God damn it, Smash. With “The Fringe,” this show comes as close as it’s been all season to being the smart, bright, grounded adult drama that it always should’ve been (and that it I think it actually was, fleetingly, in season one, even if its lows last year were ridiculously lower). And then, in a matter of seconds, Smash slips back into its worst traits: the conflicts that shouldn’t really be conflicts, given way more weight than they deserve.
The good news is that two-thirds of the storylines in this episode are fairly tolerable. The best of the three is Bombshell-related: Jerry Rand, who has the instincts of a businessman, not an artist, is demanding that the first-ever Bombshell song, “Never Give All The Heart,” be cut, because the show has too many ballads, and is too much of a downer. Eileen ultimately backed Jerry and Tom in last week’s needlessly cliffhanger-y choice between scripts, leaving Derek and Julia worried that they’re making a show “for tourists.” This, for a change, is an actual, plausible source of tension that might come up in the production of a Broadway show, and as a result, the characters stake out opposing positions—and make plans based on those positions—that aren’t unreasonable. It’s like some kind of crazy scriptwriting miracle.
Jerry has a point when he says that the added spectacle he wants—such as the jet plane landing on stage in the middle of “Public Relations”—is a necessary distraction from the show’s lack of star-power. Tom’s right, too, when he reminds Julia that they’re using a book that she used to love, and that she’d be better off fighting to make a great version of the show Jerry wants instead of just sulking. This is an age-old artistic dilemma (and one I actually write a lot about in my next “A Very Special Episode” column, running on Thursday): If you’re a talented writer, can you tackle any work-for-hire assignment and “make it your own” in a positive way, or will the kinks of your personality inevitably warp it into something that’s neither yours nor your employer’s?
In this case, Tom is actually able to save “Never Give All The Heart” and make it something Julia can stand behind, by upping the tempo and changing it from a “sad woman alone on the stage” number to a “strong woman singing to her ex-lovers” number. That’s the Smash I’ve always wanted to see: the one that treats the act of artistic creation with the intelligence of a great legal drama, mystery, or medical show. Talented people cleverly solving problems in ways that the home viewer can’t predict: That’s compelling television.
It’s not even out of line for Derek to object to Tom’s solution, because Derek and Tom have always had different sensibilities, and Derek hates being undermined. Again: plausible. My only worry is that the big plot development in the Bombshell storyline—Derek deciding to quit, clearing the way for Tom to direct—will lead Smash back to some of the tedious, repetitive, coin-flip storytelling that doomed season one and has been a drag on season two, too. Who’s gonna be Marilyn? Who’s gonna be DiMaggio? Which script will we use? Who’ll be the director? The show keeps shuffling the deck, but playing the same cards.
Case-in-point: the return of Ellis, even if at this point, he remains an off-screen character. We’ve barely adjusted to Jerry taking over the show, and Eileen supporting him, and now Karen has had an unexpected encounter with Ellis’ ex-girlfriend, who informs her that he’s still involved with Bombshell behind the scenes. (Also, he’s gay. Who knew?) So it appears we’re being set up for Eileen versus Jerry again. Plus, with Derek deciding at the end of “The Fringe” to take over The Hit List, and Karen deciding that she’d rather be in The Hit List than Bombshell, and Ivy suffering through a show that looks to be about to implode, we could well have Karen vs. Ivy redux. As the “Never Give All My Heart” scenes proved this week, there are so many more interesting things that Smash could be dramatizing than these same old in-or-out decisions.
Speaking of The Hit List, it’s the two-night Fringe showcase of that show that gives this episode its title—and its worst moments. There’s actually a pretty good inciting conflict at the start of this storyline, when Jerry tells Karen that she can’t do the festival because she’s supposed to be a new star being “introduced” in Bombshell. But Jerry’s order to yank Karen from the Fringe shows prompts Jimmy to be even more of a pouty, unlikable jerk than he usually is. As happens far too often on Smash, Jimmy assumes bad faith on Karen’s part, and he proceeds to give a terrible first performance (unseen, which is kind of a rip-off), then threaten to cancel the second performance.
Jimmy being angry makes sense. Jimmy being unable to comprehend that Karen really wants to do the show but can’t? Well, that just makes him seem stupid and irrational. And maybe the character’s supposed to come off that way. But if so, I’m not sure why we’re supposed to believe that Karen would want to be with him—or if we’re even supposed to root for them to be a couple.
Karen does show up after all on night two, and gives a boffo performance of what’s kind of a dull song. (But then, I’ve thought all of The Hit List songs so far have been nothing special, so don’t mind me.) My biggest complaint about that big climactic number—which is good enough to interest a backer, appropriately played by former Rent star Jesse L. Martin—is that most of it takes place in the Dream Theatre, when to my mind it should’ve stayed squarely in the Fringe space, so that we could see how it actually plays.
I feel the same way about Ivy’s big Liaisons number in “The Fringe.” She’s performing for the press, in a kind of pre-tech preview, when she decides to take some advice from her co-star and wake the scribes up by putting some zazz in her already racy song. But because about half the song happens in the Dream Theatre, it’s unclear right away whether she’s actually performing it with gusto, or if she’s just imagining that she did. (The answer? She really wowed the crowd. It just would’ve been better if we’d seen what they’d seen.)
But I don’t want to complain too much about the Liaisons scenes, because even though they pretty much repeat last week’s—Ivy tells Terrence Falls the truth about his awful performance, and after first rebelling against her, he then promises to reform—Sean Hayes remains highly entertaining as he rambles on manically about staying up for four days straight, learning French and archery. This is a case study in how to make a character clueless for the sake of the plot, but not make him unwatchable: have the character be funny, not angsty. When Jimmy doesn’t grasp why he can’t have things exactly his way, he comes off like a spoiled brat. But when Terrence finds Ivy crying over him cutting her number, he just assumes she’s crying for no reason, as people sometimes do, like when he eats a really good peach cobbler. The same purpose is served here, in that one our main heroines is in trouble because of some idiot, but while it’s not a situation as nuanced and real as the argument over how to sing a song, it’s at least more entertaining than, “You never really believed in me, and I hate you! Get out of my room!”
- I laughed with this show this week almost as much as I laughed at it, and it all started with something hidden in the back of one of the very first shots: Jerry, singing along like a big goof during the rehearsal of “Public Relations.” There’s no close-up to emphasize what he’s doing; he’s just one of the crowd watching the number. But while everyone else is staring intently, he’s having a ball. That was a nice touch.
- What Ivy was doing to that quill… you can’t do that on television, can you?
- I don’t fully understand what the music directors have in mind with their non-original songs this season, which have run the gamut from played-out, decades-old Top 40 to surprisingly hip modern rock. That said, I’m never going to complain about hearing The Zombies’ “This Will Be Our Year,” one of my favorite songs. (And since I wasn’t writing about the episode a couple of weeks ago when it appeared, I want to go on record as saying I thought the show’s version of Billy Joel’s “Everybody Loves You Now” was pretty great.)
- Julia complains that she hasn’t gotten to spend enough time with Leo lately. Judging by the cratering Smash ratings, the former hate-watchers agree!
- Glad to see the Liaisons storyline finally put Veanne Cox to good use, after reducing her to mere scenery last week. (I loved the part about this being the worst show she’s ever done… “and I was in Urban Cowboy.”)
- I’d hate to leave you without any of that creepy old Garson Kanin Smash: A Novel smut, but frankly, the pages I read this week—which include the big moment when Midge and Gene finally get it on—are too blue even for me, with a lot about Gene’s lips “making friends with my nipples” and lines like, “He enters me with reverence, the head of his prick fondling my engorged bud.” I will however share with you though Midge’s post-coital reverie:
I had fucked and been fucked—well and clumsily. I had sucked and been sucked—happily and dutifully. But I had never shared lovemaking, never known such joy in it or gratitude or imagination—had never known such heights. I had known and had boys, jocks, studs, hot-shots, fellows, boyfriends, beaux, sexpots, even a belle, once!—but never before a man, not until now a Gene. A man, a gentleman, a lover, a complete and wise and sensitive and caring and loving and ardent understanding man.