Director Bob Fosse has been considered problematic, a workhorse, an adulterer, and a genius. His legacy from years as a director and choreographer has made him a legend of stage and screen. His third wife, Gwen Verdon was a legend herself. Verdon had already captured three Tony Awards by the time the two wed in 1960. Yet Fosse’s serial infidelity uprooted their family on numerous occasions. For a couple that could rule Broadway, Fosse and Verdon were constantly at odds. FX’s new series on their relationship, “Fosse/Verdon,” looks to bring their incredible collaborations to life. With Sam Rockwell and Michelle Williams playing the respective icons, FX struck Emmy gold.
“Fosse/Verdon” follows the famed couple over the course of their relationship. The series opens with Fosse (Rockwell) directing “Sweet Charity,” a film that would go on to be a bomb for Universal. Even with good reviews, many attributed Verdon (Williams) as the savior of the film. We later see their intense collaborations on other projects, including “Cabaret,” “Damn Yankees,” and her dramatic acting career. The two reach incredible heights creatively, even as Fosse’s self-destructive tendencies take a toll on their relationship.
Plenty will be written about the spectacular performances at the center of the series. Thomas Kail, a veteran director of the stage, will be the revelation for TV fans. He showcases total control over every aspect of the project. He masterfully captures the intimacy of Fosse and Verdon’s relationship, competition, and partnership. Utilizing extreme close-ups on many of the performers, he lets their emotional performances shine.
The editing is flashy, bouncing between time periods and even allowing for in-shot flashbacks. The cinematography and sound design further enhance Kail’s vision. The sound design, in particular, features ambitious craftwork for the small screen. The sound team combines the scores, the ricochet of tap dancing, and sounds of the theater to place you inside the minds of the dynamic creators. Kail brings some of Fosse’s experimentalism to television. In the process “Fosse/Verdon” becomes one of the more unique television experiences of the decade.
Showrunner Steven Levenson deserves immense credit for digging into the unsavory parts of the relationship. Every moment between the two feels like the struggle to hold their lives together. He also allows Kail to experiment with the visual language of the show but does not let that detract from the narrative. Together Levenson and Kail make for a brilliant combination. Each episode breathes on its own while playing into the grand narrative of their tumultuous relationship. You’ll get swept up in the story and want more from the end of the first episode.
Unsurprisingly, Rockwell runs through the scenes like a tornado. Fosse becomes a fully realized legend in the actor’s hands. He brings all the good and bad tendencies of Fosse to life with surprising realism. Even the way he lets the cigarette hang from his lips as he spits direction feels transformative. Rockwell brings emotional complexity to a man who could never stop his fast and dangerous style of living. He also proves more than capable of performing the dance numbers. This is easily career-best work. Like Roy Schneider in “All That Jazz,” he captures all of Fosse’s charisma and electricity that made him an icon.
Michelle Williams brings Verdon to life with internal and subtle work. We’ve seen Williams’ talent as a dramatic actress over the years. “Fosse/Verdon” gives her the ability to really dive into the actress. She embodies the traits of mid-century performers, often playing up the bubbly aspects of her personality in public. Yet when Williams uses her eyes to bring the levels of pain into Verdon’s story, it is undeniably effective at striking at our emotions. While the camera occasionally lingers on Williams for too long, her performance feels authentic. Even as you find strands of Williams’ past performances, she takes over for stretches that will make you forget about Rockwell.
When the two work together, they riff off each other expertly. The fights showcase the fire between them, with ratatat comebacks that look to lay each other out. Their brutal honesty and chemistry are undeniable. You question why they would ever share the screen with someone else. They’re magnetic, and they rise to the challenge of carrying the attention of the audience in nearly every frame of the series. “Fosse/Verdon” never had to sell us on the talent of each performer, but you’ll be happy they never hold back.
“Fosse/Verdon” pops off the screen with fun and experimental visuals. The work is worthy of the two icons extraordinary careers. Levenson and Kail should be clearing their mantles for hardware for the impressive work on the series. Expect “Fosse/Verdon” to get dark, deep, and emotionally crippling. Yet it will undeniably be one of the most talked about experiences on television this Emmy season.