In the biographical drama “Z: The Beginning of Everything,” Christina Ricci plays Zelda Sayre, a rebellious Southern belle later enshrined in literary legend as Zelda Fitzgerald, the wife, muse and partner in Jazz Age heck-raising of the writer F. Scott. Still later, beginning with Nancy Milford’s best-selling, 1970 biography, “Zelda,” she was emancipated from that partnership, as someone to take seriously in her own right.
Adapted from Therese Anne Fowler’s historical novel by the team of Nicole Yorkin and Dawn Prestwich (“The Killing”), the series premieres in its 10-episode entirety Friday on Amazon Prime. I’m not a fan of biographical pictures, generally, which tend to fail the ordinary complexity of their subjects even as they magnify their glamour. But television — as it has lately shown with excellent series such as “The Crown” and “Victoria” — has an advantage here over film.
There is time to stretch out, to include mere human behavior among the historical high points. The conversation can drift into corners and not just economically restate research. The first season takes the Fitzgeralds only from their 1918 meeting, in Montgomery, Ala., where Scott was stationed during the First World War, into 1921, before he had published his second novel.
As is often the case in biographical dramas, the best scenes are the ones that don’t attempt to recreate Great Moments of History. The pilot, directed by Tim Blake Nelson, set in Montgomery when Zelda’s claims to fame are that she’s “extremely talented at talking my way out of trouble” and is “rumored to have the most kissable mouth in town” is especially good — unusually convincing for an American period piece, short on style but brimming with detail and almost casually evoking the expectations and frustrations of lives on the brink of life.
There are several marvelous performances, notably David Strathairn as Zelda’s father, Judge Sayre — stern at first, softer later — and Kristine Nielsen as her mother, warm and indulgent. As Scott, David Hoflin does well enough with the difficult job of capturing a person about whom history has not really made up its mind; as well remembered for his alcoholism, insecurity and pettiness as his generosity, insight and genius — his strengths and weaknesses are still debated among people interested in debating those things. There are Scott camps and Zelda camps, with different ideas about who inspired or held back whom. (Like Scott, “Z” sometimes borrows from her own writing for its dialogue.)
But Zelda, as the title suggests, is the heroine here, and Ricci, always playing a person rather than a personality, is the reason to watch. It’s a subtle evocation of a famously electrifying character, free from grand gestures, centered behind her eyes. Although the actress is 35, she has the skin and form and quickness to play Zelda as a rule-breaking teenager, smoking and drinking and dancing with soldiers, swimming naked, running in the rain. But Ricci makes her impulsiveness feel oddly mature, even spiritual. When she’s not around, we wait for her return — as we do not wait for Scott in his absences.
Is this the “real Zelda”? It doesn’t matter.
Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles TimesDavid Strathairn