The life of Zelda Fitzgerald is one that’s truly fascinating, but Z: The Beginning of Everything isn’t exactly a biopic, and isn’t exactly about her anyway. The self-described “fictionalized biopic” begins when Zelda meets F. Scott, and winds through the beginnings of their life together, but doesn’t seem to care a lot about events that really happened. In an artsy, avant-garde theory of telling stories about people’s lives that the subjects probably would have appreciated, Z is the “story of their lives” in a richer sense.
The show has enough going against it just by being a show, because a biopic series isn’t what audiences are accustomed to, but throwing in the idea that we aren’t exactly telling the story of the real people is to heap difficulties on your project where you don’t seem to need them. That means there better really be some point to the whole thing, or it isn’t going to take long for audiences to wonder why they’re watching it.
You get a good hint from the title, because this turns out not to be the story of Zelda, or even the Fitzegeralds, but the story of how she came to be “the beginning of everything.” If we take some liberties in spinning that poetry into motion, it’s a forgivable way to work a yarn, especially because…, man, she just really was.
Christina Ricci is Zelda and she’s never been better. The danger here is putting together a period piece that has F. Scott as some version of a wizard, more caricature of Legend incarnate than actual person, despite the truth of a man as flawed and “normal” as you ever want to meet. This would leave Zelda stuck in the world as curious muse, unable to bring us depth behind the icon no one knows anymore. Here, the show goes so brilliantly the other way that you need to keep reminding yourself that these people ever did anything interesting. There’s a point in Away We Go that has Maya Rudolph‘s character asking, “What if we’re fuck-ups?” and Z will eventually have you wondering if that film didn’t somehow steal it from Zelda, except that in Zelda’s case the question doesn’t seem to have a lot of room to maneuver.
The script offers the potential, but Ricci sells a provocative character who is both adrift and real, but also could conceivably become the cultural icon we know. That’s a tricky business, and even her narration is delivered with the right notes to convey the complexity of what’s going on.
David Hoflin lives in her shadow, but mostly holds his own. He serves best as part of the team, which almost becomes another level of the examination. He shines in his ability to seem commonplace despite anything and everything though, which helps the show work its magic of incisive examination. Two of the most interesting people that have ever lived, and what we ultimately get from their parties, writing, self-doubt, and struggle, is the idea that perhaps interesting people are only those who find a way to be uninteresting with a fury and relentlessness that pulls others in.
It isn’t quite a show that has you on the edge of your seat, and fans of either Fitzgerald will likely expect that it should be, but it has a subtle honesty in its fictionalization that is somehow haunting. It makes you think in ways that would make them proud, and about so many things. It also thumbs its nose wonderfully at many of the things that drove F. Scott mad, which is a nice touch. And, all of it while being the strangest, possibly most real, love story to come along in a while.
It’s ultimately a show that loses its way in its own choice of medium, because it doesn’t quite have enough material to fill the time, but even the miscues manage to become part of the charm, like the moments at a party that aren’t part of why you showed up, but make up the overall experience.
There’s something wonderful in looking back at F. Scott as he rails against those who tell him he’ll always be a peasant and never a Shakespeare, and the fury he can’t contain, not at the dig, but at the stupidity within it. But, there’s a reason this is her story and not his, and to find an effort that can actually deliver on that idea while focusing on them equally is fascinating.