My favorite moment during the “previously on” montage that kicked off this week’s Smash had to be the quick shot of Derek exasperatedly saying, “Smoooothies!” because it was so funny, and so ridiculous—almost like a direct acknowledgment that Smash as a show can’t be working all that well, if “Smoooothies!” is such a key moment. But then damned if “Tech” didn’t pivot out of that “yeah, we know we suck” setup and go on to deliver what would’ve been the best episode of the series, were it not for some annoying plot developments in the final 10 minutes. (That’s right: For once, Smash started strong and then stumbled down the stretch, whereas usually the show stinks for 40 minutes and then comes up with two or three good scenes before the closing credits.)
In fact, if I hadn’t actually watched the previous 12 episodes—if, say, I’d tuned in on a whim tonight for the first time—I’d probably wonder why so many people keep mocking Smash. Even the worst plotlines from earlier in the series didn’t seem so bad in “Tech.” Here, they were mainly just set-up for some genuinely well-constructed dramatic and comic scenes, and not deeply traumatic in and of themselves.
Take Michael Swift. (Please. (Ba-dum-bump.)) When Bombshell’s new DiMaggio drops out to do a TV pilot, Derek and Eileen and even Tom agree that bringing back Michael is the only real option. Derek and Eileen understand Julia’s objections—Derek huffily tells Tom, “Michael and Julia, yeah yeah, I’m not an idiot….”—but consider them moot. And while I’m not in the least bit excited about Michael’s return, or about being asked to replay the horror of that whole weird affair in my head, I have to admit that the scene between Julia and Frank where she tells him what’s going on is actually fairly powerful, much like the scene from a few weeks ago when Frank told Julia he’d figured her out. Then there’s an equally strong scene between Julia and Eileen, as Julia complains that Eileen’s hastiness is what’s keeping them from finding another replacement DiMaggio, and Eileen tells Julia straight out that she needs to own her mistakes and not sacrifice the hard work of so many people. Well, whaddaya know? Meaningful conflict on Smash. Granted, this whole storyline ends weakly, as The Little Wooden Boy tells his mom that he and Frank “are not going to let you quit your life,” and adds that they’re all heading up to Boston to be by her side and keep her from doffing her belted coat and droopy pajamas at the first sight of Michael Swift. Then they all smile at each other. All that’s missing a freeze-frame and a closing theme song. Yeesh.
While all this is going on, Tom pays a visit to Sam’s folks (including his father, played by Wire favorite Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), who—refreshingly—seem to have no problem with their son being gay, but can’t stand that he’s a dancer. I’ll grant that there’s a little bit of a Wheel Of Complications element to Tom agreeing with Sam’s dad that dancers have worryingly short careers, thus causing Sam to storm out huffily. But neither Tom nor Sam’s dad are wrong exactly about dancers’ difficult lives, and any storyline that ends with Tom and Sam and a genuinely affectionate PDA is fine by me, since they’re the only two characters on Smash right now whose romantic relationship I buy.
Well, that’s not entirely true. When “Tech” began, I was just about ready to accept Derek and Ivy as a couple. The way she helps him with some of the details of staging and strategy, and the way he casually tells her he loves her, makes this love affair seem viable. But then Rebecca hears that Derek’s birthday is coming up, so she does the whole breathy Marilyn “Happy Birthday” bit for him; while for his part, Derek is continuing to treat Rebecca like an actress instead of a movie star, by whispering tidbits about Marilyn to her to inspire her. Inevitably, Rebecca and Derek go all smoochy-smoochy, which Ivy finds out when she comes by the theater and discovers that Ellis has been conspicuously sent away. (By the way, Ellis? Not awful tonight. In keeping with the “owning mistakes” theme, Ellis gets a funny line when he sees Ivy with her ear to Rebecca’s dressing-room door, and he harrumphs, “That’s usually my thing.”)
The coupling of Rebecca and Derek—like the approaching arrival of Michael Swift and Frank and Leo—is an example of one of those annoying plot developments I was talking about earlier. It’s predictable, and lazy, and I don’t trust the Smash writers to handle it with any kind of subtlety or surprise in the two remaining episodes. But that’s not even the worst twist in “Tech.”
No, the LVP of tonight’s Smash—as is so often the case—is Dev, who feels so guilty after nearly sleeping with his reporter pal that he ignores Karen’s request for privacy and arrives in Boston to be with her during tech rehearsal. He even proposes marriage, leading to roughly the 1000th time that a movie or TV show has featured this exchange:
Proposee: “I don’t know what to say….”
Proposer: “Say yes!”
Proposee: “I’m in tech.”
Okay, the last line is new. The rest is shopworn. As is the final twist of the episode, in which a spurned Dev meets a spurned Ivy in a bar, and the two begin the dance of seduction. I mean, I just saw this same storyline on Switched At Birth a month ago. And that’s a well-written show.
Again though, my frustration with how “Tech” ends has largely to do with my lack of faith that any of this will be handled well. But I don’t want to gloss over how snappy this episode is for so much of its running time. For example, there’s some potentially fruitful tussling between Derek and Tom, as the latter tries to stump for an Ivy/Karen duet. We don’t see that song this week, which leads me to believe that it’s being held for next week, possibly after Karen learns what Ivy did with Dev. (My hope is that the song will come right after the scene where Karen and Ivy have to take off Rebecca’s gloves on-stage, to hasten a costume change being complicated by the leading lady’s sweat… I mean glow.)
There’s only one full on-camera number in this episode, actually: Ivy singing the R&B classic “I’m Goin’ Down” just after she learns about Derek and Rebecca, in what’s meant to be the opening round of a post-tech party “sing-off” between Ivy and Karen, until everyone admits that there’s no way Karen can beat that performance. It’s one of the better musical fantasy sequences that Smash has done, largely because of the way Megan Hilty sings it, and if the rest of the last act of “Tech” hadn’t been so weak, it would’ve made for a nice capper for the episode. Because up until then, everything is so exciting, with the characters all in costume in that gorgeous-looking theater. Y’know, maybe Derek’s right. “Tech” is all about the set and the lights. That’s all it is.
- I absolutely loved the opening (only partly on-camera) number: Tom and Sam belting out “Another Op’nin, Another Show” from Kiss Me, Kate while we see the various members of the ensemble gathering their gear and shipping up to Boston. That was the moment I could tell that this episode might have a little something going on. There was an urgency there, along with a rare acknowledgment that this show is about theater, not pop.
- Personal aside: I tend to associate “Another Op’nin, Another Show” with A Chorus Line, not Kiss Me, Kate, because when I worked at the Opryland theme park in Nashville during high school, I occasionally served as an usher at an awards-themed stage show called And The Winner Is…, which featured songs that had won Oscars, Grammys, Dove Awards and Tonys. During the Tonys section, “Another Op’nin” was sung while the cast was still in their Chorus Line costumes. (Or at least that’s how I remember it.)
- This episode was directed by Roxann Dawson, who was actually in A Chorus Line on Broadway at the start of her career (when her name was still Roxann Caballero), and has since gone on to a long career as a character actress and TV director, recently helming shows like The Good Wife and The Closer, among others. She did a fine job with “Tech.” I’m going to watch for her name in the future.
- In Nick’s bar, there’s a flyer posted in the background that reads, “Learn Esperanto!” Fair enough. Uno bieron, mi petas.
- For those of you who purposefully don’t watch the “Next week on Smash,” avert your eyes as I talk to those who do. So… Chekhov’s legume? Looks like it’s about to go off.
- Next week, I’ll be swapping Monday night duties with Zack Handlen, taking over House for one week (in order to revisit a show I used to cover, before it goes away for good) while Zack tackles Smash. That means there’ll be no excerpts from Smash: A Novel next week, so I’ve got an extra-large helping of Garson Kanin for you this week. The set-up here is that one of the female stars of Shine On, Harvest Moon has been causing trouble during the out-of-town tryout, due to her alcoholism and her jealousy of the show’s lead. At this point in the book, the disgruntled actress, Jenny, goes out drinking in Boston with the narrator and a couple of other members of the company:
I was feeling the Wild Turkey myself, and do not now recall how we got to the topless-bottomless bar. It was somewhere in the depths of the celebrated Combat Zone. The minute we walked in, I felt like walking out. The pungent redolence, the acid-sweet fragrance of pot filled the air (if it could be called air). … How curious that in this surrealistic atmosphere, reminiscent of Hieronymous Bosch or Gustave Doré, filled with booze and grass and tits and ass and worse, Great Truths were revealed once and for all. That ol’ vino veritas did its work. Jenny talked to Clay, across me.
“You’re a man, Clay. You’re a fine man. You’re a faggot, but you’re a man. Damn few around, my boy. None in this outfit, if you ask me. Go ahead, ask me. No? O.K. The so-called producer, a ridiculous little Bugs Bunny, who doesn’t know his tool from a hot rock. Larry? He could be good, but he’s yellow. Worried about the job. Needs a hit—or at least, wants a hit so bad he can taste it. He’ll do anything for a hit. And that’s a sure way to have a flop. … Jesus, when I first read the book—I mean the real book, the Bowman book—I damn near pissed myself. I laughed and I cried and I was uplifted, and then I laughed and cried at the same time. And for a couple of days—I guess I went bananas—I thought, Holy shit, here it is! Here’s my comeback! I am Nora Bayes. I can do it—I’ll work on the singing with Keith Davis. I can dance it and act it. Can I buy it? Should I call Hal Prince? And I did try—but ICM told me not available, so I figured all right, so what? So it’s just one more kick in the twat. I can take it. My twat can take it. Goodbye. See you later. So you can imagine, a year goes by—more—and I get this call from this guy; I swear, I didn’t know him, never heard of him, even. But when he lays the title on me, I go all gooseflesh. And I say yes. Damn right, yes. Time. I hear the score. All right. It’ll work, maybe. It’s no Kiss Me Kate—but it’s a show. Then I get a load of this book, this so-called book, and I damn near passed out. … But the big thing, the main thing, the killing thing, is—SHE is nothing. She is a hit record. She is an album. She is a Star. But if She’s Nora Bayes—or even a half-assed, cockamamie, reasonable, or even unreasonable facsimile—I’ll go down on her in Macy’s window. In every branch in the country. Got it? So now you see why I’m on the ol’ Heimerdeimer morning, noon, and who cares? It should be me, not She. And me? I’m counting out steps and combinations for a bunch of goddamn gypsies who could care less. Say, listen, Clay. Would you please get me home before I throw up all over these bare asses?”