In my relentless pursuit of pop culture k-nowledge (that “k” is not silent), I recently scoured the used-book section of the Internet, and turned up the Garson Kanin novel on which Smash is reportedly based. Here’s the first thing you need to know about the book: It has very little in common with the TV series, outside of the title, and the fact that both are about the mounting of a Broadway musical. The second thing you need to know: The novel is terrrrrrible. This is not to besmirch Kanin’s name. I mean, the man wrote Born Yesterday, and co-wrote the screenplay for Adam’s Rib. That’s who he is. But Smash: A Novel is one of those scandalous, soapy bestsellers that was all the rage in the Jackie Collins era—the ones with a gratuitous sex scene every few pages—and Kanin seemed to be filling in the blanks in some kind of a trash-fiction version of MadLibs.
Here’s an example: A few weeks ago, our pal Zack Handlen wrote a little on Twitter about the cliché of male writers who assume that all women are obsessed with how their legs look. Well, in Kanin’s book, the narrator, Midge, spends almost an entire chapter describing her four “superlative assets.” The first, naturally, is her legs (“outstanding from the pelvic region to the toes”); the second is her bosom (“my sub-nubbins became nubbins and remained torturingly so until the summer of 1968, when (with the help of a certain amount of expert foreplay) they blossomed or burgeoned into fine, firm boopers”); the third is her eyes (“large and green and piercing”); and the fourth is her “pudendal area.” Midge admits that her face isn’t much (“when I’m menstruating, it gets all puffed and sort of blotchy and is generally unattractive”), and explains that she wears her hair long to compensate. But that’s about all she has to say for herself. Her intellect, her tastes… all a non-issue, at least as far as Kanin is concerned.
My point is this: Tonight’s Smash episode is much better than Smash: A Novel.
And I’ll go further than that: I’ll say that tonight’s Smash episode is much better than anything the show has done since the pilot. (I’d even say it’s better than the pilot, too.)
It’s not that “Hell On Earth” didn’t feature moments that had me prematurely wincing. There’s a lot about Julia’s domestic turmoil this week, including a mention of the adoption papers, and a few pouty scenes from Leo. Tom’s ridiculously over-the-top aversion to everything “straight” rears its head a couple of times, as he finds out that his boyfriend is a Republican and as he recoils from Sam’s offer of a beer. (Really… beer is too straight?) Ellis schemes up a storm, utilizing espionage and bisexuality to land the show its Ivy-replacing star. And pill-poppin’ Ivy becomes a public embarrassment, until she’s reined in by the ever-saintly Karen, who prompts a spontaneous Times Square sing-along to Rihanna’s “Cheers (Drink To That).”
Each one of these individual incidents and sequences could’ve easily derailed “Hell On Earth,” turning it into the howling mess that so many recent Smashes have been. And of course, your mileage may vary. You may think that too much of this episode was unforgivably awful. For me, though, “Hell On Earth” is what Smash’s new creative team should study as they regroup and retool for the second season. For me, this episode actually worked for an extraordinarily large percentage of the time.
Let’s start with that Rihanna number. Granted, I liked last week’s bowling alley dance-a-thon much better than most of you seemed to, but still, while I braced myself for the worst as Karen started singing, the Rihanna scene quickly became genuinely invigorating, making good use of the brightness and bigness of its Times Square setting, as well as of the relative states of intoxication of the two ladies. More to the point: It was well past time for Ivy and Karen to have some face-to-face with each other, to talk out their problems, and though I would’ve liked to have seen each of them be a little more cutting, I can’t deny that it was satisfying to hear Karen openly say that she thinks Ivy got the job because she slept with Derek, and hear Ivy openly say that Karen’s a know-nothing rube who hasn’t worked hard enough for what she’s got.
In fact, there was something of an epidemic of truth-telling on Smash this week, including the big-blowup between Julia and Frank, who finds the song she wrote for Michael and intuits the rest. The scenes between the two of the them—and between Frank and Michael in the street—are well-shot, utilizing handheld cameras and tight framing to get across how these characters’ worlds have both narrowed and become unmoored. And Brian d’Arcy James finally gets something to do as Frank, besides wander through the set every now and then with a periodic of table of elements under his arm. He sings Julia’s confessional song to her as she walks through the door—a wonderfully acidic piece of staging—and he coaxes both her and Michael to admit what they’ve done, and exactly how long they’ve been doing it. Again, very satisfying to watch: the blindered idiocy of Julia and Michael exposed for what it is, with no excuses, couching or escape.
Also, following through on recent Smash scenes in which the duplicitous Ellis has been called out for his crimes, there’s a bit of justice at the end of this episode when Ellis tries to assert himself in front of Eileen, and she puts him in his place. Early in “Hell On Earth,” Ellis recites a wishlist of stars to replace Ivy, including Anna Paquin, Kate Winslet, and… Rebecca DuVall? Following television convention, it’s obvious that the one name that’s not actually famous will be the one that comes back up again. (If Frasier and Niles ever casually say that their favorite writers are Marcel Proust, Ernest Hemingway, and T.H. Houghton, you can bet that you’ll be seeing T.H. Houghton by the end of the episode.) Sure enough, Ellis is able to track down one of DuVall’s agents, and after a genuinely touching moment where he drinks in the majesty of her apartment, he sleeps with her agent to get him to close the deal. The next day when he tells Eileen that he landed DuVall and that he doesn’t want to be her assistant any more, Eileen stares him down as the phone rings, and tells him exactly what a producer does, saying that he can start learning all that once he answers the phone. Which he does. Yet again: satisfying.
Another welcome development in “Hell On Earth” is that—“Rebecca DuVall” aside—there are actual Broadway folk strewn throughout this episode. Eileen takes a lunch with actual director Doug Hughes (who recently helmed a Born Yesterday revival, aptly enough), and she gets actual New York Post theater reporter Michael Riedel to gossip about this in his column, to scare Derek into re-committing to the show. And in the first extended look that we’ve had of Heaven On Earth, we hear actual Tony-winning star Norbert Leo Butz belting out the gospel-tinged “The Higher You Get, The Farther You Fall.” This is the kind of stuff I’d been hoping we’d get from Smash. (Better late than never?)
And while I’m still dismayed that Ivy’s having such a clichéd descent into addiction, Megan Hilty is in peak form in this episode, whether monotoning her way through her Heaven On Earth lines or snapping at her friends who idly suggest that “the songs be the star” of the Marilyn musical. I’m glad that Smash has backed away from making Ivy the villain. Instead, she’s very sympathetic this week, even in her aggravation at all things Karen. It’s a sign of how on its game “Hell On Earth” is that when Karen and Ivy bump into each other outside of an audition for an orange juice commercial—which Karen gets, of course—they accidentally exchange sunglasses and Karen ends up with the good pair. Because Karen gets everything, for no real reason. And at last, Smash seems to be recognizing how that could drive a person crazy.
- I’d like to think that we live in a world where decisions about television productions are made in close to real time; but this isn’t so, of course. Nobody working on Smash had any idea how we’d all react to last week’s episode before they started working on this week’s, so no last-minute adjustments were made. Still, in my head, I fantasize that an NBC executive watched last week’s episode and called in a fixer: in this case, Scottish director Paul McGuigan, who’s best known for stylish crime pictures like Gangster No. 1 and Lucky Number Slevin, as well as for helming episodes of the BBC’s terrific Sherlock reboot. “Hell On Earth” sported some downright beautiful images, from the aforementioned Times Square number to the luminescent liquor store that Ivy and Karen visit just before that number. And just in general, the performances this week were more controlled and confident, with less campy melodrama and more natural asides and gestures. Not all of that is due to McGuigan, of course. The actors played their part, as did the cinematographer, the set-dressers, the writers and the editor. But since this is my fantasy world, I’m going to pretend that McGuigan’s the reason everything was so much better in “Hell On Earth.” (It’s just so fun to imagine: “Get me McGuigan!”)
- By the way, McGuigan also directed the pilot episode of ABC’s new series Scandal, debuting later this week. I’m not a fan of the show’s creator Shonda Rhimes, but I may have to watch the first installment, just for McGuigan. (Also, Henry Ian Cusick from Lost is in it. Gotta love that, brother.)
- How can you not get a kick out of Megan Hilty in tinsel-y angel wings shouting at Katharine McPhee on a crowded New York City street? I mean, c’mon.
- A better showing for McPhee this week as an actress, mainly because all she has to do is react to Hilty, who carries most of the load. That said, in the scene where Karen gets the call about the commercial, McPhee is unable to convincingly answer a phone. Not promising.
- The commercial itself, though? A funny bit of business, with Karen in a green leotard rehearsing in front of a green screen and having to be told not to drink the props. As long as I’m pretending things, I’m going to pretend that this was the writers making fun of McPhee herself. (Not in a mean way, though. I’m iffy on her acting, but I still kind of like McPhee.)
- My recent theory about the Smash writers’ contempt for TV and TV watchers is partially confirmed by the yawner television script that Derek is considering directing, about “a PhD who solves crimes.”
- Did you notice that one of the movies being advertised in Times Square was Casual Friday 2, starring one Rebecca DuVall?
- Tom and Sam have a nice moment together when Sam mentions a fond memory of watching the Bruins, Tom asks him what a Bruin is, Sam says it’s a bear, and Tom thinks he means something else. (Hooray for gay stuff! I mean that sincerely.) It’s those kind of light asides that have been missing from Smash, and this episode had more than a couple of them.
- Also, in keeping with the truth-telling nature of “Hell On Earth,” Tom and Sam realize that they have to stop babying Ivy. (It’s like the characters on Smash have united to try and fix all of this show’s problems at once.)
- Next week: Uma Thurman guest stars as Rebecca. I had heard she was going to be on the show, and was hoping she’d be playing herself. Ah well. Perhaps she’ll be “herself,” in some kind of meta way. (Though I doubt it.)
- Our Marilyn musical has a title now, by the way: It’s Bombshell, named by Julia after her life was blown to pieces. So you see… there’s some good in everything!
- Another sample line from Smash: A Novel (and this one is super-risqué, so look away if that bothers you): “His penis came to mind. I had seen a good many, many of them exciting, particularly in erection—but there was something unique about Jean-Pierre’s—a finely sculptured, perfectly proportioned, utterly charming appendage.” There follows three paragraphs of the heroine describing what she likes and dislikes about oral sex. Oh, Garson Kanin.