The division between what’s good about Smash and what’s incredibly irritating seemed more pronounced than usual this week, to the extent that about halfway through “Let’s Be Bad” I was thinking that the show’s creative team had finally focused up and made a reasonably successful episode—maybe even one that would merit a “B+.” But then that last 15 minutes or so… ye gods. From the awkward musical numbers to the dully inevitable plot twists, it was as though somebody handed off an unfinished script, exquisite corpse style. Everything followed what came before logically, but the tone and purpose was completely askew.
Let’s start with what worked, which was pretty much everything in the practice space. The relationship between Ivy and Karen continued to be deliciously frosty, and not helped at all by Derek, whom Ivy sees pressed up against Karen at the start of the episode, showing her some dance steps. (In a smart bit of staging, Karen and Derek’s dance plays on in the background of the opening scene, as all the players arrive for work.) When Derek is dissatisfied with Ivy’s vocals, he asks Karen to show her how to do the Marilyn vibrato, which leads to a tense moment of Karen singing “Happy Birthday” while the camera pushes in on a horrified and humiliated Ivy, and then to another tense moment when Karen tries to be cool and talk to Ivy, adopting the tone of the unworthy, well-meaning slob she really is, only to have Ivy shoot her down and remind her that, “What Marilyn had can’t be taught.” As I mentioned last week, the viciousness of this rivalry has quickly become wickedly entertaining.
I also appreciated that Ivy’s not being painted as a one-dimensional villainess. This episode was much more about her insecurities, not her diva fits. There’s some terrific insight into what it’s like to be Ivy in the scene where she finishes a run-through of the big “Let’s Be Bad” number and then just has to stand there, stock still, while Derek and Tom and Julia quietly confer. Later, Ivy comes by Derek’s apartment to complain that it’s like he doesn’t recognize her as a person in that space, let alone as his lover, to which Derek replies that to do his work properly, no one on his stage can be a real person. That’s a nice insight into Derek, too, and one that rings true.
And then there’s the bravura setpiece at the center of this episode: our longest and most fully realized trip to the Dream Theater, where the ensemble performs “Let’s Be Bad,” complete with dialogue and a bit of the musical’s story. We see Ivy as Marilyn, snapping between electrifying and lost, in what’s a wonderfully fluid piece of acting by Megan Hilty. The number itself is catchy and the staging concise, capped off by a striking image of Marilyn as a puppet being manipulated by the people who just need her to show up and hit her marks. This, in a few sharp minutes of singing and dancing, illustrates why Ivy is so curt and demanding: She understands Marilyn well enough to know that she doesn’t want to become her completely. All of that’s there in the “Let’s Be Bad” performance, as well as in her worry that Derek’s not validating what she’s doing enough.
What else worked? Well, initially it looked like this episode was developing a fairly sophisticated motif about missed connections. Julia can’t get a good signal in her calls with Frank, who’s off on a teacher’s retreat, and while she’s having a post-rehearsal meeting with Michael, she misses a call from her son Leo, who’s been arrested for loitering near a part of Central Park known for its pot market. Leo ends up calling Tom, who keeps checking his phone during his date with John, partly as a way to avoid talk of sex. Karen’s night out with her boyfriend Dev is similarly interrupted by his constant consultation with his cell phone. And Eileen—whose assistant has been stolen by Jerry—can’t figure out the password to her computer without help from Ellis.
But down the stretch, the missed connection theme gives way to actual connections, not all of which are welcome. It’s nice to see Tom and John enjoying each other, sure, and sweet to see Derek comfort Ivy (in his way), but the Karen and Dev storyline in this episode takes a bit of a lurching turn, while the Julia and Michael plot compacts everything awful about Smash into five or six excruciating minutes of screentime.
First up on the cringe-list: Karen, who tries to explain to Dev how she was taught to look down on girls who make an effort to look sexy all the time, while Dev is telling her to tart herself up to impress his co-workers at a big political shindig (attended by a pretty young Iranian-American New York Times reporter that Dev’s been seeing a lot lately). So after Dev leaves the room, Karen does a seductive solo strip routine to “It’s A Man’s Man’s Man’s World,” and then gets drunk at the party and hate-flirts with a mayoral press secretary, who may be able to advance Dev’s career. Everything about these scenes felt off to me. The musical number looked more creepy than sexy, and Karen’s indignant attitude at the party came off as tacked-on. (And the less said about her subsequent make-out session with Dev in the limo, the better.)
And then, knocking the whole episode down a couple of pegs, comes Michael, who first insists that Julia take his notes after rehearsal (over a plate of ice-cream-topped sexy-pie) and then shows up unannounced at her apartment and eats dinner with her and Leo. Michael gets drunk, tells Leo that Julia used to smoke pot all the time, over-sings “A Song For You” to her on her front stoop, and kisses her while Leo looks on from an upstairs window. I can’t imagine a more unnatural (and yet predictable) way for this old flame to get rekindled. And then to involve Leo, who’s already feeling defensive because his drug arrest might screw up the family’s adoption plans… ugh. It’s just characters behaving idiotically, strictly to have something to do to fill out the episodes with a little more unnecessary drama.
I’m with Derek here. I’m increasingly realizing that I’m only interested in these characters’ feelings as they relate to Marilyn. Everything else is just an annoying distraction.
- I’m ran out of Smash screeners last week, so now I’m watching right along with you guys. I never did watch more than an episode at a time, but I always allowed myself a couple of days to toss the episodes around in my head before writing. Now I’m responding more instantaneously. Make of that what you will going forward.
- This episode was directed by Jamie Babbit, who’s done a lot of TV, but is probably best known for her feature films But I’m A Cheerleader and The Quiet.
- It was quite bracing—in a good way—to see Tom and John speaking so openly about how bad their first night of sex together was. (It reminded me of one of my favorite movies of last year, Weekend.) But given the way the plot of this show has been developing, is there any doubt that sports-loving dancer Sam will soon turn the head of the sports-averse Tom?
- In my high school drama class, our teacher was a very “get in touch with your feelings” kind of guy, who became a real positive influence in the lives of many of my classmates. But when it was time to work, he expected us to buckle down—as did his student protégées whenever they would direct a scene. I remember once one of those students tried to emulate our teacher and show sympathy to a classmate who was too moody and emotional to get through the piece she was supposed to be rehearsing. When the young actress hissed at her director to leave her alone, the student channelled our teacher yet again and shouted, “Then get your personal shit off my stage!” That’s pretty much what Derek was saying to Ivy when she came by his apartment in this episode. I heartily concur.