Smash: “Opening Night”
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Smash: “Opening Night”

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Smash

“Opening Night”

Season 2, Episode 12

The opening of Bombshell is the moment Smash has been building to throughout its entire run. It was the show that brought these characters together, the show that split them apart, and then the show that brought (most of) them back together again. It’s Tom’s directorial debut, Julia’s emotional rollercoaster, Eileen’s passion project, Ivy’s big break, Derek and Karen’s “What could have been,” and Smash’s most prominent connection to the show it used to be.

Yet “Opening Night” is almost entirely empty, so caught up in moving forward that it never stops to consider whether or not this registers as a meaningful event. Desperate to pull its various threads together, bringing the Hit List contingent back into the world of Bombshell under the pretense of camaraderie, the episode struggles to reconcile Bombshell’s opening as a character event and a plot event, in the process losing sight of what could make an episode like this one special in its own right.

There is some merit to the approach that Safran and co. take with the episode, exploring the fact that opening on Broadway is trapped somewhere between an end and a beginning. While there’s a sense of satisfaction in seeing your production finally come to life, there’s also the uncertainty of what The New York Times will say about it, and how audiences will respond, and ticket sales, and every other variable which could shape the production’s future. Similarly, for those involved in the project, this isn’t an ending so much as a transition, with Tom and Julia already thinking ahead to what their next project will be before the curtain officially lifts. As much as Bombshell opening sees one of the series’ main storyline threads come to a close, it’s not really an ending for anyone, creating an interesting conflict between relief and insecurity that the episode occasionally gets to speak to.

The problem is that this structure is predicated on the audience feeling connected to the show’s past and caring about the show’s future, and Smash is in an unenviable position on both counts. When the episode is focused on Ivy, the strategy mostly works: her mother’s presence allows her past struggles to resurface, her relationship with Derek—fractured by her discovery she was again his second choice to Karen—gives her a space to assert her agency, and her relationship with Karen gives the show its one meaningful connection to its past, resolving their rivalry and bringing the two characters together for a performance of “That’s Life.” For Ivy, it’s a hopeful note that her tide is finally turning, and she’s about to become the star she always dreamed of becoming; for Karen, it’s a complicated feeling of regret and nostalgia that Katherine McPhee isn’t particularly adept at capturing but nonetheless proves productive for the episode.

Where the writers struggle is in making any other one of the recurring storylines mean anything of significance. Jimmy finally reveals all of the details about his dark past, but they’re exactly as vague and generic as you imagined, adding no further dimensions to the character and making his big fight with Karen a complete non-event. Eileen’s relationship with Richard becomes a useful way to keep the Times review a part of the plot, but could anyone seriously feel anything for Eileen at this stage in the series? If this was supposed to feel like the episode where storylines like these reached a turning point, any impact they could have had was lost when those storylines fundamentally failed all season long. While the show’s nostalgic return to its basic premise still holds some resonance, anything based on more recent narrative choices only serves to remind viewers how much the show has struggled to connect with that premise this season.

“Opening Night,” meanwhile, is more concerned about connecting with the future. Tom and Julia spend the entire episode looking forward as their search for a next project leading them in two different directions, as Julia wants to pursue their dream of a Great Gatsby musical while Tom is intent on directing a revival of City of Angels. The script makes sure to reveal that they like to announce their next project during the opening night party for their current one, and yet here they find themselves at odds for the first time, complicating that tradition. It’s an interesting moment of tension, one that speaks to Julia and Tom as “professionals” in a way that other storylines have not.

However, it suffers from two problems. The first is that I don’t care about Julia and Tom enough to really be concerned about their next project: I don’t care about Julia’s relationship with Jesse L. Martin, I certainly don’t care about the returning Leo, and the amount of eye-rolling I did as Tom drunkenly leaves the party with Kyle was indicative of my disinterest. As much as Christian Borle has been one of the show’s most consistently charming presences, Tom and Julia as characters have been too erratic for the show to reframe their journeys in these terms. While recent plot events have laid the groundwork for this breakup, those plot events felt arbitrary, and nothing in this rushed occasion holds the meaning Smash seems to think it does.

The other problem is that it depends on caring about a future that we’re never going to see. This isn’t Smash’s fault, as they couldn’t have known this would be airing on a Saturday night in mid-April, but the forward-looking nature of this and other storylines takes on a different tenor when you know there is no future. I suppose that isn’t entirely true, given that there are still five episodes left in the season, but the idea that we’ll be following Tom and Julia’s next projects is overly optimistic.

And yet “Opening Night” is very concerned about the future, especially in laying out plans for what everyone predicted and yet hoped the show would avoid: watching Ivy and Karen perform side-by-side, Jesse L. Martin is given some terrible, on-the-nose dialogue about how hard it was for Derek to choose between them, and then the words “Tony voters” are spoken.

The lure of the Tony Awards is obvious: a big gala event, an excuse to involve Broadway luminaries, and a space where Smash can celebrate its own sense of self-importance through fictional validations of their song-writing and storytelling genius. But even here, before we even reach the laudatory event itself, the Tonys feel like the cheapest storytelling device imaginable. Watching Eileen boast about how she’s effectively going to try to buy the most Tony awards in history through advertising was just sad, a trite and ineffective way to transition from this major event to another. It only calls attention to how contrived the season has been in trying to get to that point, the New York Times rave for Hit List very quickly identified as a justification for rushing its Broadway transfer and pushing the two shows into direct competition. It may make dramatic sense, but it’s as if no one stopped to think about whether it made logical sense, and if any of the moves meant to justify it would register as something other than writerly machinations.

“Opening Night” struggles as an episode of dramatic television because it never sits still long enough to become one, so focused on looking back and looking forward that it never exists as something of its own. This was supposed to be what the entire series was building toward, Bombshell’s opening serving as the culmination of dozens of musical numbers, countless character choices, and a lot of narrative complications. But in the end Bombshell never emerges as an actual entity from beneath those trappings: despite the show having finally opened, we see only a brief glimpse of the beginning and Ivy’s rendition of the final number. It’s as though we’re being asked to imagine Bombshell not as an actual event but as a cumulative construction of the series’ narrative. Much as the Bombshell album released by NBC collects the musical’s songs from throughout the series, a hodgepodge of Karen, Ivy, and everyone else in between, Smash isn’t interested in showing us what Bombshell looks like. Instead, they want to try to tell us what Bombshell means to these characters, a noble thought which is complicated by the fact that the show couldn’t build a consistent character outside of Ivy to save its life. And there’s Ivy, with her big moment starring in her first Broadway production, and we spend more time on her relationship with Karen than we do seeing her in her element, giving the performance that could win her a Tony Award.

I wanted to see more of Bombshell. On some level, even through everything, I wanted to see how this musical ended up, and I don’t feel like I can successfully composite the various numbers we saw together to get a clear picture of the show. I realize budget reasons alone would keep Smash from staging a full version of Bombshell. I realize that the positioning of the opening means that they still have story to tell, and need to be looking forward. But watching “Opening Night” all I really cared about was seeing Ivy get her moment, and to actually sit back and take in the one product from Smash that I occasionally cared about. I wanted “Opening Night” to be about Bombshell; that I felt so very turned off that it was about Smash instead says a great deal about the show’s failures as it continues its march to Tony glory and televisual afterlife.

Stray observations:

  • If you’re looking for a more compelling dramatic story about an opening night New York Times review, I highly suggest checking out Stephen Tobolowsky’s retelling of the debut of The Wake of Jamey Foster on Broadway in his Tobolowsky Files podcast.
  • The show’s effort to suggest Bombshell could dominate the Tonys is ludicrous in general, but it also seems impossible given how the show has just completely ignored the recasting of DiMaggio. I suppose they’d be submitting him as a lead and J.F.K. as Featured Actor, but the narrative this season has completely sidestepped those parts of the show.
  • The logic behind the entire cast of Hit List being at the Bombshell party is beyond comprehension given that in the previous episode Tom was pissed at Julia for being involved and Eileen was annoyed at the NYT article. But it’s necessary to use the party as a continuation of Jimmy’s storyline, so screw comprehension, they said.
  • I remember when Rosie O’Donnell’s daytime talk show was my strongest connection to Broadway, so I was fine with her brief cameo here, where I thought she did a fine job with an obnoxiously expositional piece of dialogue.
  • My favorite thing about the episode is how, after Jimmy gets run out of the party, no one cares about him: Karen goes on with her night, Kyle goes off to sleep with Tom, and we just let Jimmy fade into the night. As far as we know he’s dead.

And now, the continuing adventures of Frank Fisticuffs, in an unauthorized, unlicensed excerpt from the new Frank Fisticuffs novel, Frank Fisticuffs in Moon Fury:

(Continuing a tradition from his Gifted Man reviews, Todd has been burying excerpts from his unpublished Frank Fisticuffs novel in these Smash reviews, since no one is going to read it. However, he didn't get me an excerpt in time, so this is my unauthorized continuation of the story. Enjoy!)

Frank could hear the bionic wolves approaching. They sounded like terror, and that sound your car makes when you leave the emergency brake on. Frank wondered when they were last taken in for maintenance, as it certainly sounds like someone has been neglecting them. The manual is very explicit about the importance of regular maintenance. Why don’t people read manuals anymore? Still, Frank thought, even a poorly maintained bionic wolf is capable of ripping a man in half.

“You better start moving if you want to live, Fisticuffs,” Khemkaeng sneered.

Frank ripped out the earpiece, but he didn’t move. Instead, Frank remembered.

*******

There was a painting of a wolf above the fireplace in his Ocean Beach home. Frank hadn’t put it there. It was there when he moved in. It would be there when he moved out.

When does a man move out when he’s always moving? Frank hadn’t stayed long in San Diego. He hadn’t stayed long anywhere. But as he packed up his suitcase, part of him thought of taking the wolf painting with him, as though one day it could prove a keepsake for a time in which he was hunted by bionic wolves. But he thought better of it. Frank Fisticuffs is not one for possessions.

He walked to the window. The beatdown pickup truck was still parked out there. It had been parked there the night before. And the night before that. Frank knew what that meant. The two men inside the truck weren’t bothering to conceal their identities. There was no fake company name.

Frank smiled, acknowledging his continued appreciation of the duo’s lack of subterfuge. Of course, he had dug a complex tunnel system under the home within a day of moving in, so the surveillance hadn’t actually stopped him from completing his mission. The oceanic mole people of Southern California had been defeated, Khemkaeng’s evil scheme thwarted. The world had been saved.

And yet there they still sat in their truck. Frank wondered why they were there, and why they were still there. He had never met the two men. He hadn’t even spoken to them. All he knew was that there was a dog in the truck. What did this have anything to do with dogs, anyway?

It didn’t matter now, Frank thought. He was ready to leave. His job was done. He grabbed his suitcase, and opened the front door.

The truck was gone. He didn’t see which way it went. He’d never have his answer. He would only have uncertainty. He looked back at the wolf painting, and tucked it under his arm.

*******

Frank still has that painting. He also still has enough sense to know that he doesn’t need to move to handle bionic wolves. That’s what his fists are for.

TO BE CONTINUED!

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