The adjectives “dutiful” and “conventional” were not often applied to Zelda Fitzgerald. They could, however, be applied to “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” a handsome but superficial Amazon series about the life of the fascinating woman who married F. Scott Fitzgerald.
Back when they were the toast of not just the literary world but the 20th Century’s nascent celebrity culture, Zelda and F. Scott Fitzgerald were both regarded as rebels — though it could be argued that Zelda was the more subversive of the two. Unconcerned with respectability and bourgeois rituals, she was a well-bred, witty woman who enjoyed shocking New York social circles just after her husband hit it big with his first novel, “This Side of Paradise.”
But the former Zelda Sayre began exhibiting her rule-breaking ways much earlier, in the stringent environment of Montgomery, Alabama, where a lady who went out without donning thick stockings was considered scandalous. Well before her headline-making behavior in 1920 New York, where the Fitzgeralds were established as the city’s most glittering Bright Young Things, Zelda’s intimates knew she had the soul of an iconoclastic artist: She was a sharp writer herself, and an astute observer of the radically changing world around her. She deserves a TV show about her life, but this one starts off slowly and only intermittently gains momentum and heft.
One of the best aspects of “Z” is that, like a Fitzgerald short story, individual installments aren’t overly long: The 10-episode show is a drama, but each episode clocks in at under 30 minutes. Occasionally, the show comes close to depicting the riotous, dislocating post-war whirl that the Fitzgeralds inhabited, where affairs, cocaine and Champagne were common. But given how intense Zelda’s emotions could be — and given how cataclysmic her relationship with her husband often was — it’s disappointing to find that, in the main, the series doesn’t offer much in the way of poetic precision or yearning atmosphere. The best word to describe “Z” is prosaic: It hits all the biographical notes that most former English majors will dimly recall, without adding many additional layers of insight.
The first episodes are centered around Zelda’s sleepy, rule-bound life in Montgomery, where her father, a stern judge, tries to keep her from sneaking out at night and doing other things that might harm her reputation. Once she discovers a kindred spirit in Scott, whose Army unit is based nearby, Zelda finally has an ally who despises the hypocrisies of middle-class life even more than she does. As it rather slowly trundles through the first half of its season, “Z” sketches out the ways in which both Fitzgeralds felt undermined and rejected, Scott by New York intellectuals and the rich boys at Princeton, and Zelda by Southerners who thought she was too wild and Northerners who dismissed her as a country bumpkin.
As aficionados of doomed relationships know, things didn’t exactly work out well for Scott and Zelda, who got married very young and plunged headlong into a world of drinking, fame, parties and debt. This 10-episode adaptation of a Zelda-focused novel of the same name examines the ways in which Scott mined Zelda’s utterances and diaries for the kind of luminous prose and aching insights that littered his fiction; clearly, she should have gotten more credit for the kind of deceptively difficult yet elegant style that made him famous.
As her ambitions curdle and his insecurities flare up after the first batch of money runs out, “Z” depicts the ways in which the witty barbs and poisoned insults they once reserved for the conventional world are turned against each other. It’s a dynamic that, in the hands of “Z’s” writers, soon becomes repetitive. One or both of them will feel slighted, or understandably offended by some snobbish action or quip, and then either Scott or Zelda — or occasionally both — will act out in predictable ways.
The show’s repetitive storytelling would be less of a problem if it had more depth, but its characterizations rarely go beyond the rudimentary, and its dialogue is often clunky (“You are not your father and I will never let you fail”). By the end of the debut season, Scott seems less a genius than a petulant, immature child — and to be clear, the author could be both, but “Z” rarely unites these disparate qualities in nuanced ways. Ultimately, the creative alchemy of the famous author eludes the series.
Of course, the focus of the story is on Zelda, whom Christina Ricci depicts with admirable focus and subtlety. Ricci is particularly good at conveying the idea that Zelda is much smarter than most people give her credit for; in this telling of the tale, she purposely plays the role of the zany flapper in order to keep her tender and true self guarded from a harsh world. Given how little encouragement she received for being an unconventional woman, her anger and resentment are understandable, and Ricci offers quietly intelligent depictions of her character’s guarded emotions.
Ultimately, however, this uneven series lacks the kind of melancholy fire that marked both writers’ finest works. “It captures youth and rebellion and takes a hatchet to everything else,” one Fitzgerald acolyte says to Scott about his debut novel. If only “Z” had done the same.