I was a theater person in college. I miss it, sometimes; the community, the enthusiasm, the wide-eyed, utterly uncynical conviction that your shitty, broke-ass production of The Mystery Of Edwin Drood (in which maybe a third of the cast can sing, and less than that can act, and there is little overlap between the two groups) is quite possibly the most important event in the history of recorded time. To be a theater person is to lose all perspective, to forfeit the chunk of your sanity which occasionally reminds you that you are not, in fact, the center of the universe. To be a theater person is to be absolutely convinced that the fate of nations hangs in the balance between the curtain opening and curtain closing. “The show must go on,” everyone says, and to be a theater person is to give your complete and total faith to the tautological veracity of this statement, even while knowing, deep in your heart, that it’s a lie. Because really, no show has to go on. No one is going to die if tonight’s performance of Les Misérables is canceled; the world won’t stop spinning if the lights never go up on the 483rd matinee of How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. But we believed anyway. The secret is to recognize the lie and hold on anyway, because to be a theater person is to struggle and occasionally succeed, to create something out of nothing, without anything more to support you than the lights, the greasepaint, and the will.
So give Smash this much: It gets the ego right. Every single character on this show, from the self-pitying writer to the horny director to the chorus folk getting drunk in their hotel rooms, has that arrogance, that conviction that some silly, shallow musical about a cartoon idea of a person is High Art. Good for them. Good for all theater folk, really; they are ridiculous and gorgeous and pathetic and wonderful, and our lives are better for their ilk.
But the thing is, while they can afford to lose their perspective—it’s basically a job requirement—a story can’t. A story without perspective on itself is at best camp, at worst tedium, and Smash has plenty of the latter, and a little of the former. It’s goofy, but it’s not goofy enough, and it’s dramatic, but that drama rarely, if ever, finds its mark. It thinks it’s telling the most important true tales it can, and no one involved seems to realize that just how flat-footed, straight-on dumb all of this is. This show is three-quarters soap opera, one-quarter actual drama, and that’s being generous. Actually, no, that’s being overly dismissive to soap opera, because soaps know their audience, and they know what they need to do to hold that audience’s attention. The writers of Smash seem to honestly believe that having this person cheating on that person—partners to be determined via coin flip before the writing begins, presumably—makes for utterly riveting television. Worse, they think it’s so riveting they don’t even bother to give us romantic complications more complex than a Tic-Tac-Toe board.
I haven’t watched enough of this series to be an expert, although I have been keeping up with Noel’s terrific reviews (oh, by the way, I’m not Noel; check the byline), so I’ll assume there have been better-written hours than tonight’s “Preview.” This wasn’t even the worst I’ve seen so far, and the episode had occasional moments of outright competence. I like Tom a lot, because he’s comparatively levelheaded and, so far as I can tell, has yet to betray his friends (like most of the leads) or be boring and annoying (like everyone else), and while a side trip to Sam’s church was mostly valuable for the hilarious “Oh hey, let’s have everybody in the cast show up” vibe, at least the two of them have a relaxed, fun chemistry. As Noel has mentioned, it is legitimately refreshing to see a gay couple on network television whose gayness is treated as no big thing at all. Plus, Tom actually told Julia she was being a nitwit, and while this didn’t seem to help matters much at the time, it was very satisfying to hear at home. I’m not sure how the adulterous, show-damaging whiner held the position of moral authority for as long as she did, but thank goodness somebody mentioned that maybe she shouldn’t be screaming quite so loud.
And since we’re being kind here, the actual preview that gave tonight’s episode its name was well-handled, smoothly moving between clips from various numbers (as well as, I think, a new one called “Smash”—the name of the show! Take a drink—in its entirety), and capturing both the unexpected success, and unmitigated disaster which is the heart of the theatrical experience. “Smash” goes over like gangbusters—as well it might, since it’s a snappy, fun tune—but the show’s final scene, with a drunken, pill-addled Marilyn making her final desperate phone call, lands with a thud. Because of course it does: Rebecca has less stage presence than the bed she’s lying on, and the “song” itself is too flat, too chintzy, and too forced to have the kind of effect you need to make a downbeat ending kill.
While all of this is terrible for Bombshell, it’s great for the actual show we’re watching, because it gets us into some actual, naturally occurring conflict. It makes perfect sense that the musical would still have some problems, especially since Julia hasn’t been around lately, and it’s also smart that no one knows exactly how much of the blame to put on Rebecca. There’s even the practicality factor that the musical isn’t structured well enough to tell the audience they need to applaud at the end, which, all things considered, was probably the biggest reason for that cringe-inducing pause. There’s an understanding of craft in this, however straightforwardly and unadorned it’s presented. The motivation makes sense, and can go in all sorts of directions. Obviously Julia and Tom are going to come up with some kick-ass (well, “kick-ass”) closing number, just as obviously Rebecca was never going to be around for the long haul. But just knowing these things will happen eventually doesn’t mean the tension building to them isn’t effective and potentially exciting.
At the very least, it’s a distraction from the dumb human drama. Obviously, this show can’t be all about the musical. Even The West Wing had some non-governmental intrigue. But does it have to be so bland? Dev and Ivy slept together, which is just great, because that means Dev can lose the ring he offered Karen earlier, so when Karen suddenly changes her mind about wanting to get married, everything gets awkward. It also means that every time Dev and Ivy are in the same scene—and I mean every goddamn time—they have to exchange awkward looks, and the background music has to become all weirdly melancholy, in case we saw them in bed together and mistakenly assumed they’d been building a fort. Julia stalks around the theater shrieking at people because they’ve wronged her so, and Karen decides she has to talk to Rebecca about the whole Derek situation, because this is literally the best way the writers can think of to pass this information on to Rebecca, who, by the way, doesn’t really need to know.
And the dialogue! Every line serves to either remind us of exposition we can keep track of on our own, thanks, or else to flatly state exactly what this character is thinking at this particular time. Which, again, is very soap-opera in its way, but on soap operas, we get more sentences like, “I can’t believe you slept with my twin sister, even while I was trapped on your father’s airship!”, and less like, “She has no room to make any mistakes at all after Heaven & Earth.” Gosh, you think? Even the scenes which should have subtext, like Dev and Karen talking with each other in bed, are stripped bare of drama and spark. This is character-by-numbers, filling in some “betrayal” here and some “ironic change of heart” here, until everything is red and white and dull all over. It got so I was starting to welcome the sight of Eileen and the Bearded Bartender, because they were boring but at least they seemed happy to see each other.
And all of this is played with straight-faced earnestness. The closest we get to camp is Rebecca, with her stressed out calls to her therapist and the Case of the Peanut Smoothie. And now she’s gone, which is no surprise, since she was always just a temporary measure. There’s no perspective here on anything, no sense that anyone involved in the show is trying to give us more than a cursory view of a world most of us are unfamiliar with, which makes you wonder, just what the hell the point of all this is. I’m sure there must be some theater people involved with the series, and I’m sure there are egos at work here, but I gotta tell you, I’m not buying that true faith enters into it. Because no matter how easy it is to make fun of theater people, they bring one thing to the table you can’t mock: They believe in their audiences. Directors and actors and composers and the rest have their hubris and their blind spots, but part of giving yourself over to the Work (and you can always hear the capital letter) is knowing that the strangers sitting out there in the dark are worth the time and the effort and the joy you want to bring them. There’s no faith in Smash, and no trust. It’s just one more tale, told for idiots.
- Thanks to Noel for letting me take over briefly. He’ll be back next week, thank goodness.
- So, who put the peanuts in the smoothie? Ellis, right? It had to be Ellis. (And really, as far as “ways to get rid of a guest star” go, this wasn’t bad. I especially liked Rebecca admitting that she’d recognized the taste of peanuts and drank the smoothie anyway.)
- Okay, I would’ve harped on this more but I’m honestly not sure; did Ivy purposefully go out to pick up Dev last week? I watched the episode, and I assumed she did, because the idea of them just happening to bump into each other was beyond stupid. But now, I’m not so sure.