And so Smash ends as it lived—with a weirdly self-referential musical number and a Tony Awards ceremony with all the gravitas of a high-school-athletic awards banquet. The series so amazing it got a very special welcome to the NBC family from Jack Donaghy himself died a death of a million tiny bludgeons to the head, thousands upon thousands of small moments of idiocy that added up to what amounted to a somewhat confused fellow staggering around, all the while attempting to sing.
Or, put another way, I really enjoy watching awards ceremonies. I really enjoy watching people compete for meaningless prizes, enjoy the moments when the picks of whatever academy match up with my own personal tastes. But it turns out that fictional awards ceremonies are not exactly the best vehicle for drama.
Smash locks the characters into the theatre presenting the Tony Awards about 10 minutes into its final hour, and then it keeps them there. And keeps them there. And keeps them there. And maybe if we gave two shits about any of these people, it would have some drama to it—but we don’t, though I will admit to some visceral satisfaction when Ivy Lynn defeated Karen Cartwright for a fictional prize. Why were we supposed to care? The characters seemed to care only obliquely, or in the sense that they had all said the word “Tonys” so often in the last few weeks that it was supposed to make us care. But that sense never radiated out to the audience, so preoccupied was the show with making sure there was bullshit personal drama there to keep us “engaged.” For two episodes of television about whether the characters in the show would have a career-topping night that might make sure they worked for a decade, “Nominations” and “The Tonys” both felt curiously weightless, devoid of anything but pompous self-congratulation.
Also, Derek fires a woman who’d just won the Tony for Featured Actress in a Musical right before she goes onstage to perform Hit List’s featured number—which could boost the show’s ticket sales among out-of-town visitors—before a live television audience. Instead of this, the rest of the cast of Hit List, including Ana, who hasn’t been in the cast of Hit List for some time, wanders out on stage and starts performing a version of “Broadway Here I Come!” featuring elaborate body percussion, all while dressed in their evening wear. Now, I suppose this is all exciting if you don’t stop to think about the realities of TV production or theatrical staging or human behavior, but it signals something quickly: Smash took the Tonys about as seriously as it took anything else, which is to say that it took them as an excuse to make it all about stuff it never adequately convinced us was worth caring about, like Ivy’s pregnancy or Ana’s ouster or Derek’s sexual-harassment lawsuit.
There are some fun bits in both hours. The campaign for the Tonys is entertaining enough—particularly when we get a very brief glimpse of some of the other shows on Broadway that season, including what appears to be a musical about Winston Churchill with a book by Harvey Fierstein(!)—and I enjoyed some of the moments when the two musicals badmouth each other. There’s also some okay stuff present in the politicking to appear sincere in front of the Outer Critics Circle awards body, since that’s the best chance for someone like Tom to make a good impression and for Julia to appear magnanimous about defeating a dead person. Campaigning for awards has to be a weird process for a famous person, and these sequences get into some of that weirdness in a way that is fairly identifiable.
I also liked the idea that Bombshell’s late surge—the show wins at least three Tonys (score, actress, and musical)—is prompted as much by Derek’s self-immolation (prompted by Ivy telling him he hasn’t done the right thing, not once) as it is anything else, though I like to imagine that the people who are constantly telling Ivy and company that Hit List is overrated are members of this comments section. There are some adequate moments in the first hour, and it’s probably one of the stronger episodes of this season. It’s a little goofy the way that it all concludes with the characters sitting around, listening to the nominations being read out while music from Magnolia plays on the soundtrack (at least on my screener!), because we know there’s no way the regulars aren’t getting nominated (though I almost threw my computer out a window when I thought Ivy had been snubbed in favor of Karen). It makes for fairly boring television, but it’s probably better than just having Daphne Rubin-Vega waltz in and tell everyone how many nominations they got (which they would already know). Also, it allows Smash to fill in the world of the fake Broadway season it takes place in, like how Sutton Foster is nominated for a revival of Oliver! of all things. (I would not take her for a particularly great Nancy, but I suspect she would just grit her teeth and make it the best thing on Broadway all season.)
It’s the second hour where things immediately begin to fall apart. The episode opens with everybody singing “Under Pressure” by Queen and David Bowie—because they’re under pressure, see?—and it just trucks downhill from there. The worst thing about this is that it isn’t particularly bad or even mediocre. It’s just boring. Julia and Tom talking through the announcement of their win is probably the one thing that actually worked for me, and I didn’t believe for a second that this would actually happen. (That goes for almost everything in the episode.) Jimmy accepts Kyle’s award on his dead friend’s behalf and makes a staggering amount of that acceptance speech about Karen. Derek accomplishes the aforementioned what-the-fuckery right before Daisy is going to go onstage. The whole thing feels like it’s taking place in a Holiday Inn ballroom. The characters seem to constantly be in every single place at all times. After all of that brouhaha about who would direct Bombshell, we don’t even get to find out who wins director of a musical. (Presumably, it’s neither Tom nor Derek, since neither of them seems to have an extra trophy, but who knows?)
The worst thing about “The Tonys” is that it takes something that’s supposed to be a grand celebration of the theatre and makes it all a grand celebration of Smash. Some of that is unavoidable. It was unlikely that the series would get Angela Lansbury to appear as herself to present an award or something, and it’s obvious that the show simply didn’t have the budget anymore to portray the award as anything other than a series of very tight shots on people sitting in the audience, a handful of extras sitting around them. Yet the rest of it just feels ridiculous, the conclusion of a story that’s less about putting on a Broadway show than any number of weird melodramatics. Ivy’s speech is vaguely affecting because it’s the capstone of her characters’ journey, but the rest of what happens feels like a valiant struggle to make an inherently dramatic event as undramatic as possible. These characters have worked and strived for this fucking award, but that doesn’t seem to matter. It all boils down to whether or not Derek is going to have his redemptive moment and the umpteenth portrayal of the Karen/Ivy feud that got old over a year ago.
It all ends with Karen and Ivy performing the “last number” of the awards, which is a song that Tom and Julia wrote that turns out to be all about Smash. I’m not even kidding. The lyrics, in and of themselves, wouldn’t be so bad if the show didn’t have the two of them singing in front of a giant series of red letters reading SMASH. I have no earthly idea if the producers of the show knew things were about to be over when they made this, but it sure seems like they did. It’s appropriate, however, that it all ends like this, with all of the characters frozen in a musical montage that reminds us how little we care about any of them and everybody in the audience pausing their DVRs to say, “Wait… what?!”
“Nominations” grade: B-
“The Tonys” grade: D-
Season grade: C-
Series grade: C
- Oh, right. It turns out that Jimmy once almost let a girl die of an overdose—she was fine—and that’s what’s been driving so much of his angst (right down to throwing a hissy fit about Julia taking too much credit for Hit List’s success or something). Now he’s going to jail for six to 18 months, and it’s all information that might have been nice to have before the last act of the entire season. If you’re going to deliberately obscure your character’s motivations, there had better be something better than this awaiting us when the ultimate answer rolls around.
- Tom’s flirtations with the Tony nominating committee member were okay, I guess, though the whole thing with the wine bottle is the kind of forced wackiness the show turned to far too often this season—usually underscored with some plucky strings to let you know nothing would get too serious! What I was most intrigued by was the idea of Tom and Julia writing a movie musical. That could have been a fun storyline for season three, and it might have taken them away from New York and all of the other characters, who could be killed by a monster attack or something. (Derek and Ivy survive because they’re in a plane high above the city.)
- Debra Messing has a lovely voice—which she proved a couple of weeks ago—but when she’s forced to utter “People on streets” in “Under Pressure” and she’s so heavily autotuned, she sounds a little like Kermit The Frog, which is unfortunate. (Anjelica Huston just gets through her own lyric as best she can, and the final moment when she’s rocking out onstage with all the other characters is just ridiculous.)
- I will admit to feeling a vague surge of triumph when Bombshell defeated Hit List for the big prize. And I thought Bombshell looked fucking awful! That’s how deep my loathing of Hit List runs. (Jimmy telling Karen how phenomenal she looked out there when she pretty much just stood at dead-center stage and let a wind machine blow her hair around is hilarious, however.)
- It’s surprising to me the show didn’t try to tell us Jimmy won Best Actor or something. I’m just going to assume that prize went to Norbert Leo Butz for Chicken Run: The Musical. (Hey, I can invent shows, too!) Or maybe whomever was playing Churchill won for The Gathering Storm.
- Oh, right, we get a reprise of all of Julia’s marriage drama, because that was a thing we wanted to come back in the finale.
- Final verdict, via Jerry: Hit List is almost sung-through, instead of completely sung-through, as it was supposed to be for a while. (Karen mentions Rent again, which makes it even weirder that nobody noticed the parallels between Kyle and Jonathan Larson. She also mentions Passing Strange, which made me wish I was watching Passing Strange.) Also, we learn that the production team does know it’s Featured Actor and Actress, not Supporting Actor and Actress.
- Tom and Kyle’s affair has gone from a one-night stand to Kyle cheating on his long-time boyfriend to a love for the ages. So, uh, thanks for that, Smash.
- People I am thankful to Smash for introducing me to the work of: Megan Hilty, Christian Borle, Joe Iconis, Krysta Rodriguez (even if she never had anything to do). The show also reminded me of my affection for a great many of its performers. And then there was Katharine McPhee as Karen. Serious question: How many of the show’s early problems would have been alleviated if it hadn’t just been so dead-set on selling us McPhee as some sort of triple threat (or, at the very least, if it had cast an actual triple threat in that part)? I think a fair number of them.
- Thanks for reading along with these Smash reviews! I’m amazed we managed to keep this fairly popular after it was trucked off to Saturdays and one of the least watched nights of the television season (tonight), but here we are. My thanks, also, to Noel Murray for keeping this machine rolling along as well as he did for the bulk of the show’s run and to Myles McNutt and Zack Handlen, who proved able fill-ins.
And now, the continuing adventures of Frank Fisticuffs, in an excerpt from the new Frank Fisticuffs novel, Frank Fisticuffs in Sharks Aplenty:
(Continuing a tradition from my Gifted Man reviews, I’m going to bury excerpts from my never-to-be-published Frank Fisticuffs novels at the bottom of the stray observations. I mean, why not? Nobody’s going to read this anyway!)
Behind him, the Everglades stunk of sweat and death. The seas felt ready to boil, their contents turned to a bloody mush that revolted even the nostrils of Frank Fisticuffs.
He stood atop a conquered alligator he’d turned into a makeshift parasail, the heads of his enemies dangling from his belt. It had been a fine day for fisticuffs, a fine day indeed.
Behind him lay the continental United States, under the terrifying grip of Dredthor’s heat ray, slowly baking to a crisp. Somewhere in that morass was Margaret, probably brainwashed, turned against herself. The only thing standing between her and certain death was her one great love, the ever-dashing, ever-resourceful Frank Fisticuffs.
But now he had to find a way to get out of the U.S., to get to cooler climes and plot his next move. Yet the nations of the world had formed a rough blockade around the country, hoping to contain the heat plague, hoping that allowing Dredthor to have his way would protect them from his wrath.
“Appeasement,” Frank muttered, and he disembarked from the Gatorsail, wandering down the beach.
Up ahead was a small surf shack, wood and gleaming iron. A wizened old man stood from the tattered lawn chair at the entrance, hunched over on his cane. His two arms bore bright orange water wings.
“Frank Fisticuffs,” the old man said.
The old man laughed and nodded. “I am. I was sent a message by Dr. Kangaroo before he perished, and he said you would be needing my assistance.”
“I’ve lined up two Jet Skis. The journey will be perilous, but it’s the only way to slip past the blockade undetected.”
“We’ll have to go under cover of night,” Frank said, making frantic calculations.
“Oh, it’s not the ships we need to worry about,” the old man laughed, stepping into the sunlight, his visage now apparent.
“It’s the sharks, Frank,” said former President Jimmy Carter as he climbed aboard his Jet Ski. “Sharks aplenty.”
TO BE CONTINUED?