So apparently it’s not enough that the Smash characters talk constantly about how awesome their friends and colleagues are when they sing and dance; now they’re talking about how awesome they imagine a performance must’ve been, from an incident an episode ago. When Julia explains to Tom that she couldn’t help but kiss Michael after he grunted that horrible version of “A Song For You” to her last week, Tom sighs, “I bet he sounded amazing.” And I’m sure in Tom’s head, he did sound amazing. And in Julia’s as well. On our actual TV screens, though? Not so much.
I must confess that the version of Smash in my head has also been more amazing thus far than the one that NBC has been airing. In these reviews I’ve been emphasizing the highs, and trying to shrug off the lows. But I couldn’t find too many highs this week, folks. The best musical performance came late (and was abbreviated); there was far too little of the show-making material that is Smash’s most compelling component; and the storytelling was scattered as usual (and directed toward some of Smash’s least likable characters and plotlines). After this episode was over, my wife was defending it a little, telling me that she still enjoys spending time with these actors each week. And so do I. Honestly and truly. I want to see Debra Messing, and Megan Hilty, and Jack Davenport, and Anjelica Huston, and even Katharine McPhee (who I seem to like a lot more than a lot of you guys do). I just don’t want to see Debra Messing in the kind of dorky “gotta give the star something to do” scenarios that the Smash writers have been drawing up for her over these first six episodes.
I’ll say this, though: If you’ve been hoping that Smash would ramp up the camp, then “Chemistry” was the episode for you. So many gloriously goofy moments, especially in the Julia sections. I hope that the Smash creators appreciate how funny it is to see a frazzled, flour-covered Julia burning pancakes while she’s daydreaming about her kiss with Michel, and that they laughed out loud (as I did) when Leo sullenly and woodenly complains to his mom about having to eat her “bad pancakes.” I also hope everyone involved with Smash was pleased with themselves when they came up with their multiple half-assed ways to reemphasize that Julia’s husband Frank is a chemistry teacher: like showing him shuffling through Periodic Table flash cards at the kitchen table, and having him sitting up in bed intently studying a chemistry textbook. Short of making Frank carry around a tube-clamp and a graduated cylinder, I can’t imagine many better ways for Theresa Rebeck and company to indicate how little they’ve thought about (or care about) who this character is.
As it stands, Frank—like Michael’s wife and baby—is just The Source Of Guilt that makes Julia’s sexy, pajama-clad 10 p.m. liaisons so scandalous. And since said liaisons eat up five or so minutes of airtime, they serve their purpose as far as the writers and producers are concerned. And for us, the home viewer? Well, at least Julia sneaking off with Michael in the middle of the night dislodges her writer’s block, and thus allows her finish the lyrics to “History Is Made At Night,” which is maybe my favorite song yet from Marilyn. And when Michael and Ivy are cooing that song to each other in rehearsal while snuggling up on the couch that Julia and Michael sullied the night before? Okay, that was legitimately fun, and not just cringe-fun.
But I’ll come back to that. First we have to tip our caps again to the phenomenal “we don’t give a shit”-itude of the Smash creative team, in regards to the ways the ways they found to make Karen look awkward and unprepared for a Long Island bar mitzvah gig. How about… she arrives late? And drops her music on the stage? And the microphone emits a feedback whine when she starts to sing? And she forgets the words to “Hava Nagila?” Any clichés left unrepresented?
Again though, as with the Julia storyline, Karen’s bar mitzvah adventure offers both painful moments and delightful ones. On the painful side, Karen’s performance of “Shake It Out”—which is supposed to prove how she can galvanize a crowd and get the attention of a major industry player—serves mainly as evidence that Katharine McPhee can’t even let out a convincing “Whoo!” (And I reiterate here: I like McPhee.) On the delightful side, when Ivy hears that Karen accepted the bar mitzvah gig that Ivy had passed on, and that Karen impressed the showbiz mogul Bobby Raskin, and that Karen doesn’t even know who Bobby Raskin is, the little exasperated “ugh” Ivy gives off is worth the whole trip to Long Island.
I’m less sure of what to think about all the time we spent with Eileen this week, because the painful/delightful breakdown here is a little less clean. It’s fairly unequivocal that Ellis weaseling his way into Eileen’s life and trying to help her find an apartment is painful. But is it delightful when Eileen starts slumming at bars that sell $7 martinis instead of $20 ones? Certainly I can’t deny that it’s a hoot to see Angelica Huston picking up a toy shotgun and playing Big Buck Hunter. But is it a “Debra Messing covered in pancake batter” kind of hoot, or a “Megan Hilty saying ‘ugh’” kind of hoot? I’m torn.
On the Marilyn side, the big news is that the workshop is coming up in a week, and that Eileen has lined up all sorts of famous folks to come watch, and perhaps to kick in money toward the $7 million she needs for the out-of-town tryout. The big complication, besides Julia still needing to write some lyrics and dialogue (and story), is that Ivy’s voice is starting to catch when she reaches for the high notes. So Ivy gulps down Prednisone to heal her inflamed vocal chords, lest Karen be asked to step in as a last-minute replacement for the workshop. Ivy takes the pills despite the known side effects: moodiness, bloatedness, spontaneous singing of “Who You Are” in bedroom, unmotivated jump cuts, and hallucinating Katharine McPhee in a Marilyn Monroe costume.
Yes, the Ivy storyline brought some serious camp as well this week, but since it was mostly show-related, her material proved to be the most consistently successful in “Chemistry.” Ivy even shone in “History Is Made At Night,” getting giggly with the fumbling, not-yet-off-book Michael. And she got to work with the one strong theme in “Chemistry” (beyond the multiple fairly lame variations on the title, that is), when she snaps at Derek publicly after the song breaks down. There’s a few neat moments early in the episode where Tom and Julia are shuffling scenes and the cast is getting confused and Derek is getting antsy, which collectively shows how the process of putting on a musical is like fitting a puzzle together, with the scenes, songs and actors as pieces. When Ivy storms out, yelling that “artists are not football players,” and Derek shrugs it off as the steroids affecting her, that’s a fine illustration of how the art of making art can be both personal and businesslike. That’s the Smash I’m still seeing in my head (if not enough on my screen).
Then of course Tom has to go after Ivy, and laugh with her, so that we know her outburst was funny. So much audience handholding on Smash. But at least the writers are giving us ample opportunities to shout derisively at the screen, such as when Derek sees Ivy before rehearsal and asks, “How’s the voice today?”
Oh, The Voice is fine, Derek. Smash, on the other hand….
- After the big love scene between Julia and Michael, my wife turned to me and said, “It’s on Debra Messing’s resumé: ‘Will do back nudity.’” (Me, I couldn’t stop thinking about Will Chase trying to kiss his co-star and keep his arms positioned so as not to reveal anything that that NBC standards and practices would have to snip.)
- One storyline that I do wish the show would spend more time on is Tom’s love affair, which this week is relegated to a brief scene of him worrying that his boyfriend hasn’t been out of the closet long enough. Of course, since it’s still obvious that Tom is going to end up with Sam eventually, I suppose I shouldn’t be eager to rush that along. The last thing Smash needs is another poorly thought-through plot dispensed from The Wheel Of Complications.
- Some small measure of consistency: Karen worries about money one week, then goes on a shopping spree the next; and this week, she gets the credit card bill.
- This week was bad. Next week looks better. And NBC is sending next week’s episode out to critics to watch in advance, which is usually a good sign. It’s time for the workshop, people. Here we go.