It took a certain kind of woman to marry a not-yet-published F. Scott Fitzgerald: gorgeous, intelligent, optimistic, self-assured, and a bit of a dupe. When Zelda Sayre (Christina Ricci) met her future husband (David Hoflin) — according to the half-hour bio-drama Z: The Beginning of Everything (Amazon) — he was already a hot mess: a flighty, low-level Army officer who cared more about finishing his first novel than training the soldiers under his command, even though they could be shipped off to France at any moment to fight in The Great War. A charmer when sober, Scott was prone to bellowing “I’m gonna be a famous writer someday!” at the barkeeps who threw him out of their establishments. It doesn’t matter that he was right; it’s never not pathetic to boast about something you haven’t actually done.
The most popular girl in muffled Montgomery, Alabama, Zelda saw Scott as the embodiment of the cosmopolitan exhilaration she aspired to. More importantly, she believed his promises that he’d become the voice of his generation. Available now, Z is teeteringly uneven, but steadily becomes engrossing as Zelda realizes that her marriage is as much a trap as it was an opportunity. Soon after the publication of his ecstatically received first novel, This Side of Paradise, Scott becomes her literary parasite and an even more insecure wastrel. Two fascinating questions emerge: What does it mean for Zelda to be a good wife to a fragile narcissist on whom she’s financially dependent, and how can she do it without losing her sense of self?
In recent years, Zelda Fitzgerald has been recast as a reservoir of talent dried up by sexist repression and mental illness. (Institutionalized regularly in the later part of her life, she likely suffered from bipolar disorder.) Based on author Therese Anne Fowler’s Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald, the series has little interest in feminist recuperation. Nor is there any hint of, let alone sensitivity toward, her mood struggles. Instead, this Zelda’s a carefree party girl — a proto-Kardashian who makes the society pages for looking great while getting her drink on. It’d be a stretch to call her a dilettante. “It’s not like you’re doing anything,” sniffs actress Tallulah Bankhead (Christina Bennett Lind), who’s as impressed by her long-time friend as the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay (Lucy Walters) is, which is to say, not at all. Those women achieve. Zelda just is.
Scott notices his wife’s effortlessness, too, and you can’t quite blame him for resenting that her words arrive on the page with so much less sweat. Z moves quickly, but the first few episodes still feel slow: We can’t wait until Scott and Zelda finally agree to enter the modern age together, not least because neither is as unchained from the past as they think they are. Once the Fitzgeralds arrive in New York, the sets and costumes are as luxe as anything on TV, and the show gets to work on revising our ideas about the flapper era. Back in Alabama, an impetuous Zelda silently invites Scott to dance by kissing another man. On the night of her wedding, the bride shuts down a boozy carouse by out-wilding the revelers with a public (and naked) declaration of her horniness for her groom. At a Fitzgerald party, anything goes: bare breasts, gay sex, threesomes in the middle of a crowded backyard. No amount of confetti will make Baz Luhrmann’s The Great Gatsby this fun.
But the heart of the series is Zelda and Scott’s marriage — a love story almost instantly marred by the unequal standing between husband and wife. Perhaps it’s closer to a horror tale, like that of Bluebeard’s bride — a woman discovers that her new spouse isn’t the man she’d thought, let alone hoped. Z gradually reveals the different but invariably selfish ways Scott is dependent on Zelda, as well as the crucial secrets he keeps from her. That his creativity was monumental enough to make him one of America’s foremost novelists doesn’t make him any less of a bullshit artist. Z illustrates just how disappointing, even humiliating, being a bullshit artist’s wife could be.
Unfortunately, the show is nearly as dull or cringe-inducing as it is engaging and insightful. Clunky lines, like “You’re as good a writer as there is, Scott Fitzgerald,” abound, and Hoflin can’t convincingly pull off his first “darling girl” to Ricci. (Both in their thirties, the lead actors look a bit long in the tooth to play the college-age Scott and the teenage Zelda in the first few episodes.) But right when an episode swerves too much into formula, it corrects itself with an unexpected gag or a particularly moving line reading. After letting his ego get the better of him again, Scott glumly eats the unlit cigarette that should have comforted him. Earlier in the season, when he proposes to Zelda, her father (David Strathairn) pleads with her one last time, “You don’t have to do this, you know” — demonstrating once more that he truly doesn’t understand her. And yet you can’t imagine Scott and Zelda with anyone else when they’re in their matching linen pantsuits, joined by a love of mischief. His confidence is languid; hers, bouncy. Neither thinks about tomorrow, though they desperately should. Seldom do soul mates seem so much in need of rescue from each other.