Pointe and shoot
Ballet drama disappoints; espionage series laughably bad
ON the surface, there doesn’t seem to be much in common between international espionage and elite ballet dancing.
As it turns out, however, they do share this: they’re both subjects that can be handled in a ham-fisted manner by the producers of TV drama series.
The potential for such high-level hackery is on full display in a couple of new series premièring this week — Flesh and Bone, a ballet-themed soap opera that gets the steps and leaps right but the subtleties all wrong, and Agent X, a Bond-clone spy adventure that’s so ridiculously bad it occasionally becomes hilarious.
Flesh and Bone, which arrives Sunday at 8 p.m. on Super Channel, is produced for U.S. cable’s Starz network (home of Spartacus, DaVinci’s Demons and Black Sails), meaning it has plenty of latitude when it comes to overheated emotions and gratuitous nudity. Its artsy premise involves a young woman named Claire Robbins (played by Sarah Hay), who escapes what appears to be a violently abusive home life in Pittsburgh and flees to New York, where she intends to try out for the prestigious American Ballet Company.
Fortunately, her run for freedom coincides with the company’s annual preseason auditions, so Claire shows up in the Big Apple just in time to strap on her pointe shoes along with dozens of other would-be professional dancers hoping to grab one of the few open spots in the troupe.
Despite being withdrawn, wordless and seemingly resigned to a place far in the background, Claire somehow catches the eye of the flamboyant, demanding artistic director, Paul Grayson (Ben Daniels), and makes it through to the final stage of tryouts.
She’s offered temporary lodging with one of the troupe’s dancers, and arrives at the apartment just in time to interrupt a bit of sexual writhing that has no real plot-advancement purpose but assures that the Flesh part of the title keeps it in line with the Starz ethos.
On Day 2 of the audition, Claire’s cellphone rings during a particularly intense part of the session, prompting Paul to banish her from the room, wondering aloud why he kept such a trashy bumpkin around in the first place. But just as she’s about to slink tearfully from the studio, Paul decides to up the ante, forcing her to embarrass herself by performing a difficult dance sequence, solo, in front of the group.
Rather than compounding her shame, the exercise elevates Claire — she nails it, and Paul, gobsmacked, realizes he might have a once-in-a-generation star on his hands, his to mould and shape and groom to his every creative whim. To say it’s a predictable turn of events is an understatement of prima proportions.
And it’s far from the only tired idea trotted out between Flesh and Bone’s considerable and impressive dance sequences: there’s also a top ballerina with a huge ego and an even bigger drug problem; a new-bestie dancer pal for Claire who introduces her to a way to turn her ballet talents into extra income (yes, that’s right, it’s a strip club!); and a female second-incommand to the artistic director who’s Russian, evil and constantly carries a tiny white dog.
It’s too bad, because Flesh and Bone could have been so much more. Its producers got the most difficult part right — the dancing — and then somehow forgot that even the most artful display of balletic beauty needs to be underpinned by a credible, workable storyline. As disappointing as it is, Flesh and
Bone is leaps ahead of Agent X, the made-for-U.S.-cable spy “thriller” that premières Tuesday at 8 p.m. on Bravo. The series boasts an impressive cast, led by Sharon Stone (who’s also an executive producer), James Earl Jones and Gerald McRaney, but its dramatic narrative is so preposterous and its presentation is so clumsy that it’s likely to provoke a laugh-out-loud reaction its creators clearly never sought or expected.
Stone plays newly installed U.S. Vice-President Natalie Maccabee, whose first day on the job is highlighted by the discovery that a key she’s given at her new Washington, D.C., residence actually opens much more than the front door — it also provides coded entry to a secret lair hidden deep in the bowels of the structure, where the veep’s real work as handler of her country’s singular topsecret espionage weapon gets done.
The key fits into a hole above the fireplace in her home’s library; when she turns it, a bookcase swings open and she follows a stone-walled tunnel, with butler-ish figure Malcolm Millar (McRaney) in tow, to a bunker that houses a bunch of techno-gadgetry and the sole copy of the real U.S. constitution containing a secret extra section that prescribes “An agent of unknown identity is hereby authorized to serve at the discretion of the vice-president for the purpose of aiding the republic in times of dire peril.”
The current incarnation of this American version of licensed-to-kill Agent 007 is John Case (Jeff Hephner) and, yes, he’s quite a case. Handsome, skilled and ruthless, he can do whatever the veep commands, using whatever means necessary while still affording POTUS a hands-off layer of plausible deniability.
What follows is a series of spy-guy heroics by Case — including several comically clumsy fight scenes and a roster of straight-from-centralcasting villains using mostly Russian (and consistently bad) accents — and Stone offering up a series of variously shocked, confused and wonderstruck facial reactions.
One can only wonder if she’s using her thespian skills to portray what’s in the script or just genuinely surprised that she somehow got herself into this mess as both an actor and a producer. Simply put, Agent X is a series... why?
So, there you have it — two new shows with nothing much in common except the fact they’re both pretty bad.
Sarah Hay as Claire Robbins (inset) with Ben Daniels as Paul.
Sharon Stone and Jeff Hephner in Agent X.