TV Club contributor and all-around good dude Myles McNutt wrote a thoughtful piece about Smash on his blog Cultural Learnings, along with some provocative tweets, in which (among other things), he raised the objection that this show practically requires us to accept that Julia and Tom are at the top of their profession, and that all the other people involved with Marilyn are highly talented, simply because other characters say so. Or, as Myles put it, “If you don’t think the musical is that impressive, or that McPhee isn’t an upstart talent waiting to blossom, the show doesn’t want you.”
I don’t wholly agree with this, but I see what Myles means. As I wrote last week, if Smash is the Broadway-set equivalent of a workplace drama, then what it’s doing really isn’t so different from, say, the USA series Suits telling us that its hero is the best there is at corporate-contract law. There’s a long tradition of TV dramas asking us to take on faith that their protagonists are amazing at jobs that we ordinary folks can’t understand: diagnosing patients, interrogating criminals, wooing advertising clients, what-have-you. The difference with Smash is that everyone’s something of an expert when it comes to music and dancing, because we all have eyes and ears. We may have different tastes, but we have at least a rudimentary idea of what constitutes quality. And in that sense, I do agree with Myles that Smash is making a clear, creative choice by telling us how we’re supposed to feel about these characters. Theresa Rebeck and company are saying that this series is going to be more Marcus Welby, M.D. than ER. (Which is fine by me; I like both those shows.)
That said, the second episode of Smash, “The Callback,” does leave a little room for dissent. This episode is all about the Marilyn team directly comparing Karen and Ivy, which demands direct acknowledgment of the two ladies’ weaknesses as well as their strengths. In Ivy’s case, she’s experienced, driven, and she’s done her homework on Marilyn Monroe by reading biographies and by studying her voice and facial expressions. By being so perfect, however, she’s missing the spontaneity and woundedness of the actual Marilyn. Meanwhile, Karen has that wide-eyed look and freshness that the Marilyn team wants, but no one knows how she’ll react to the pressure of endless rehearsals and jaded critics. Plus, Karen’s making no effort to “do” Marilyn, either while running lines or rehearsing the dance routines. (In fact, as Derek aptly notes during Karen’s scenework, she’s not really doing anything; she’s timid and over-serious, nearly all of the time.)
Given how much effort NBC has put into promoting Katharine McPhee as Karen, it may surprise a lot of viewers that it’s Megan Hilty’s Ivy who gets the big part at the end of “The Callback” (though I doubt any of us expect this decision to be permanent). Going by the evidence of the past two episodes, this is clearly the right choice—assuming, that is, that we’re supposed to be trusting our own senses. Though like Myles, I’m not entirely sure that we are. After Karen gives her big dance audition to “The 20th Century Fox Mambo”—a song I liked quite a bit, even though it should’ve been “The 20th Century Foxtrot,” yes?—the Marilyn creative team indicates that she nailed it. But did she? To me, Karen was much more appealing when she was awkwardly rehearsing the dance in her apartment, and getting embarrassed by her boyfriend Dev watching her. In the studio, she hits hit all the notes and all the steps, but without much life. I don’t know whether this is McPhee’s weakness or the character’s. As I mentioned last week, I like McPhee generally, and there’s a lot she’s doing right with this role, but the idea that the Karen we’ve seen so far would be considered such a close second to Ivy does strain credulity.
That’s not the only element of this Smash episode that’s strained. I was rolling my eyes all through the Karen/Dev storyline, which sees her (falsely) promising that her work won’t keep her from making it to Dev’s important dinner. If the writers had acknowledged even in passing what a clichéd, TV-ish plot this is, I might’ve been okay with it. Instead, they treat it straight—even including a moment when Dev’s colleague publicly hails the “stability” of his life—which leads me to believe that somewhere in the Smash writers’ room that there’s a Wheel Of Complications that somebody spun to come up with “Karen misses big date because of a late rehearsal.”
And the less said about as the Houstons’ adventures in adoption-land the better, though I do feel obliged to admit that I was a little confused by the direction the story took this week, in that I had assumed after the pilot that it was Frank who was keen on the adoption and Julia who was dragging her feet. Now it seems that Frank is mainly annoyed that Julia isn’t properly following through on a family project that she initiated. Even stranger: Apparently the whole adoption thing has been an attempt by Frank and Julia to fulfill a promise to their teenage son, who seems oddly upset (for a teenager, anyway) that he may not get a baby sister after all. This whole storyline is just batty. Again, it’s almost as though the writers stumbled upon it by chance and are committed to making it work, even though no one can remember why anyone thought this storyline would be a good addition to the show. (Maybe one of their teenage sons came up with it?)
But I don’t want to sound too down on Smash’s second installment, which I mostly liked (if a little less than the first). I appreciated the Marilyn-related intrigue, whether it was Tom’s assistant Ellis eavesdropping on the closed-door casting discussions, or Ivy’s friend assessing Karen’s chances as an insider at her dance rehearsals. The Eileen/Jerry divorce drama heats up in this episode too, as he decides to proceed with My Fair Lady yet fails to grab Derek back as his director. And Derek finally succeeds in bedding one of his prospective Marilyns as he and Ivy hit the sheets after an especially intense rehearsal and discussion of Marilyn Monroe as a sex object.
And as with the pilot, I liked the way that “The Callback” deals with some of the nuts-and-bolts of getting a musical to Broadway. How many previews should they do? How long should the workshop be? Open out of town or not? (The answer to all the above: Eileen thinks that modern musicals are overworked, and so she wants to open for real as soon as is technically possible.) And while Julia and Tom are having no trouble generating songs and scenes for Marilyn, they’re having a hard time fitting it all into a structure until Julia suggests that they go nonlinear, and put everything where it makes the most emotional sense. This to me is where the story of Smash needs to linger more, on these decisions that are so crucial to the future success of a show, and that the people in charge try to put off until they absolutely have to be made.
Which brings us back to Ivy and Karen, whose respective stories and gifts are nicely contrasted in scenes which bookend the episode. In the opening, we see Karen belting out Blondie’s “Call Me” in the nightclub wing of The Dream Theater, although she’s actually standing stock-still at her waitress gig, anxious about when she’s going to hear from the producers. And at the end, we see a triumphant Ivy singing a Carrie Underwood song in an actual nightclub, which is a clever way of showing where these two performers are in their respective careers. Ivy’s song is much better too: very unforced and natural, unlike Karen’s, which is both aptly (given McPhee’s past) and ironically (given who originated Ivy’s song) a little American Idol-ish.
Now if only I got the sense that the Smash creators felt the same way….
- Really loving the location-shooting on this show. Even if it’s just providing the actors a backdrop while they walk, it’s fun to see the nods to the Helen Hayes Theatre and Sardi’s. I also like the little pieces of New York detail, such as Karen being late for rehearsal because of police action on the subway.
- I don’t know if I just missed this last week or if it’s a new addition, but the Smash opening credits (such as they are) are kind of nifty, with the sound of an orchestra tuning up while the lights pop on. That’s the whole premise of the show in a nutshell.
- Another example of Smash not letting us make up our own minds: Julia’s kinda banal letter to her potential adopted child’s birth mother is apparently the most beautiful document ever forged by human hands, judging by the reaction in her pre-adoption support group.
- I wasn’t wild about “Let Me Be Your Star” as a song, but I did like the staging, with first Karen than Ivy surrounded by a chorus of Marilyn-doubters. It led me to believe, briefly anyway, that the solution to the Marilyn casting dilemma was going to be that both Karen and Ivy get cast, as different aspects of Ms. Norma Jean. (Hey, who knows… ?)
- By the way, Clash By Night is awesome. Screw you, Derek.