NEW YORK (CNS) — Streaming now on Amazon Prime, “Z: The Beginning of Everything” upends the conventional understanding of one of the 20th century’s most famous marriages.
Specifically, this revisionist drama series rejects the widespread belief that famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald’s relationship with his mentally unstable wife, Zelda, significantly attenuated his literary output.
In the pilot episode, Zelda (Christina Ricci) says, in a voiceover, “Once I wanted something and got it. It was the only thing I ever wanted.” Juxtaposed with this is a quotation from Scott (David Hoflin) indicating that meeting Zelda “was the beginning of everything” for him.
Replete with choice profanities and sexual content, “Z” is strictly for adults only. While the program is accurate in its portrayal of the way the couple lived, especially where their excessive drinking is concerned, its depiction of nudity — especially one striking moment of full frontal exposure — is gratuitous.
Based on Therese Ann Fowler’s 2013 novel “Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald,” the series is available for streaming in 10 installments of roughly 30 minutes each. Even in a time when viewers can watch TV at their convenience, five one-hour segments probably would have made more sense. Then again, it’s simple enough to binge on back-to-back episodes.
“Z” follows the couple from their courtship in Zelda’s home town of Montgomery, Alabama, through the 1920 publication of Scott’s wildly successful first novel, “This Side of Paradise,” and on to their first years of marriage living in New York City and Westport, Connecticut.
Viewers well versed in Fitzgerald lore will naturally wonder how this time spent on the shores of Long Island Sound might have influenced Fitzgerald’s 1925 masterpiece, “The Great Gatsby.”
Culturally conservative 1918 Montgomery was about the least likely place for the couple — who later came to epitomize the Jazz Age — to meet. As portrayed in the first episode of “Z,” 21-year-old Scott, an Army lieutenant stationed nearby while training to fight in World War I, is captivated when he observes 17-year-old Zelda Sayre at a county club dance.
The youngest daughter of stern and remote Judge Anthony Sayre (David Strathairn) and his sympathetic and encouraging wife Minnie (Kristine Nielsen), Zelda impulsively kisses boys in public, believes in free love, and is a suffragette. Reliably wonderful, Strathairn makes the most of his small, yet pivotal role, and Nielsen also delivers a winsome performance.
Fitzgerald is desperate to the point of neediness to marry his new love. But Zelda insists he finish “Paradise” before she will give her consent. Some viewers may be surprised by the show’s accurate portrayal of Scott happily lifting whole sections of the book straight from Zelda’s diaries. Even the title is based on her writings, not his.
So long as the newlyweds are living high off the book’s success, Zelda is pleased to be Scott’s collaborator. But eventually — dragged down by their endless drinking binges and Zelda’s extravagant spending — the couple is compelled to quit their profligate lifestyle as residents of New York’s Biltmore Hotel.
Scott’s purloining of Zelda’s words then becomes a source of recrimination from her. By the time the 10th episode unspools, Scott’s infidelity also threatens their tenuous union.
Something off-kilter in Ricci’s eyes serves her well as the impulsive, creative — if erratic — force-of-nature Zelda. Youthful enough to play a much younger woman, Ricci, you sense, also possesses the maturity to age appropriately as she plays the older Zelda.
Acting her heart out, Ricci, who also serves as the series’ executive producer, deserves any praise she’s earned for the role, which demonstrates that Zelda was the catalyst for her husband’s early success.
Hoflin, however, is a mismatched foil for Ricci. Having largely played supporting roles on TV, the Australian actor fails to live up to the challenge of his first starring turn.
He doesn’t convey the charm and charisma that Zelda must have seen in Scott. Instead, most notably when he returns to Princeton University and upbraids his old professors for failing to appreciate his talent, and while attempting to curry favor with wealthy students, Hoflin’s Scott comes across as a petulant jerk.
It may be interesting to see what Ricci will do with Zelda as the Fitzgeralds’ bonds fray and their lives spiral downward. But Hoflin’s weak performance may temper viewers’ enthusiasm for more episodes.
Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.