Amazon’s new series Z: The Beginning of Everything is very clear about one thing: Being the muse of a drunken, brooding genius is not easy.
At least in its first season, which debuts today, the series follows the early years of the marriage of the couple who arguably invented the “famous for being famous” phenomenon, novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda Sayre, widely considered to be the first “flapper.” Lovers of Fitzgerald’s work and lovers of the raucous Jazz Age will definitely want to check Z out. The series has its flaws, but it anatomizes a passionate and wildly dysfunctional relationship in great detail.
Christina Ricci, Christina Ricci, Christina Ricci. She might not be the teenager Zelda was in 1918, but her performance as the title character is great. She’s eminently believable as a smart, feisty young woman who’s a little on the wild side for early 20th century Montgomery, Alabama. She’s witty, ebullient and intense, and you don’t need to get more than a few minutes into the first episode to see where things are headed. (Hint: from frying pan to fire.) She handles Zelda’s oscillations from confident to completely lost with aplomb.
Has David Strathairn ever been non-awesome? He’s riveting as Zelda’s authoritarian, remote father (Anthony Sayre was an Alabama Supreme Court Justice and, according to the script, one hell of a stickler for manners and propriety.)
The decadence and recklessness of 1920s socialites feels spot-on, from Fitzgerald’s debonair-but-debauched Princeton cronies to the hilarious portrayals of Tallulah Bankhead and Edna St. Vincent Millay. (Big props to Christina Bennett Lind, Natalie Knepp and Lucy Walters, as well as to Kristine Nielsen, who plays Zelda’s indulgent, probably-doing-some-vicarious-thrill-seeking mother.) The excitement and the novelty feel real, and the depressing aftermath does, too—thanks, in part, to Tim Orr’s beautiful cinematography, and to Tim Blake Nelson’s lovely direction of the pilot.
The main downside is that David Hoflin’s performance as F. Scott Fitzgerald feels forced and dull much of the time, especially considering the potential of the character. We get the sense of a temperamental pain in the ass, by turns grandiose and wildly insecure, who can’t quite decide whether his wife is his mother or his possession or something else entirely. We definitely get that Fitzgerald has a wee bit of a drinkiepoo problem. But we’re talking about a legendarily passionate romance here, and there has to be chemistry. I didn’t really feel it.
Zelda lived much of her life in the public eye, and we know a fair amount about her—including what would be coming down the pike in a second season. It can be a huge challenge to present a compelling vision of such people, to take a novel look (as it were) at a famous person from the past while remaining true to the facts of his or her life.
Fact: Zelda Fitzgerald was married to an alcoholic who flagrantly plagiarized from her letters and journals.
Fact: She loved him anyway.
Fact: Her late years were not a party and she suffered a tragic death.
Ricci’s portrayal gives us an intriguing glimpse of Zelda as her flamboyant, risk-taking, passionate younger self, but she also offers plenty of glimpses of the much more tormented woman Zelda will become. Critics can and no doubt will quibble about minutiae of pacing or veracity or directorial choices or any number of other things, and that’s fine. This series is worth your time for a lot of reasons, but Christina Ricci’s portrayal of the incandescent, defiant, but also lost and troubled Zelda Fitzgerald is probably the biggest one.
Z: The Beginning of Everything premieres today on Amazon Prime.