[Caution: some mild spoilers about Fosse/Verdon ahead!]
Let's get this out of the way:Michelle Williams absolutely owns Fosse/Verdon, the biographical series about two of the greatest dancers to ever live, Bob Fosse and Gwen Verdon. As Verdon, Williams captures the late performer's steely, upbeat disposition -- a veneer hardened from a life spent persevering in the face of heartbreak. That Michelle Williams nails the choreography -- the recreation of "Who's Got the Pain" is eerie it's so spot on -- is a sort of given, since, perhaps unfairly, we expect a star playing a dancer to nail the choreography. But it bears repeating: Michelle Williams slays her interpretation of Gwen Verdon's iconic moves even though, honestly, it's not the dancing that makes her sublime in Fosse/Verdon. With tender, mesmerizing force, Williams massages Verdon's spunk, maternal strength, and savvy maneuvering around toxic men into a portrait of an unsung hero. She's not the only reason to watch Fosse/Verdon, but she's a very compelling reason to watch and stick with it until the end.
Fosse/Verdon has a lot working in its favor. Fosse/Verdon's pull-back-the-curtain, note-for-note imaginings of Sweet Charity and Cabaret feel satisfying. (They're also beautifully shot and well acted.) Sam Rockwell is sturdy and convincing as the influential choreographer and creative visionary -- he's a blank slate for Fosse's divine inspiration and self-destructive habits. Lastly, the five episodes of Fosse/Verdon screened for critics do (eventually) make a salient point about the ways women have kept Hollywood humming at the expense of their bodies and their full potential as the system -- and men like Bob Fosse -- treat them like disposable objects. This is again where Michelle Williams delivers a winning, impactful performance. She conveys how Verdon juggled motherhood, work and relationships inside a machine that positioned Fosse in premium spots even though he was emotionally unequipped to handle it all, making Verdon's contributions, achievements, and resolve look even more impressive.
But the series has its stumbling blocks. First of these are intended audience and purpose. Fosse and Verdon are not household names, even if they should be, which begets the questions: Why these people? Why this story? Why now? Though it does take a minute for the point to gel, Fosse/Verdon does get around to challenging the mythology of the singular, brilliant male genius, but viewers have to come to this series with some knowledge and interest of this important duo to really appreciate this story and that insight. None of that is germane to the actual production necessarily, although it's related to the second tough spot for Fosse/Verdon, and that's the way it's told.
From the beginning, producers frame the story with a somewhat unusual device: a date and location stamp that serves as a countdown clock to Fosse's death. It's an awkward trick, and it reappears throughout the episodes to acknowledge other milestones in the Fosse/Verdon world, snapping the viewer out of flow for no justifiable reason. Same with sequences that mock the time-space continuum via flashbacks, imagined dance routines, and self-indulgent breaks of the fourth wall that don't serve the story. Indeed, there's a moment in Episode 3 when a self-pitying Fosse calls a slice of Cabaret a "two-minute jerk off" that doesn't move the story forward or say anything about characters -- an irony not lost on people soldering through the material. Sam Rockwell gets the job done as Fosse, but he can bring only so much freshness to the hard-drinking, womanizing, "enfant terrible genius working through childhood traumas" archetype Fosse made famous in the first place.
Despite its missteps, Fosse/Verdon is one of the best dramas of the year; musical theater nerds will gorge on the details in the recreations, and laymen can feast on the sumptuous design and the universally appealing tale of two people struggling to make their relationship, careers, and family work. Ignore its distractions and Fosse/Verdon is a savory, decadent treat, but ignoring Michelle Williams means depriving yourself of a show-stopping performance.
Fosse/Verdon premieres Tuesday, Apr. 9 at 10/9c on FX.