Friends, I’d hoped that spending two straight weeks watching Smash as a civilian, without having to register an opinion, might make me feel a little less disgruntled about this season so far, but while I thought “The Dramaturg” and “The Song” were better than the series nadir “The Fallout,” they were both still tedious, shallow, and silly, and lacking in compensatory wackadoodlery.
“The Read-Through” is the best episode yet of Smash’s second season, but that’s only because of its three main storylines, two have legitimately surprising twists, and one has Sean Hayes. (Note: For the purposes of this review, nothing involving Eileen Rand and her jailbird boyfriend will be considered “main.”) Yet even a surprising twist can’t redeem the parts of this episode having to do with Karen and her passionless crush on middling, drug-addicted songwriter Jimmy Collins. “The Read-Through” just dies whenever the action shifts to Brooklyn, where Karen finds Jimmy with another woman at the start of the episode, and absently wonders why they even kissed, to which Karen’s roommate, Ana, notes that Jimmy is using typical playboy or operator moves. (Also, he was totally wasted.) Karen’s subsequent Jimmy-inspired Dream Theatre performance of Death Cab For Cutie’s “Some Boys” is fine—and it’s nice to hear a different kind of contemporary pop song get the Smash treatment—but the show has yet to make the Karen/Jimmy romance feel anything other than contrived. She’s drawn to him only because she’s the leading lady, and she needs a love-interest. It’s been disappointing.
Even more disappointing is that “The Read-Through” has what would seem to be an ideal premise for a sturdy, compelling dramatic structure. In Brooklyn, young Broadway is doing a read-through of the first act of The Hit List, in preparation for a Derek-set-up performance at a Fringe Festival. In Manhattan, the Broadway establishment is doing a read-through of Peter and Julia’s new draft of Bombshell, with the understanding that new producer Jerry Rand could pull the plug on the show if he doesn’t like what he hears. With these two major moments in the arcs of Smash’s two big shows happening simultaneously (while the Ivy-starring Liaisons is in rehearsal as well), some kind of cross-cutting between the read-throughs would’ve been justified, perhaps with an eye and ear to the real-world detail of how a musical comes to be, and the differences between a polished big-budget production and a scrappy street-level show. Instead, the Bombshell read-through happens entirely off-screen, while the Hit List read-through amounts to one song and one line of dialogue. That’s an opportunity missed, especially given that some of the best episodes of Smash’s first season contained the show’s many plots within a single event.
It’s probably not a coincidence that the show we get to see the most of in “The Read-Through”—that would be Liaisons—provides the most consistently entertaining material in the episode. Again, this is largely do to the gameness of Hayes, playing Terrence Falls, a star comedian who doesn’t seem to realize that while his leading role in Liaisons requires him to be witty, he’s not supposed to be hilarious. The storyline is kind of broad and sitcom-y, but Hayes and Megan Hilty play well off each other, with him seeming genuinely appreciative of her notes on how to be dramatic, and her just ignoring his fart jokes and playing her role straight. It helps that the character Terrence Falls is playing in Liaisons also requires a comeuppance of sorts. And it helps that Falls is so sweet in his way, as he listens to Ivy’s suggestions and nods, “Feel it, huh?” One of the pieces of connective tissue between the storylines in “The Read-Through” is the idea of public creative expression as an act of personal courage, and Hayes gets how Falls has his comfort-zone of clownishness, and is afraid to venture beyond it. (His ultimate plan of action: Falls goes off his meds. Should be fun to see what happens next.)
At least the conflict in the Liaisons storyline is clearly defined. (Falls wants to be funny. Ivy wants to be dramatic. Go.) Back on Bombshell, the problems are vaguer, having to do with matters of “confidence” and “trust.” Julia’s afraid that her new draft will be lousy, and that if so, her career will be over. Tom’s worried that Julia’s getting too comfortable in her collaboration with Peter. Julia and Tom don’t know what to make of Peter’s reputation for sabotaging other writers’ work and then getting his own clandestine drafts produced. Everybody overreacts accordingly, rather than acting like the accomplished professionals they’re supposed to be, because if they didn’t overreact, this part of the episode would be much less dramatic and more about the particulars of artistic creation—in other words, it’d be distinctive, and not generic. And who wants that?
As I said, “The Read-Through” gets some late-episode juice from a couple of unexpected turns. With The Hit List, everyone is stunned to learn that theatre expert Kyle is actually a terrible playwright, and while he insists that everyone just doesn’t get his work because “it’s not not what you’re used to… it’s not Broadway,” eventually the creative team decides to ditch the dialogue and just turn the show into a sung-through musical. Meanwhile, at the Bombshell read-through, everyone agrees that the new draft is brilliant, but Jerry still won’t produce it because it’s so good that “it’s not Broadway.” (That’s the one real point of connection between the two read-throughs: the shared “not Broadway” lines. The episode could’ve emphasized that a lot more.) The twist with Bombshell is that Jerry actually does have another draft ready to go, but it’s nothing that Peter wrote: It’s Julia’s workshop script, which Tom sent to Jerry, and which Tom actually prefers.
The episode ends on an unnecessary cliffhanger, with Eileen being given the power to decide whether Bombshell should be a show about Marilyn from the POV of the men in her life, as Julia and Derek want, or a show about Marilyn creating her own myth, as Tom and Jerry want. I suppose you could say that this is Smash repeating the Ivy-vs.-Karen motif of season one, in a different way. But it’s time for Smash to be more about the smaller elements of putting on a show, not about the same sweeping philosophical disagreements that should’ve been settled by now.
As for which Bombshell would be better, at the moment I’m going to side with Tom, and not just because we haven’t really seen much of Julia’s new version yet. “The Read-Through” actually opens with a fairly boffo number from Tom’s conception of Bombshell, “Public Relations,” with Marilyn stepping off a jet plane that lands on stage and meeting with the press. The song is a fun repurposing of actual Marilyn interviews, and the Dream Theater staging—with Tom playing the roles of reporters from many lands—was a lot of fun.
And all of that happens before the opening credits! Hayes and Hilty aside, “The Read-Through” is mostly downhill from there.
- Clash By Night alert! The original Broadway production of Clifford Odets’ play (later made into a movie featuring Marilyn Monroe) debuted at The Belasco. Other Broadway shows that have played The Belasco? The Solid Gold Cadillac, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter?, A Raisin In The Sun, Oh! Calcutta!, The Rocky Horror Show, American Buffalo, Passing Strange… and now Bombshell.
- Hey, was that Veanne Cox in Valmont?
- “Yeah, look at Rent. Or Next To Normal. Or Bombshell.” Nice try, Karen, pulling the ol’ Star Trek “rule of three” on your own musical.
- Meanwhile, in Smash: A Novel, Garson Kanin offers one of his rare useful how-to-write-a-hit-play tips, as he has play-fixer Gene Bowman tell the narrator/heroine Midge Makhakian the best way to write dialogue: by reading newspapers from whatever period the story is set to get the flavor, and then speaking the lines aloud after writing them, to “revise for speech.” But I know you didn’t come to this part of the Smash write-up to read Kanin’s insights into mounting musicals circa 1980, am I right? I’m guessing you want more purple prose from an old chauvinist writing his ideal conception of a “modern woman.” So here’s Midge, after doing Gene’s laundry and cooking him a meal:
He moved to the table, began eating absently, became aware of the food, ate slower and slower, tasting it, savoring it. Finally, he looked up at me and grinned. I mean grinned—not smiled. Then he returned to his food. When he finished, he got up, came around to me, and kissed the back of my neck. I thought I might faint. He returned to his chair, took a second helping, looked at me, grinned again, and I realized I was falling in love with him—hopelessly, helplessly. It makes no sense. He is a man of another world, another time. On what possible plateau could we meet? None. Yet I know that what I feel for him is something I have never known before. I want him. My body and its glands and juices have been telling me that for days. Well, it has often done so in connection with men. It seems to be that kind of body. But as for Gene—I want him inside me and beyond. I want to care for him and have him care for me. I want to know him and help him and grow with him and live forever with him. I want. I want.