets all of the attention, but without her he doesn’t seem to amount to much at all.
The stylish, indulgent, often stagey Fosse/Verdon will run for 8 hourlong episodes on FX (five were available for review). It kicks off with an episode that jumps right in to the middle of the couple’s careers, giving an overview of the doomed relationship before backing up and chronicling things in a more linear fashion. But the series doesn’t want this to look or feel like a traditional biopic, which is good and bad. On the one hand, scattered flashbacks to the couple’s younger selves served up in the briefest of snippets give us a sense of the underlying pain which drives both Fosse and Verdon. But then, to double-down on the series’ feeling of improv jazz as plot, intertitles count time in a variety of mostly obscure ways: “263 days since Gwen’s first Tony” or “2,368 days before Joan McCracken’s death” (Fosse’s second wife), or ominously, “19 years left.”
Despite the time jumps, much of Fosse/Verdon feels sluggish and nonessential. Rockwell is fine as Fosse, but Fosse himself is a bore. He has an insatiable and insufferable ego, he’s whiney and needy, and he’s a absentee father (at one point when Verdon drops their daughter off with him, he complains “I’m not a babysitter!” No, Bob, you’re her father). He’s selfish and — as I wrote specifically in my notes — a rat bastard. Later, brief attempts to show us his difficult upbringing do nothing to soften the tired trope of a man who does what he wants because he has the power and means to do so. This is never clearer than in a particularly #MeToo moment at his studio, when he pressures a young dancer to give him a kiss, physically pressing himself up against her and drunkenly muttering, “I just want a kiss goodnight, I mean a real kiss, come on let’s just go up and lie down. Feel this, what’s happening?” When she rebuffs him, he gives away her part to a young upstart — one whom he later enters into a relationship with. Not long afterwards he’s presented as something of a pathetic figure when he is checked into a psychiatric unit and is overworking himself. To which I say … who cares?
Far more interesting is the story of Gwen Verdon, who sacrificed everything to make her career happen. She never stopped working and hustling and giving everything to Fosse, but when she needed him to help her out (in a collaboration for a production of Chicago she had been hoping to do for a decade), he shrugs it off and whines about Dustin Hoffman’s busy schedule for the movie they’re doing. Verdon isn’t portrayed as perfect (Fosse was married to one of her heroes when she met him, and their affair led to their marriage), but she’s sympathetic. Upbeat, giving, and incredibly talented, the series lights up every time the fantastic Michelle Williams is onscreen — and immediately becomes far duller when she isn’t. Like Verdon herself, she’s giving absolutely everything she has to a sinking ship.
Taking place primarily in the 1960s and 1970s, Fosse/Verdon makes decent use of its period setting, but the desire to make the series feel as theatrical as a Fosse play leads to a mishmash in tone. For theater lovers, the series is sure to be a treasure trove of name-drops, but for casual viewers it’s less accessible. Bob and Gwen make a great team, that much is obvious — even if Bob doesn’t see it or is ever grateful to her — but the series never makes enough of a case for why we need eight hours to explore their emotionally abusive dynamic. The fifth episode even takes on a House of Horrors aesthetic, as the couple, along with their new, young significant others, are trapped together over a rainy weekend in a cabin that becomes emotionally suffocating. But the most telling moment is in the very first episode, where Fosse re-tells a joke he’s apparently famous for, which is when he was once mistakenly called “Mr. Verdon.” Everyone howls with laughter as he smirks and walks away, but it really speaks to how abhorrent he considers the idea that Verdon would or could ever be the star of their relationship.
As Gwen is told early-on, “That’s what Bobby does. He takes what is special about a girl and makes it his.” She replies with a shrug, “Isn’t that what they all do?” Maybe, but what point is the series making? After investing this much time into this languid investigation of a rancid romance, Gwen’s question about what we get in exchange returns. The answer is: not much. More Verdon, less Fosse please.
Fosse/Verdon premieres Tuesday, April 9th on FX