Reasons To Watch Z: The Beginning Of Everything

Photo: Rivelli/Amazon/Rex/Shutterstock
After Winona Ryder proved that there are many stranger things than a Netflix-fuelled comeback, the next '90s star to grace our (laptop) screens is the eternally youthful Christina Ricci. Amazon’s new biographical series Z: The Beginning Of Everything sees the actor – who found fame as a child in the Addams Family flicks – take on the role of Zelda Sayre, pioneering flapper girl and writer, who became best-known as the wife and muse of author F. Scott Fitzgerald.

Indeed, the show’s title is plucked from what is arguably Fitzgerald’s most famous work, The Great Gatsby, in which troubled pretender Jay Gatsby tells of his unrequited love for Daisy Buchanan – a moneyed Southern belle with shades of Sayre. The real-life couple’s relationship was equally tumultuous and both died young (Ricci recently told the Evening Standard that most people have a preconception of Sayre as “this crazy alcoholic who ruined F. Scott Fitzgerald’s life”). However, it seems there’s a lot more to the story.

So, why should we be watching?

It’s soapy without feeling trashy


Z
is a historical romance-turned-tragedy (albeit with a dash of artistic licence), set against a backdrop of war and social change and delivered in bite-sized, half-hour chunks that initially move along at a gentle pace. It isn't as slow as, say, Mad Men, but plenty of time in the opening episodes is dedicated to building up a picture of Zelda’s life in the town of Montgomery, Alabama, where she lives with her parents and sister. Her bolshy personality and the question of whether she’ll end up with northerner Fitzgerald is, at first, the main catalyst for the narrative (spoiler alert: she snogs some other boys along the way), before their destructive relationship becomes the show’s focus. It’s soapy without feeling like Gossip Girl with sequins – although Zelda’s overbearing mother is basically the '20s equivalent of Regina George’s mum in Mean Girls.

It’s set in the '20s

Here in Britain, our period drama landscape has long been dominated by the Dickensian familiarity of the Victorian era or the trenches of WWII, with the notable exceptions of Peaky Blinders and Downton. The roaring '20s – prohibition, mass consumerism and all – is a much richer period for US writers to mine and arguably overlooked on the small screen. The Jazz Age is at the heart of the show, although you’ll have to get through the end of the 1910s and Zelda’s meeting with soldier-slash-struggling writer Fitzgerald first. For those who found Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby something of an assault on the senses, however, Z eases you into the decade more delicately – and there’s no will.i.am on the soundtrack, which is always a plus.
Photo: Rivelli/Amazon/Rex/Shutterstock
"The beginning" is also the end

Flashing forward to later events is a clever framing device, both in books and on screen (think Fight Club, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind). As Z opens, a fireman picks a single pink mule from the wreckage of a burnt-out house. “Things are sweeter when they’re lost, I know because once I wanted something and got it,” comes Ricci’s pained drawl. “It was the only thing I ever wanted badly. And when I got it, it turned to dust in my hands.” The real-life Zelda died in a fire in an institution in 1948, having struggled with her mental health for much of her life, and from the outset there is no attempt to sanitise this part of the story. In the following scene we see a young, carefree Zelda, laughing and plunging naked into a river – highlighting her extreme nature.

There’s eye candy

As well as Ricci, who – most bizarrely for a 36-year-old with a toddler – is entirely believable as a teenage Zelda, there’s Fitz himself, played by Swedish-Australian actor David Hoflin. The former Neighbours star follows in the footsteps of fellow Ramsay St resident Margot Robbie, who appeared alongside Ricci in the short-lived airline drama Pan Am. Here, he plays a heavily Brylcreemed Fitzgerald who verges from brooding and dickish to a little bit gawky. Pursuing the feisty Ms Sayre by blowing up her phone until she agrees to go on a date with him, they're torn apart when he has to return to the war. You sort of get the feeling he’ll be back before too long, though.

... But there’s also feminism

The opening episodes depict Zelda as a big fish in a tiny pond, aggravating her father – the local judge – with her nonchalance and awful timekeeping. Even once she’s left that stifling small-town life, she still needs to stand up for herself, confronting Scott for plagiarising her ideas, as he frequently did in real life (attagirl!). As gaslighting becomes more and more visible on screen, it feels important to give a voice to the maltreated women of times gone by. But the feminism of Z runs far deeper: Ricci approached Amazon with the idea to make the programme, having read Therese Fowler’s book Z: A Novel of Zelda Fitzgerald and discovered that no one owned the rights. It is a show about a woman, based on a novel by a woman, exec-produced by and starring a woman. Oh, and two women – Dawn Prestwich and Nicole Yorkin (The Killing) – adapted it for TV. Told from the point of view of Zelda rather than her famous husband (and greatest rival), her story is allowed to take centre stage for the first time.

Z is available from Friday via Amazon Prime Video.
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