Zelda Sayre Fitzgerald is a longtime object of fascination; Southern belle, wild flapper icon, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s partner in public alcoholism as well as unwitting muse and fodder for his novels, and finally, tragic victim of mental illness and her controlling husband.
Zelda’s life has posthumously become something of a pet project of feminist excavators who are hellbent on rescuing her legacy from the smothering patriarchal grip of history — and not without cause. She wrote her own novel, Save Me the Waltz, parts of which were censored by her husband and then lost, while “Scott” often lifted passages from her diary and plopped them into his acclaimed novels.
Thus, biographies (especially Nancy Mitford’s) and fictional accounts of her life abound; to this impressive collection we can now add the pilot for an Amazon series, Z: The Beginning of Everything, based on the Therese Anne Fowler novel of the same name. Given its half-hour running time, I assume this bio-series is categorized as a “dramedy.” And in the pilot, at least, Christina Ricci as Zelda Sayre has gone full Teen Steel Magnolia, speaking in a deep Southern accent and simpering and sneering and fully inhabiting the role.
Zelda’s favorite activities are skinny dipping at her local watering hole, wandering through town without shoes or stockings, threatening her family’s respectability by dancing “cheek to cheek” with men, and worst of all, showing up late to family dinner. Her papa, “The Judge” (David Stratharn), calls her a hussy and admonishes her every few hours; her mama helps her sneak out the window to go to local dances, while urging caution in the form of corsets and stockings. Zelda figures she’s doing her patriotic duty by necking with as many future soldiers as she can, considering the awful fate they’re about to encounter in the muddy fields of France.
Yet Zelda longs for something more, a chance to escape her town, where the available men strike her as mere boys, who neither read nor harbor opinions about much beyond football. So when “Princeton man” F. Scott Fitzgerald shows up in uniform and toting a copy of Sister Carrie, we know something major is brewing. The pilot closes suggestively, as the two are about to dance for the first time, a fateful encounter that fueled one of the most dramatic literary marriages in history, which inspired and/or destroyed its participants, depending on the interpretation. Roll credits.
Stratharn and Ricci are lively antagonists, although the episode’s short running time offers them little material, most of which is limited to the Judge scolding (“I saw you kissing that Yankee!”) and Zelda rebelling. The show’s visuals are strong, too: Zelda’s period costumes are stunning, and there’s an effectively swampy Southern atmosphere.
The most disappointing facet of Z is its dialogue, which is gratingly anachronistic and delivered in a Southern drawl (“That’s why last night was so fun!” Zelda whispers, sounding like she is in an episode of Girls: Alabama). One of the joys of Jazz Age or pre-Jazz Age life was its unique slang, the kind that seems dated now (“tight” meant drunk, and so on). Reading an F. Scott Fitzgerald novel, even a dark one, is fun partly because of the hip, poetic way his characters talk. I wish we could see more of this in Z — and frankly, I don’t understand why so many period dramas feel compelled to make their characters talk like they are on a contemporary teen soap (even Mad Men was occasionally guilty of this). Do they think viewers are so simple-minded that we can’t deal with an occasional linguistic throwback?
Yet despite its lack of subtle wordplay, Z is less obvious than its sister Amazon pilot Good Girls Revolt, letting Ricci’s dynamic acting lead us into Zelda’s story rather than hitting us over the head with the significance of each development. And viewers have the benefit of knowing that at least some major adventures await Zelda. Though the pilot takes us no closer to really knowing how a half-hour drama will portray those adventures, viewers should at least be curious enough to see Ricci-as-Zelda conquer hearts and Manhattan and the Riviera as she has already done in Alabama.