Smash: “The Dress Rehearsal”
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Smash: “The Dress Rehearsal”

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Smash

“The Dress Rehearsal”

Season 2, Episode 11

Let’s just get this out of the way first. Jimmy’s someone who a.) changed his identity under shady circumstances to b.) move to New York and c.) pursue one of those dream careers few people actually get up the gumption to try at which he’s been d.) wildly successful, and in his previous life, he had a friend named e.) Adam. Here is my question to you: Is Jimmy Collins Dick Whitman? It sure seems so, or else there’s some guy named Adam who hangs around New York, haunting people who changed their identity for one reason or another, like he’s got nothing better to do with his time.

None of this is meant to be a slam against “The Dress Rehearsal,” which ended up being my favorite Smash of the season so far and, indeed, a nice step up in terms of telling stories that were mostly based around the show’s premise and milieu, rather than just tales of people having sex and then crying about it afterward. Sure, the gang over at Hit List is still behaving ridiculously, but at least some of the conflicts there stemmed from actual creative differences, rather than the director and composer having weird, territorial fights over the leading lady, which just made everybody seem like they were in a 1950s movie where things would be settled with a drag race. (Okay, yes, there was some of that in there, too.) And at Bombshell, where the show must go on, most of what happens is genuinely tied to the attempt to mount the show and the very real question an actress must face of whether to go nude or not, a question Ivy answers in surprisingly satisfying fashion. This isn’t great television or even very good television, but it’s at least somewhat entertaining television, and it’s Saturday night, and we’ll take what we can get.

First, though, let’s stop and talk about Hit List, which is apparently going to test whether Smash can do what it did with Karen—i.e., have everybody in the show constantly proclaim how great she is—with an entire piece of theatrical entertainment. The funniest thing about tonight’s episode is when the New York Times piece that declares how brilliant and edgy and of the moment the show is gets revealed shortly before we catch a glimpse of the poster for Hit List in the background of a scene, and it looks like something that would have been on the cover of a VHS tape in the ‘80s, right down to the font. People must remake themselves for fame, and Hit List reflects that, proclaims the Grey Lady, and it just feels like more crazy bullshit, particularly when what we’ve seen of Hit List seems like, again, a suburban soccer mom trying to summarize the plot of Rent based entirely on its promotional material, with musical numbers that could never be performed as such in real life, because they feature absurd, highly athletic choreography, so all of the singing would be piped in via speakers, just turning the whole thing into a riff on Ninja Turtles Live!

It’s not even so much that it bothers me that everybody on the show keeps proclaiming Hit List “brilliant” and “edgy.” This is a TV show. “Brilliant” and “edgy” are always going to have just a faint whiff of Zack from Saved By The Bell to them. No, what rankles me about Hit List is that everything I’ve seen of it just looks so fucking stupid. Take, for instance, Derek’s restaging of the opening scene, which he does on the fly tonight. In and of itself, this is a bravura sequence, possibly the best of the season and maybe the series. Derek, having watched the show again without constantly freaking out about when he’s going to get to sleep with Karen, has several realizations about what the whole thing should look like, not least of which involves moving a moment featuring Ana to the start of the show, to offer a rough riff on Sunset Boulevard (the movie, but also the Andrew Lloyd Webber mega-musical, one presumes) or All About Eve (the movie, and presumably not the stage musical Applause). The sequence is so much fun, just because it lets us see Derek at work and lets us see how a good director shapes material and works with his collaborators—or runs roughshod over his collaborators—to achieve his vision.

It also involves Ana’s character—the “Diva,” don’t forget—going to a concert put on by Karen’s character (Amanda), then training a gun at the stage and firing. Buh?

Later, Derek tries to convince Jimmy and Karen that this is just what the show needs, that this is what will take the show from a riff on Romeo And Juliet to “iconic.” And I’ll be honest here. Derek’s staging is pretty cool. If a show opened with a moment like that, I could see that getting me excited about what was to come. But everything that follows is, so far as I can tell, a pretty bizarre tale of a woman who wants to become famous, the man who loves her, and the diva who ends up wanting to kill her, all sold with a poster that looks like the DVD cover to Better Off Dead. I’m fine with the show trying to suggest that this is the edgy rock opera the good people of this alternate universe didn’t even know they needed, but everything about it suggests something ridiculous that’s trying too hard. Maybe if it was just the New York Times that was suckered, I’d buy it. But I’ve seen how this show treats Karen. I know where this is heading.

Over on the Bombshell side of things, well, once Tom wakes up from a nightmare in which he first appears on stage naked in front of everybody, then discovers Ellis in his bed—in a split-second shot that feels really strange, like the show is taunting its audience—it’s mostly uphill. Now, there are some weird things here. It strikes me as bizarre that an accidental disrobing would lead everybody to reconsider what they want to do in favor of selling more tickets, but maybe I’m too artistically high-minded. The point is that nearly all of the conflict over Bombshell way—Tom trying to get the show in working order for the first preview, Julia coming up with a way to fill for the plane that doesn’t work, Ivy trying to decide whether to go nude or not, Sam struggling with being a swing again—stems directly from Broadway-type storylines. This isn’t just soap opera shenanigans. It’s all related to the high-pressure world of staging a musical this big.

And in its best and biggest moment, the storyline features Ivy choosing not to go nude, then going nude in a scene where it will have more artistic impact. Bombshell suffers, a bit, from the same thing as Hit List, in that I don’t think anyone would call the scene between Marilyn and JFK brilliant (the show seems too enamored of Marilyn as an icon, to the degree where the character herself can only think of herself in terms that a pop culture essayist might use to describe her), but the bit where Ivy drops the sheet to reveal her nude body—to the gasps of the audience (which struck me as too much)—is dead-on. It really would enhance the story and character at that point, and it just further commits me to the Ivy love train.

Then, of course, the Times writes a lengthy story about how Hit List is the real Marilyn musical and Bombshell is playing in the past, and everybody at Hit List is excited, and everybody at Bombshell is sad, and Eileen goes to the arts editor to whine, and he says he doesn’t want to see her anymore, and I think that’s a pretty good idea if he wants to stay off of Romanesko, and the show loses whatever it had built. We’re right back into the world of soapy theatrics, and we can’t even take for granted that Jimmy is who he says he is. Oh well, Smash. It was fun while it lasted.

Stray observations:

  • I do like that the episode at least seemed to play around with the idea that Jimmy and Karen were delusional about why Derek was making the changes he was making, thinking it was all about his jealousy of Jimmy for bedding Karen, when it was really about making the show better. I hope it doesn’t reverse course in the weeks to come.
  • After feeling fairly useless for much of the season, Ana has come into her own in the past few weeks. It doesn’t hurt that she’s a more arresting presence than Karen, who mostly seems pouty when she’s angry.
  • A musical recommendation: Did you know that the movie Camp is streaming on Netflix? Well, it is, and you should watch it. The story is no great shakes, but the production numbers are fun, and the show has a deep knowledge of the Broadway back-catalog. Plus, a young Anna Kendrick sings “Ladies Who Lunch”!
  • At first, I thought the Times article was really stretching for its “modern Marilyn” thing, but once the article pointed out all of the Bombshell people working on Hit List, it made sense as the kind of angle a publication would adopt for a story.
  • I'm out of town next weekend, so Myles McNutt will be filling in. I will try to get him a Frank Fisticuffs installment, so you need not go without.

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

(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!)

Frank crept quietly outside of New York Times arts editor Richard Francis’ home. Above him, the moon shone non-threateningly. If only they knew, Frank mused. If only they knew.

Inside, Richard Francis was making Rice-A-Roni to feed his college-aged daughter, who, so far as Frank could tell, had not emerged from her bedroom all day. Frank thought she was really quite a fetching young lady, though she’d likely have no time for him in the event that he killed her father by hacking into his pacemaker over the French Internet to kill him.

Inside, Richard stopped and looked out the window, curious. “Who goes there?”

Frank slipped back into the shadows, trying to keep silent, crouching against the side of the house. In his ear, Khemkaeng whispered menacingly, “Don’t let him see you!” Frank was an old pro at this and didn’t need the reminder, but best to keep Margaret’s hostage-taker compliant.

Richard Francis stepped to the window, shading his eyes and squinting into the gloom. “I have a Pulitzer Prize,” he said. “And I’m not afraid to use it!”

Above Frank, the light in the daughter’s bedroom went on. “Dad?” said a sleepy voice.

Richard looked away from the window, frowning toward the stairs. “Nothing, sweetie. Just go back to sleep.”

Frank sighed. He couldn’t do it. He couldn’t kill such a loving father. And if Margaret died, so be it. She was only his fiancée. There would be more women for a men like Frank Fisticuffs.

Frank knew the only way to announce himself to the arts editor of the New York Times was to do it in a way he’d find non-threatening. He would have to announce himself in song.

Yet just as he was about to launch into “Lord High Executioner” from The Mikado, he gasped. Richard Francis was on the floor, frothing at the mouth, dying. His daughter rushed to his side, then looked out the window, directly at Frank. “Frank Fisticuffs is here, daddy! And he killed you!” Her voice had such pain. It took Frank back to Beijing, 1925.

“Ha ha, Frank Fisticuffs!” said Khemkaeng. “It was merely a test. I knew you would chicken out. Say goodbye to Margaret!” The sound of a gunshot. “And say goodbye… permanently!”

From the woods behind Richard Francis’ house, the terrifying howl of a wolf was joined by 17 others.

Frank grimaced. “Bionic wolves.”

TO BE CONTINUED!