“Flesh and Bone’s” greatest accomplishment may lie in its casting: Most of the ballet drama’s core actors are gifted dancers, and the scenes of performance and practice are among the show’s high points. Unfortunately those pleasurable moments aren’t as plentiful as one might hope. As it attempts to show the grit and determination required to make it as a top-flight diva, the show makes long detours into grim, even bleak territory, all of which have the cumulative effect of crushing the story’s momentum.
There’s no rule that ballerina dramas have to be light, and it’s to “Flesh’s” credit that it tries to paint a realistic portrait of the hefty sacrifices required of committed dancers. Yet as the story of aspiring ballet star Claire Robbins unfolds, it only intermittently lifts off. Sarah Hay, who takes on the mentally and physically taxing role of Claire, is to be credited for her obvious determination and exceptional dancing. But the writing from “Breaking Bad” veteran Moira Walley-Beckett makes the character so opaque that it’s difficult to be drawn into Claire’s story, especially in the early episodes, in which various story threads only occasionally cohere into a compelling whole.
The show’s early episodes are bogged down by a plot involving Claire’s troubled brother, who is even less forthcoming and also far less interesting than his talented sibling. Scenes featuring Ben Daniels as Paul Grayson, the imperious creative director of a New York ballet troupe that Claire joins, on the other hand, pulse with energy, given that Daniels occupies the screen as masterfully as a prima ballerina holds center stage. The role of Grayson offers operatic possibilities, and Daniels knows how to take advantage of all of them. Still, he is one more grimly determined character in a roster of players who all appear to be unhappy or unsatisfied almost all the time, and the story of a Balanchine-like guru turning a young dancer into his puppet has familiar contours.
Damon Herriman, who was always a treat on “Justified,” plays a homeless man who befriends the guarded Claire, but it takes quite a long time for any of the supporting characters to make much more than a glancing impression. In early episodes, once it establishes that ballet dancers smoke, take drugs and have sex, “Flesh and Bone” doesn’t do much with the majority of Claire’s fellow dancers, focusing instead on a leaden and increasingly dominant story about how Claire’s past is sabotaging her present.
“Flesh and Bone” presents a lived-in world in which ballet dancers refer to the rehearsal studio as “the shark tank.” It’s an apt description, given the rivalries and backstabbing that goes on in that room (and away from it). If only “Flesh and Bone’s” sharks were more complicated and charismatic, this program would land with greater force.