How did Netflix make a story about fashion, parties, drugs, and a larger-than-life central figure so boring? The new miniseries “Halston” accomplishes this feat through a shockingly shallow look at an engaging central figure.
“Halston” tells the story of the eponymous milliner-turned-designer throughout his personal highs and lows between the early ’60s and late ’80s. Ewan McGregor plays the titular Roy Halston with commitment, charm, and energy lacking in the rest of the series.
It’s almost become a cliché itself to deride a biopic for being formulaic and shallow, offering little more to illuminate the inner life of the subject matter than a cursory glance at his Wikipedia page. This broad-strokes derision is often an oversimplification, as even paint-by-numbers offerings such as “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “Yves Saint Laurent” can be wildly entertaining and demonstrate some depth.
You would think a five-episode miniseries would give the story a little more time to explore the narrative and central figure beyond the familiar beats of early success, explosive fame, toxic relationship and drug abuse, low point where all seems hopeless, and triumphant return. Yet somehow, the series feels even more rushed than many movies. The script is somehow simultaneously dense and sparse of any real emotion, conflict, or plot. With a few merciful exceptions, the dialogue is almost all exposition, as much of the action happens off-camera. Going in, I did not know Ryan Murphy was involved, but his shallow, substance-less aesthetic is clear throughout.
Hearing the central characters tepidly describe the plot points skipped over during the many time jumps is maddening. Sometimes this gambit can work when the reflection provides a new perspective born of hindsight that recontextualizes the action and illuminates character development. Narratives that can deftly strike this delicate “Into the Woods” balance are few and far between, however, and “Halston” certainly is not one.
Far too many sequences include characters describing past events that would have been far more engaging than what is depicted on screen. It is not until the fifth and final episode — easily the miniseries’ strongest — that the plot has any momentum and characters, themes, and story arcs are developed.
This substantially harms the relationships. The show seems far more interested in Halston’s sex life than the development of the romances. Halston and his love interests transition from sex scenes to screaming matches or cold distance with little time given to the developed bond in between. It is hard to care about relationships about which we know so little.
Likewise, the sex scenes are wildly frustrating. Every episode, save for the final, contains at least one incredibly graphic moment, which does little to move the story or relationships forward. The scenes are gratuitous and not helped by McGregor’s nonexistent chemistry with the boyfriends. If the sex scenes and montages of cocaine use and Studio 54 parties were even somewhat shortened to be replaced with any character development, the show would be substantially more engaging.
The worst victim of this treatment is Halston’s talent. The script cannot go more than a few minutes without reminding viewers that its protagonist is a “visionary,” an “artist,” or a “genius,” usually through his friends and partners merely calling him a genius and hoping the audience never asks for proof.
Many scenes transpire in Halston’s atelier or fashion shows, and the outfits shown are lovely, but rarely is the act of creation depicted, even as his process is detailed in frustratingly dry conversations. The two scenes that break this habit occur in the latter half and demonstrate the show’s missed potential.
The first sees Halston and his team designing a wedding look for his close friend, Liza Minnelli. As the characters brainstorm, Halston’s creativity and talent shine through, but the show isn’t interested in this discussion; rather, it is background for the glowering of Halston’s off-again-on-again boyfriend.
In the uncharacteristically strong fifth episode, Halston, having lost his atelier and foolishly sold his name, agrees to design costumes for a ballet as a favor to a friend. Enlisting the support of the man who took over his company, the pair design the costume in an inspired montage depicting the trial and error, as well as the creative spark that characters spend the entire series assuring viewers Halston has.
The cast serves as a saving grace for this thankless show, centered by a truly gifted leading man. If there’s any reason to put yourself through the clumsily-written show, it’s for the performances.
McGregor is charismatic and engaging, bringing hints of humanity to his shallow, almost caricatured role. He balances the mercurial designer’s wit, tantrums, and genuine heartbreak, clearly relishing every minute of portraying this over-the-top man. He likewise injects the quieter, more intimate moments, few and far between as they are, with a hint of complexity hiding behind shallow eccentricity. His face and subtle vocal inflections truly elevate the material. The scene where his triumphant return to fashion is toasted by the critics is truly spectacular.
McGregor is supported by some excellent performances, particularly Bill Pullman as the fashion brand’s financial backer. Kelly Bishop as publicist Eleanor Lambert and Mary Beth Peil as dancer Martha Graham likewise shine in their small but memorable roles.
The show completely belongs to Krysta Rodriguez, however, in her supporting turn as Halston’s friend, confidante, and muse, Liza Minnelli. Rodriguez is outstanding in the role, leaping off the screen with an incomparable presence and likability. She is helped by the fact that Minnelli is one of the better-written characters, allowed occasionally to have conversations that are not exclusively expository, but Rodriguez even manages to make those boring, awkwardly-written monologues sound both natural and engaging.
“Halston” is decidedly disappointing. Flashes of intelligence and charm are few and far between, and McGregor and Rodriguez are not enough to save this mess of a miniseries. For so engaging a subject, it commits an unforgivable sin: It bores.