Tiny Pretty Things: The Melodrama that Ballet Deserves

(No spoilers except for one that doesn’t really count but I flag it anyway!)

I waited until after finishing the final episode of Tiny Pretty Things to read reviews online, and was not entirely surprised by the reactions. There was the predictable highbrow takedown in the New York Times, whose main advice was “don’t bother,” expressing utter shock–and we are talking pearl clutching *shock*–that a Netflix melodrama about young dancers would include so much sex. There was a more positive but still lukewarm review in the Guardian that basically called the show harmless fun, and various other perspectives that lamented the show’s uneven acting and excessive and confusing subplots, comparing it (mostly unfavorably) to the likes of Centerstage or Fame.

In fact, the show owes more to How to Get Away with Murder than the likes of Centerstage, and indeed many elements seem like a clever “save as” of the Viola Davis hit: a diverse cast of young, talented, attractive students; antihero adults with their own bad habits and secrets; dark and brooding interior spaces; a fast-paced and high stakes professional environment; and excessive and sometimes confusing subplots. And yes, like so many successful tv melodramas, there is a lot of sex: sex between the students, sex between the students and some of the adults, and sex between the students and other non-students, with a lot of the sex taking place in dark and brooding interior spaces fuled by the pressures of the fast-paced and high stakes environment in which the students and adults find themselves and occasioned by the excessive and sometimes confusing subplots. 

If you aren’t able to take pleasure in what Tiny Pretty Things is, it’s not surprising that you’ll miss out on some of the interesting dynamics and messages lurking beneath all the sex, drugs, violence, and everything else that compels us to binge watch tv melodramas. To put a finer point on it: faulting the show for too much sex or unbelievable plot twists and soap-opera acting is missing the point, because mixed in with the melodramatic tropes is some good dancing as well as a not entirely unrealistic depiction of some of the not so pretty realities of the culture of contemporary ballet pedagogy and performance. 

As was the case with Mozart in the Jungle, which pledged allegiance to classical music in the form of celebrity cameos and other insider nods, Tiny Pretty Things creates a pretty believable version of the world of ballet, in no small part thanks to the core cast of actors who do their own dancing. This means no editing is necessary as the students move seamlessly from dancing to other activities, and it also means we get to see a lot of actual dancing in every episode, something in short supply on mainstream platforms. By making this choice the creative team perhaps knew they were creating a critical Catch-22, that is, by casting dancer-actors you are not likely to get either the very best actors or the very best dancers, since almost no one falls into that narrow category. It’s baffling that no one acknowledges this simple fact when critiquing the show’s acting or dancing, but for me the pleasure of seeing a “real” cast of dancers was enough to look past anything else.

The writers and producers were smart to add real-life and big-name ballet ethos to the proceedings, tapping none other than Tiler Peck to pop in for a few episodes. Peck plays a version of her actual self: an accomplished soloist and choreographer who has embraced her celebrity to popularize ballet and is coming to cast students from the Archer School in a special music video project. As in other moments in the show, Peck’s appearance includes a few well chosen turns of phrase only obvious to the initiated, such as when she is convincing one of the students to join one of her projects, as she says that it will be like “when Misty toured with Prince.” Peck’s acting will not likely get her an Emmy, but that’s why I loved her even more for appearing in the show. Having Tiler Peck giving a Charlize Theron-level performance was not the point. Just like her character’s interest in embracing popular media, Peck was willing to run the risk of appearing in the show since it might help a few people get interested in ballet or facilitate a conversation about how it needs to change, and her character arrives as an embodiment of positive energy and change.

Peck serves as a crucial foil for perhaps the most interesting character and the beating heart of the plot, the tragic figure who leads the Archer School, Madame DuBois. “Madame,” as she is known to all characters regardless of their status in the ballet hierarchy, does not seem to even have a first name, which is perhaps her character’s most perfect trait. Fully embodying if not metaphorically consumed by her cosmopolitan honorific, Madame is the product of a system in which she now wields supreme power, and as a result she is by turns feared, revered, loved, hated, flattered, and undermined, sometimes in the same scene or even the same sentence. In the later episodes a few layers of the onion are peeled back, allowing us to understand how much she had to give up to be “Madame” and making us understand how hard she had to fight to maintain her arcane parochial status and title.

Madame has a killer wit and an even more killer body even as she has long left a career on the stage behind, turning out looks and phrases that would make the shadiest drag queen snap and giving off Showgirls or Dynasty levels of power campiness. It’s never fun to realize that an accomplished female lead character has become so accomplished despite (or more often because of) some profound traumas and tortured compromises, but in this sense Tiny Pretty Things is keeping things real. Unlike the anachronistic feminist holograms on other streaming shows (looking at you, Mrs. Maisel and Patti LuPone in Hollywood) Madame DuBois might at least help us continue to grasp why Hillary Clinton is not settling into her second term as the forty-fifth President.

Let’s also acknowledge that if honorary degrees were awarded for passing the Bechdel Test, Tiny Pretty Things would earn a Ph.D. Relationships and scenes between women abound, among the students, between dancers and mothers, and of course between Madame and students and parents. A healthy percentage of the named male characters are not heterosexual, and the excessive sex scenes include some quite revealing male-male action. And while Madame is certainly not on the side of the angels, the people perpetrating the truly terrible things are mostly straight white dudes with gay and lesbian characters mostly there to right wrongs or at least mitigate the damage. 

Don’t get me wrong, there is also a lot to criticize about this show. The show indulges in some lazy and problematic tropes with respect to race and to a lesser extent class. Did the most layered black character really have to have the only mother in the show to have spent time in prison and a brother who is in a wheelchair? Did the other significant black character have to have a southern accent with no real backstory to go along with it, making it seem as authentic as a sombrero on Cinco de Mayo? Did the one Muslim character need to be portrayed with Homeland levels of mysterious brooding and danger? And when one of the main (white) characters seeks refuge from the toxicity of the school and her frosty WASP mother (who happens to be the chairman of the board) did she really have to go to a working class Little Italy style famiglia where the mother is always stirring sauce with one hand and drinking red wine and gesticulating emphatically with the other, all while her sensuous dark-haired children who are more in touch with their feelings and bodies dance to old-time popular music in the living room? In the end, Tiny Pretty Things fails to decenter the whiteness that is regrettably still at the core of ballet, which in some ways makes it a more timely and accurate barometer of the state of the art form. Because this is a melodrama and everything has to be on the surface, the show at least is obliged to throw these terrible dynamics into vibrant relief, as the diverse cast of dancers literally do battle against the corrupt white power structure. 

Indeed, halfway through the series in a somewhat throwaway scene, the detective attempting to unravel the core crime at the heart of the plot, and who happens to be a lesbian, almost throws in the towel, confessing that she thought by investingating the rules, order, and chain of command in ballet that it would help her “tease out the mysteries of another world [the US military] that still puts down women and silences dissent and controls the every waking moment of anyone dumb enough to walk in and join up.” Her commanding officer (a white guy, of course), makes an appeal to reason, telling her that “Ballet’s got nothing to do with what happened to that girl!” Her impassioned response made me clutch my pearls more than any of the show’s sex scenes: 

[Spoiler coming but not really since it’s pretty much revealed in the first five minutes of the show.]

“[Ballet] has everything to do with it, Dan. It’s not just one person who threw Cassie Shore off that ledge. It is four hundred years of this twisted, beautiful art form that the western world conspired to create. I have fought a lot of things, but I don’t have it in me to fight this.”

If nothing else had rung true in all of Tiny Pretty Things, the detective’s brief monologue had me nodding vigorously alone in front of my bourbon. My first thought was, yeah you got that right, detective, and I bet you haven’t even seen La Bayadère. And my second thought was that this must be a version of what Phil Chan or Chloe Angyal has to scream into their pillow or scrawl into their journals on a weekly basis. In other words, despite its faults, like so many problematic objects–including ballet itself–Tiny Pretty Things contains the kernels of its own critique. In fact, the inability of the show offer a nuanced depiction or actual critique of ballet is perhaps its most profound contribution to conversations about the art form today. Tiny Pretty Things may not be the melodrama that ballet wants, but it’s the one that it deserves.

3 thoughts on “Tiny Pretty Things: The Melodrama that Ballet Deserves

  1. And here I was thinking duBois’s first name was Monique

    which we learn in the first or second episode.

    Have just finished watching the last 2 episodes after a five-month break [began the weekend before Christmas time].

    • You are so right! I too watched the series over several months and her first name must have dropped out of the later episodes. I guess I would revise my observation so say that she is *practically* without a first name and does still embody the identity of “madame.”

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