Since this will be my last Smash review, I went ahead and plowed through the rest of Garson Kanin’s Smash: A Novel, to see if the book had any final insights to offer. There’s way too much florid romantic prose and tawdriness in the last 200 pages for me to quote the juiciest of those bits. (So I’ll spare you, “I am hungry for him, for the texture and taste of his stiffness in my mouth,” and, “Gently then firmly, gently then wildly, gently then powerfully, I coax the nectar from his being,” and, “My warm—no, hot—moistures waited patiently for Nature to begin its song”). No, what’s more relevant to Smash: A TV Show is how down the home stretch, Kanin really starts getting into the esoterica of art and entertainment. Some of what he writes about is related to the practicalities of being a performer, trying to eat and drink and think the right things to stay healthy for the run of a show. But in the last part of the book, the musical also loses its director, when the star has him fired, and Kanin proceeds to write knowingly about how the small changes in lighting and staging demanded by a diva can make a show incrementally worse.
When it comes to Smash, I don’t think we can talk about increments. If this second season has proved anything, it’s that Smash was never going to be fixed by tweaking Debra Messing’s wardrobe, or swapping out a few characters, or updating the music. The whole approach of the show needed to be overhauled in the off-season, to elevate the material from soapy trash to something much, much classier. Instead, the new creative team chose to tone down the trash but keep the soap, rendering the show not just as moronic as always, but also boring. Last week’s episode was surprisingly enjoyable from start to finish, but let’s not kid ourselves—it’s too late to expect that Smash is ever going to turn into Mad Men.
Just look at the way that “The Parents” handles its three main storylines (not to mention its three piddly subplots). The title of the episode comes from the return of Ivy’s retired Broadway star mother Leigh Conroy (played again by Bernadette Peters), who’s been hired to play Marilyn’s mother in Bombshell; as well as a visit from Karen’s father Roger Cartwright (Dylan Baker), who arrives just in time to catch Jimmy sneaking out of Karen’s apartment in the morning. Meanwhile, Derek serves as a surrogate parent to Jimmy, loaning the kid money to get him out of debt with the drug dealer that he used to work for, after he sees Jimmy stealing a watch at a benefit for Hit List’s theater.
With one sublime exception, each of the main stories in “The Parents” is sketched out in drab cliché. Jimmy’s old associate corners him at the theater, and they have the same “Pay me!”/“I need time… I don’t have it!” exchange that crooks and troubled protagonists have been having in fictional stories for nearly a century. At the same time, Roger scolds Karen for wasting her talent on a non-Broadway show and for tarting around with “this boy” (although he initially thinks she’s with Derek, which bugs him even more), in the same kind of “I’m only telling you this because I love you” parental intervention that’s been a staple of television shows since the age of the DuMont network. And Tom tries to exploit the animosity between Ivy and Leigh to bring some drama to their scene together, and instead sees Leigh do a fairly typical self-absorbed superstar shtick and sees Ivy go off on her mom, in a rehash of their dynamic from last season. There is nothing fresh or smart about any of this.
Well, almost nothing. Ivy and Leigh are fairly amusing together at first, as they try to play Marilyn and her mom the way they want them to be, as loving and supportive, thus making the scene comically dull. (It’s an example of what Kanin writes about his Smash novel, about how when stars get their way, their performances often suffer.) And the ladies are absolutely stunning in their big song together, “Hang The Moon,” which features heartbreaking lyrics about cutting together the best memories of their lives into a beautiful movie (and which makes some of the best use of the Dream Theatre that Smash ever has, given that Ivy and Leigh and Marilyn and her mom all want to be in a fantasy). It would be easier to hate Smash outright if it weren’t capable from week to week of moments like this, that are legitimately tear-jerking despite all the shlock surrounding them.
Or maybe those occasional dizzying highs are the reason to hate Smash, since they’re usually followed by plot developments as forced as the one in “The Parents” that sees Ivy telling Tom that he’s not her friend any more because of the whole Leigh situation. That’s such a childish, unprofessional reaction on Ivy’s part and such a non-starter, dramatically. Are we supposed to be so invested in Ivy and Tom’s friendship that we’re going to be biting our nails over this latest development? Do we even believe that Ivy’s grudge against Tom will last more than a couple of episodes? Or are we somehow supposed to believe that Tom’s commitment to making Bombshell great is causing him to lose his soul, even though he still seems like a remarkably pleasant fellow? Whose side are we meant to be on here?
As for the aforementioned three piddly subplots in “The Parents,” those consist of Eileen continuing to flirt with the Times theater critic, Julia continuing to make amends with her old friend Scott, and Ana continuing to impress people with her scene-stealing turn as Hit List’s “Diva,” emerging as a star at the benefit. The first of those three is mostly just strange, since the critic doesn’t seem all that interested in Eileen. The second matters only inasmuch as it brings Julia into the Hit List world, as Scott asks her to help improve the show’s story. The third provides “The Parents” with its only non-Ivy-and-Leigh-related highlight, as Ana sings what to my ears was the best Hit List song yet, while suspended from the rafters on cloth and surrounded by acrobats.
But Ana’s number also serves to further illustrate Kanin’s point about how accommodating stars—even future stars—can lead a show down the wrong path. Impressed by Ana, Scott starts pushing to get her in more of Hit List, which will undoubtedly add more “wow” to the musical, but may push it too far away from what it’s supposed to be. The way one of the characters in Smash: A Novel describes this phenomenon pretty well describes what’s gone on with Smash: A TV Show too:
Hey! It’s getting better. A cut—better. A change—better. A replacement—much better. And because it’s getting better—not only better but better and better—we poor besotted stagestruck nuts actually believe it’s getting good! But no. It’s not getting good—it’s just getting better!
In some ways, in this second (and presumably last) season, Smash has gotten better. But no, it hasn’t gotten good.
- The Smash writers should pay more attention to Tom, who rightly tells Julia regarding Scott, “You apologized. He accepted. That story has a beginning, middle, and an end.”
- My new way of asking for cash from people is going to be: “I need an advance… on my money.”
- How did Derek know which jacket Jimmy swiped the watch from? I’m going to assume that somebody at the benefit went home with a new watch at the end of the night.
- I hope Ana’s number was staged just for the benefit of the benefit. Otherwise, last episode’s repudiation of “the bells and whistles” for Hit List didn’t really take hold, did it?
- Was it just me, or did several actors sound kind of sloshed in this episode? I’m thinking of Jesse Martin and Bernadette Peters in particular.
- I knew we were in trouble with this episode from that opening scene of Jimmy sneaking out, accompanied by wacky escape music and Karen muttering “Oh gosh!” in one of the least convincing “panicked” voices I’ve ever heard.
- Hey Roger Cartwright, I know you’re from out of town, but just so you know, your daughter being the lead in an off-Broadway show is not the same as her “giving up her dream.” Do you know how many aspiring singer/actresses would kill for that kind of an opportunity? (Especially when they can’t act?)
- Although this is my last Smash review, I believe that someone will be taking over for the remainder of the season. Who that will be is as yet unannounced, but watch this space on Saturday and see who shows up!