A lot of my critic pals have already watched the four Smash episodes that NBC sent out via screener DVD—something I tend not to do—so I’d heard through the grapevine that “Enter Mr DiMaggio” was the worst of the initial Smashes. But as often happens when the early word on something is especially dire, I braced for the worst this week and was pleasantly surprised. “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” is far from perfect; for one thing, it keeps dancing up to the edge of an actual theme and then stumbling before it can really follow through. But it’s adoption-free, which already gives in an edge over last week’s episode. It’s also far more focused on the nuts-and-bolts of musical-making, which is where Smash has excelled thus far.
For example, “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” is very open about the monetary side of putting on a show. I could’ve done without Eileen throwing more drinks in Jerry’s face—though I’m glad that Theresa Rebeck has her characters recognizing this as a hoary running gag—but I appreciated the time this episode takes to show how difficult it is for Eileen to raise even $200,000 for a workshop without her husband as a partner. (At one point, she’s reduced to selling her jewelry, although she does take a little on store credit so that she buy some replica Marilyn Monroe earrings.) I also appreciated that we find out a little of what that $200-grand will buy: namely, $200-a-week for the actors, including Karen, who’s been drafted for “the ensemble.” In Karen’s case, the money isn’t so bad, given that she’s just starting out and can still take the occasional waitressing shift—provided that the restaurant can abide her absences. But for the plum part of Joe DiMaggio, the producers want Michael Swift (played by Will Chase), who’s an in-demand talent who could be making some real money by going out for TV pilot season.
How do we know that Michael is so good? As is Smash’s way, we are told straight up that he’s “sensational,” even though all we see him do is over-sing “Grenade” as part of a Bruno Mars revue. (Smash apparently takes place in a world where people mount shows that are little more than covers of Bruno Mars songs.) Yet Julia’s skeptical of Michael, to the extent that she even ponders whether Marilyn the musical needs any men at all. As it turns out, the real reason Julia’s so hesitant is that she and Michael had an affair when they worked together on a previous show, which makes the whole situation just… awkward.
The idea that Julia might make an creative decision for anything other than the purest of reasons is a move in the right direction for Smash, because if the show is going to be the mature, grown-up drama it seems to want to be, characters other than the “villains” like Jerry and Derek are going to need to be more fallible, and not just in a “works too hard” or “lacks self-confidence” kind of way. Moreover, the Julia/Michael complication points toward a mode of storytelling that could be fruitful for Smash: directly linking what Marilyn is about with what’s happening in its creators’ lives. We saw a little of that last week, with the idea of the two Marilyns: the vamp and the naif. Now this week, as Julia and Tom argue with each other while working on a song about what Marilyn Monroe and Joe DiMaggio really wanted from their marriage, we get an episode that’s all about how difficult any partnership can be: whether it’s the divorced Eileen and Jerry, the unfaithful Julia and her clueless hubby, the squabbling Julia and Tom, the newly boinking Derek and Ivy, or even Karen and Dev, who are having some trouble because she doesn’t want him helping her out financially while she workshops.
Karen carries the weight of the other major theme of this episode, which spins out of the Marilyn and Joe dream of settling down to an anonymous life in a small town—and whether such simplicity is all it’s cracked up to be. This week, Karen returns to her own small town in Iowa for a baby shower, where she wrings her hands over her dimming Broadway future and cuts loose by singing “Redneck Woman” for her friends. (She sings it well, too, albeit a little joylessly, which is becoming a recurring problem for Katharine McPhee in these musical numbers. Also, is Iowa really that redneck?)
I just wish these two themes had come together better. The climactic Dream Theater performance is strong and sells a lot of what “Enter Mr. DiMaggio” is about. But while watching it, I kept wishing that what came before had been a little clearer and less cluttered. A more focused episode could’ve really gotten into how simultaneously craving and fearing fame is a lot like simultaneously pining for the stability of marriage while secretly succumbing to illicit passion.
Still, I’m glad that one of the show’s other major storylines—Ellis’ push for more involvement with the musical he inspired—is finally moving out of the wings and into the spotlight. This week we learn that despite his flirtations with Tom, Ellis is not gay, and that while he’s definitely conniving, Elli isn’t a complete rogue. (It hadn’t occurred to him to ask for credit for Marilyn until his girlfriend brought it up, for example.) I hope that the character continues to straddle that line between good guy and bad guy, because the way he pushes Julia’s buttons and strokes Tom’s ego makes for good television.
- I very much enjoyed the Dev/Derek Brit-off, as they try to gauge each other’s personal histories based on accents and biases. I also don’t blame Dev for trying to make sure that Derek isn’t planning to take any liberties with Karen when he asks her to a meeting. Still, it’s clear his chivalrous nature is rankling Karen, who’d rather sink or swim on her own. More of these kinds of character conflicts please, Smash, and less of the generic “You missed our big date!” garbage.
- Derek blames his downstairs neighbors for why he never invites Ivy over: “They turned off the gas and now they’ve broken the gas and now I have no gas.” (Reminds me of Ralph Wiggum: “I heard your dad went into a restaurant and ate everything in the restaurant and they had to close the restaurant.”)