BINGE-R #26: Z: The Beginning of Everything + Greenleaf
Z: THE BEGINNING OF EVERYTHING S1
Streaming Service: Amazon Prime Video
Availability: All 10 episodes now streaming
Regret lingers in Z: The Beginning of Everything, the Amazon period drama about the brief, bright youth of Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife of The Great Gatsby author F. Scott Fitzgerald. “It was always about me,” reflects Christina Ricci’s Zelda in the opening scene, which reference’s the character’s eventual death in a 1947 hospital fire as well as her literary inspiration, but the southern belle who became a Jazz Age figurehead is never truly satisfied. The show’s first season takes Zelda from a stultifying upbringing in Alabama to the high life in New York, but doubt follows her. If only the series could have done more with that.
It’s been too long since Christina Ricci had a worthy role, and from the period richness of the first episode onwards she suggests the entire arc of Zelda’s increasingly fractious life with her performance. The trade-off for such technical experience is years – Ricci is twice Zelda’s age playing the wayward daughter of a reproachful judge (David Strathairn). “Their youth was striking,” Dorothy Parker would note of the Fitzgerald’s, but there’s a maturity to both Ricci and David Hoflin’s F. Scott, the WWI army officer and hopeful author who courts 18-year-old Zelda Sayre, that works against their tumbling moods.
Created by Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (the American remake of The Killing), Z: The Beginning of Everything uses half hour episodes, suggesting concise chapters spread over the couple’s first four years together (their Paris sojourn is yet to feature). For decades Zelda was an adjunct to Scott’s career, often blamed for his own fading fortunes, and the show rightly addresses how she was not only someone Scott avidly wrote about but also a source of text via her own writings. Both the scripts and the camera are besotted with Zelda, but sometimes that serves to distance her when illumination is what’s required.
The latter episodes, with Zelda and Scott as a celebrated married couple with money problems and a knack for throwing a debauched party, are a little more nuanced, but none of the supporting cast really come into sharp, supple focus and the direction is capable but cautious. Z: The Beginning of Everything looks the part but it’s actually a touch shallow, becoming what Zelda fears her life will be: a lost opportunity.
>> Bonus Binge: Both Netflix and Amazon have Christina Ricci’s headline performance alongside Johnny Depp in Tim Burton’s fine 1999 Gothic horror film Sleepy Hollow.
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 13 episodes now streaming
An African-American drama with pulpits and palpitations, Greenleaf does for the megachurch what Empire did for the record company: locates it as a source of family power, laces it with intrigue, and lets the culture’s excesses seep to the surface. Originally produced for the Oprah Winfrey Network – she’s also an executive producer and part of the supporting cast – Greenleaf doesn’t have the loopy twists and high drama of Empire, but it’s a decent plot-driven soap. The first scene ends with one character ominously asking another, “Is that the lake where Aunt Faith…?” and you know the word she’s looking for isn’t ‘baptised’.
The prodigal child come home after 20 years, Grace Greenleaf (Merle Dandridge) re-joins the family business, the 4000-capacity Memphis church run by her charismatic father and ruthless mother, Bishop James (Keith David) and Lady Mae Greenleaf (Lynn Whitfield). Living together, the clan quickly reveals that mysterious death, a philandering son, a jealous younger sister, her husband who has doubts about his sexuality, great wealth obtained through God’s word, a third teenage generation getting high on church grounds, and allegations of sexual abuse involving James’ brother and fixer, Mac (Gregory Alan Williams).
The many storylines – I almost forgot one: Grace’s teenage love, Noah (Benjamin Patterson), is now the church’s handsome head of security – come with some sweet shade. “A strength like yours is best expressed in stillness,” Lady Mae coolly tells one upstart, but Greenleaf is also interesting for the value it places on the church’s role within the black community. For all the wrongs lurking within the organisation, and their possible enablers, the idea of belief as a comfort and not a cause is never really questioned. If you dig shows such as Revenge this might be satisfying, but if not you’re going to need some faith to stick with it.
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