From the start, Smash has been an exercise in reducing expectations. The pilot was good, but it wasn’t as good as it probably should have been. The entirety of the first season slowly sank to the bottom of the ocean, and then the second season has mostly been a series of very curious story decisions. But I don’t know that the show ever dipped out of the C range. It had competent actors. It had enjoyable musical numbers much of the time. In the first season, at least, it had an unabashed willingness to go for just about anything, even if that “anything” was sometimes downright awful. Every so often, the show will do an inside-Broadway type of storyline, and these are usually reasonably compelling. In short, Smash is a disappointment, but I’d hesitate to label it one of the worst shows on television. There are far worse catastrophes out there. I can still watch this and be reasonably entertained.
Well, that was the case until now. “The Phenomenon” is such a bafflingly miscalculated piece of television that I’m hard-pressed to figure out exactly why anyone thought it would work. And yet as you watch it, it’s obvious that everybody involved thinks this is going to be some truly powerful stuff that will leave viewers weeping and Emmy voters filling out their ballots with Smash written down from top to bottom. “The Phenomenon” is so bad that I urge all of you to rush out, to find it on Hulu, to watch it right now, because it must be experienced. In fact, I paused it 10 minutes in on my screener to ask my wife to come watch it with me, because I needed to see it with her. It really needs to be shared, like a beloved family heirloom or a viral infection. “The Phenomenon” is such a misstep that it sort of loops back around to being entertaining again. Everything about it actively offended me, but I also wanted to watch it all over again.
The center of the episode is the death of Kyle, but the episode doesn’t have the basic decency to actually make itself be about the death of Kyle. Instead, it keeps pulling other things in. Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston throws yet another drink in Michael Christofer’s face, because somebody somewhere thinks it’s funny if that’s her thing. (Remember: She does it in the opening credits.) Jimmy, predictably, makes everything all about himself, and I think we’re supposed to sympathize with him in the moment, maybe even go so far as to empathize with him. There are flashbacks to when Kyle was alive, and he talks about a bunch of cheesy, maudlin ways to make Amanda’s death in Hit List resonate, then the show proceeds to get within spitting distance of every single one of them in the later Kyle flashbacks. (It even has Jimmy sing a song about how much he misses Kyle that conveniently happens to be in Hit List.) Scott does some treacherous bullshit that didn’t strike me as all that treacherous. And so on and so on. Every time the episode seemed about to settle down and deal with Kyle’s death, it skirted off toward something else.
Put this another way: The episode opened with Jimmy singing Radiohead classic to himself as he walked to Karen’s apartment—and I mean this literally, as in there were two Jimmys, and one was singing, and one was walking, and what the fuck?!—and it was somehow one of the less clumsy things in the hour.
Now, in theory, I liked the fact that the episode devoted so much time to the death of Kyle. I generally appreciate it when TV shows take the deaths of their characters at least somewhat seriously, as opposed to making said deaths into plot points, but that also presupposes that the characters have been built up in any way over the course of the season. Now that he’s dead, it’s insultingly apparent that Kyle’s only role within the show was to die. I liked the kid better than Jimmy, sure, but that’s not exactly an accomplishment he should put on his CV. I like roadkill better than Jimmy. I like various communicable diseases better than Jimmy. I like Karen better than Jimmy. (Watching this episode mostly made me sad for how Jeremy Jordan has been stuck with this immovable lump of a character. He’s trying—you can tell!—but he’s stuck with this character who couldn’t be sympathetic if he was saving a bushel of kittens and babies from Adolf Hitler himself.) So now I’m watching the show trying to tell me that Kyle meant so much to these people, and it turns out he’s just another interchangeable cog in the show’s great soap opera machine. What did we know about him, really? He cared about Jimmy? He wasn’t very good at writing the show’s book until he abruptly was? He had a really strange relationship with Tom?
So instead of actually being an episode about the hole Kyle’s death would leave in these characters’ lives or even just an episode about how they all tried to cope with the loss (and inevitably made things all about themselves), we instead got an episode about how Kyle’s death brought Jimmy and Karen back together, then made it cool to move Hit List to Broadway, thus reigniting the Tony feud between the two shows. For real? This is what we’re going with? It’d be one thing if I thought the show had a little bit of distance from how Jimmy and Karen take the opportunity of Kyle’s death to make everything all about them, but it just doesn’t. That scene where Jimmy talks about how the death is all his fault while overlooking the river? I think that’s supposed to be serious. There’s an attempt to say something profound about death here. Instead, it’s washed away in the face of more soap opera bullshit. (Weirdly, the only character whose being affected by Kyle’s death worked for me at all was Derek, which I wouldn’t have predicted.)
To make all of this even worse, the execution of the whole thing was stunningly inept. There was twinkly, sad piano music everywhere, to let us know how sad everybody was constantly. The flashbacks were thrown into the episode haphazardly and didn’t seem to have much bearing on the present day action at all. Tom sang a cover of Billy Joel’s “Vienna” that was really quite lovely, but it also went on and on forever, and it was all predicated on the idea that we’d been waiting for ages for Tom and Kyle to get together—since they were the only two gay men in the cast outside of Sam, I guess—even though the whole thing is more creepy than interesting, and… was anybody waiting for that? And, as mentioned, Jimmy literally sang “High And Dry” to another Jimmy. (At least if the ghost of Kyle had sung it, the show would have revealed itself as a sly meta-commentary on deaths in musicals, as it sometimes seemed to be trying to do. Instead, I don’t know. I got to hear a Radiohead song I liked?) Derek and Karen almost slept together, then didn’t, and it was still a huge fucking deal, even though nobody cares, and then Ivy something.
Also, Bernadette Peters had a musical number out of fucking nowhere. You do not waste your Bernadette Peters musical numbers, Smash!
I want to find something nice to say about this because I did keep watching it, even though I was hooting again and again at how bad it was. The cinematography was nice? I liked the way it captured that feeling of a rainy day when you know something is about to happen? The final scene—with the marquee lights dimming in Kyle’s memory—captured a legendary Broadway tradition for the wider audience? But I just can’t. For the most part, this was a tawdry, terrible episode that took what should have been a huge moment and reduced it to a bunch of typical TV bullshit. It made me laugh in derision as I was watching it, then made me sort of angry as I started to think about it afterward.
So here’s the nice thing I can say: Okay, Smash. You’ve reached your nadir. Now there’s nowhere to go but up!
- Because I’m sure some of you won’t believe me about the incredibly strange two Jimmys scene, I have made a screencap. (My own wife doesn’t believe me, and I made her watch at least part of it.)
- To make things even worse, Eileen’s team gets together to game out some Tony Awards strategies, and they call one of the categories “supporting actress in a musical.” It is featured actress in a musical, Smash. You know this.
- “Oh, right. Kyle has parents that we met last week. Maybe we should bring them back to get a great look at how their son affected their lives?” “Nah! Let’s call ‘em offscreen!”
- Do you think Jesse L. Martin felt a cold chill when he read this script, then realized that he would have to be the evil corporate overlord in this scenario?
- Man, if the death of Kyle is an event that’s mobilized the New York City hipster underground, and if they’re all showing up at a night that the theatre world will remember forever, and if this is the center of Jimmy’s character arc for the season, wouldn’t it be nice to maybe see a little more of that night? Particularly if it gave us a better sense of how Hit List was put together? It’s almost as if this show isn’t even trying anymore!
- Ivy continues to be in the background of the show as it becomes more Hit List centric, but she’s also a part of the episode’s best scene, where she tells Derek she’ll come be with him on this difficult night. Fly free, Megan Hilty! Fly free!
- Just three episodes left, two of which will air on the Sunday before Memorial Day. Looks like next week’s will be the final Saturday airing. I’ll see you there. If I don’t get hit by a car while singing a Jeff Buckley song.
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!)
Blood congealed differently in zero gravity. Frank watched as it seeped from Dr. Kangaroo’s broken, battered face. The good doctor had handled himself with aplomb against six bionic wolves, but they had had the benefit of oxygen tanks, spacesuits. Dr. Kangaroo had only been borne up by his general feistiness and Frank’s love.
Frank reached down, closing Dr. Kangaroo’s eyes with his brutish hand. “Good night, sweet sophisticate,” he said. He was weeping. He hadn’t known for how long.
Outside, the moon howled with fury.
“That’s enough!” Frank howled with laughter as Dr. Kangaroo laid down another Scrabble play. “Mandy is a proper name! It doesn’t count.”
Dr. Kangaroo tilted his head to the side, peering at Frank through his monocle. He reached up to adjust his jaunty top hat, then carefully moved the A and N apart to create a gap, placing down a U.
“Maundy,” Frank said, and he wanted to mention that it probably didn’t count, not being an actual English word, but he’d never met a kangaroo who had such knowledge of Catholic rites and customs. Indeed, he’d never met a kangaroo he could call a friend before.
“An excellent play,” he said, as he scored it. Dr. Kangaroo clapped his boxing gloves together twice.
“There are mornings,” Frank began, “when I don’t really miss her. When the bed seems less empty than it did the day before. It’s been a year since Margaret disappeared. I’m no closer to finding her, and the things that used to smell like her no longer do. Everywhere I look, she’s dissipating. Even the atoms she left behind are drifting apart.” He stifled a tear.
A paw fell across his hand, which was hovering over the board to make his own play (building off Dr. Kangaroo’s earlier play of GREG to make GREGARIOUS). He looked up into the eyes of his closest companion, the one who had realized, with him, that to fight against each other, instead of against Khemkaeng, was a fool’s errand.
“What is it, old friend?” he whispered.
Dr. Kangaroo held that paw up again, as if to say, “Be quiet. Listen.” He hit play on the iPod he kept hooked up to speakers in his pouch. The sounds of Elton John’s “Levon” filled the room, Dr. Kangaroo humming along in that eerie kangaroo way.
The marsupial reached into his pouch again. He removed his paw. It was holding a gun. A Colt .45. Fully loaded.
“Yes,” Frank said. And he nodded again, this time more passionately. “Yes.”
Dr. Kangaroo was quite cold now, quite still. Frank reached into his pouch, feeling as if this were a sacred violation of his private space.
Yet there it was. The gun. He withdrew it, cradled it in his arms, staring out the window at the strange landscape before him.
“Moon,” he said. “Moon fury.”
TO BE CONTINUED!