At the beginning of “The Song,” Jimmy Collins is sitting on a sofa flicking pennies in the direction of a small jar. He’s frustrated because Derek’s endorsement of his musical Hit List has amounted to advice he finds unsatisfying, as it boils down to flicking pennies in the direction of a small jar as you wait to hear back from people who are probably still going to reject you. Derek isn’t willing to direct their concert. Derek isn’t going to suddenly produce their musical. Jimmy questions what use Derek is if it doesn’t get them a slot at Joe’s Pub, but Kyle is undeterred: “Musicals,” he says with earnest confidence, “take years to develop. There’s no shortcuts.”
Smash, meanwhile, is filled with them. To the show’s credit, Jimmy acknowledges this when Karen calls moments later—“Tell that to our shortcut” he grumbles in his grumbly way—but I don’t believe meta-commentary to be equivalent to self-reflection. “The Song” tells the story of Jimmy Connors’ shortcut from the life of the struggling songwriter to the life of the songwriter who just had his big break, a song he wrote performed by a Tony-winning actress in a high-profile concert to be aired on the closest thing NBC Universal has to a synergistic cable channel associated with the arts. In one fell swoop, Jimmy is elevated to the status necessary for Hit List to turn into the second narrative engine Josh Safran is installing for Smash’s second season.
I wrote last week that Safran’s approach to Smash is more married to thematic, episodic storytelling, and I admittedly wrote this having already seen “The Song.” It’s an episode that highlights the struggle of “finding your voice,” as characters worry about their identity amid creative difficulties. Julia works with a script doctor to find her voice within Marilyn’s story; Eileen considers how much she is willing to compromise her professional future in order to protect the man she loves; Veronica faces a turning point in her career with a concert that could define her professional identity for years to come; Derek worries about his reputation in light of the allegations against him and seeks to put his stamp on Veronica’s concert; and Jimmy, his own work proving wrong for a sudden opening in Veronica’s concert program, has to find a way to channel his talent into writing for someone else, a difficult task for someone so self-centered.
In theory, Safran’s choice to rely on these thematic parallels should result in a more consistent series, but all of the storylines suffer from a focus on conflict rather than struggle. Veronica’s identity crisis suffers in part due to Hudson’s transience within this story—this is, I believe, her final episode—but also because it is punctuated with a ridiculously thin “momager” stereotype. The storyline makes it seem as though Hudson’s character is 16, not almost 30, but it offers the writers a cleaner narrative arc to follow with Veronica caught between Derek and her mother, eventually winning over both. The mother is a cheap way to suggest struggle without having to engage with it, creating so overbearing a presence that any chance for subtle or nuanced storytelling is overwhelmed. The storyline works when it’s just Ivy and Veronica chatting in the latter’s dressing room, but even that scene feels more like exposition to imply struggle as opposed to something real, tangible.
It’s a problem that extends to all of the episode’s storylines. Julia’s time with Peter (a returning Daniel Sunjata) starts in an interesting place, but quickly devolves when it’s clear that the narrative isn’t going to move slowly enough to capture the actual struggles of editing one’s own work. The workshop Peter holds with his acting students could force Julia to confront Bombshell's creative difficulties in a more self-reflexive fashion, picking up on the beginning of their first conflicts last week. However, the storyline never reaches a point of struggle, devolving into straight conflict—Julia feuding with Peter—before quickly and conveniently evolving into collaboration after one brief glimpse of self-awareness. Peter allows Smash to skip over struggle and move directly to conflict, which can then be resolved with a few glasses of wine, a eureka moment or three, and some completely uninteresting sexual tension as Bombshell makes the oh-so-progressive move of switching toward the male gaze.
It’s frustrating because the creative process is something Smash is in a unique position to capture, but it largely elides the difficulty of writing in favor of the conflict of the interpersonal relationships involved. This is no more evident than in Jimmy, an increasingly problematic character whose introduction has been woefully miscalculated. “The Song” is built around Jimmy trying to write a song for Veronica’s concert, but that mostly takes place off-screen, with only a brief scene of Karen helping him work through the first few notes of “I Can’t Let Go.” The episode primarily tells this story by showing us Jimmy acting like an enormous dick but then telling us it’s okay because he’s so talented: Tom tells Derek he’s the “real thing,” Karen describes the song they wrote as “It’s Broadway, but a fresh take!” in one of Katharine McPhee’s least convincing line readings, and eventually Veronica Moore brings Jimmy and Kyle onstage to share in the adulation after the song brings the crowd to its feet.
What Smash appears to be going for with Jimmy is the young, tortured soul who struggles with his self-confidence and whose roughness is emblematic of what it takes to be an artist. I saw “The Song”—which NBC sent to critics with the première—before I saw “The Dramaturg,” and so I will say that Jimmy’s self-sacrifice to get Kyle’s notes about the book has added some degree of shading to how the episode unfolds. However, the entitlement Jimmy shows when dealing with Tom and Derek, and the way he pushes Karen aside when arguing with the latter, and the way he shuts Kyle out of his writing process but welcomes Karen in—all of it makes me feel absolutely no sympathy for the character. Jeremy Jordan is given some dialogue after his drug-fueled walkabout to lay out a number of different clichés—disappointing everyone in his life, nothing makes sense, blah blah blah—to help justify his behavior, but the character has shown no redemptive qualities beyond his ability to write songs, and so neither the makeout session with Karen nor the curtain call after Veronica’s performance felt in any way earned. We might have experienced Jimmy’s conflict with the people in his life, and we may have seen the resolution, but the struggle is either buried in his past (and thus lacking connection for the audience) or told through other characters.
This probably sounds familiar, as it’s comparable to how I myself—among others—felt about Karen Cartwright in the first season. But while I never bought the show’s argument that Karen Cartwright was a singular talent, I never found her to be abusive toward other people in the way I find Jimmy, nor did I ever actively dislike her character as a human being. Jordan is talented, and the songs they’ve written for the character to introduce into this world are generally good, but there’s a point at which the power for music to overcome personal conflict can be overstated. Jimmy’s shortcuts would be fine if it was a character that deserved a shortcut, but at this point Smash’s attempts to sell him as a wounded puppy are being undercut by an unlikeable, often hateful characterization. The problem isn’t that Jimmy isn’t interesting, but rather that Smash is so dead set on coding him as a romantic lead and a sympathetic character that the overwhelming evidence to the contrary is a considerable roadblock instead of interesting shading.
I’ve gotten into some discussions recently about where Smash’s first season went wrong, and one of the defenses against criticism has been the fact that we—here referring to its detractors—are expecting it to be a television show when it’s really a musical. However, the fact of the matter is that Smash—especially Safran’s Smash—wants to be both, and that comes with inherent challenges that can’t be overlooked. The songs in “The Song” are used in what I perceive as traditional ways: “I’ve Got Love” serves as the soundtrack for an opening montage reminding us where our characters left off, “Everybody Loves You Now” bridges Kyle’s search for Jimmy with Veronica’s search for her true self (sort of an act-one finale), and then “I Can’t Let Go” gives us the triumphant closing number that resolves nearly every conflict in the episode. While your mileage may vary regarding the cliché of the Billy Joel song in question, the songs move the story along and are structured in ways I consider both logical and useful in theory.
But placed within the context of a television episode, and within the context of Smash’s second season, “I Can’t Let Go” does not transcend Jimmy’s uneven characterization, even if “The Song” suggests that it does, nor does it sound in any way “fresh” in any musical context (although Hudson knocks it out of the park vocally). “Everybody Loves You Now” seeks to make a thematic connection between characters, but it’s between a character who isn’t really part of the show’s cast and a character who has yet to display redemptive qualities. Smash is overestimating what its musical numbers are capable of achieving, expecting them to carry the burden of a television narrative that can’t be carried on power ballads alone. Whereas the meandering quality of Smash’s first season episodes occasionally resulted in cases where musical intentions and narrative goals were in synch, “The Song” suggests Safran is developing a narrative that cannot be sustained through the power of song; this says less about the potential for a television musical, of course, and more about the unlikelihood of Smash’s troubled development landing on the right balance.
- I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a clearer case of a show trolling its audience than the phone call with Ellis that closes the episode.
- Eileen’s storyline has struggled to be relevant for the entire series, but the fact that we don’t even get to see her triumphant deposition—similar to how we missed Ivy’s audition last week—is a sure sign she’s anything but a priority. I’m curious what they do with Huston from this point forward—I hope it involves more expositional Post-it notes.
- Maybe it’s just me, but Jennifer Hudson is naturally sensual enough that even the apparently “immature” version of “I’ve Got Love” still felt compelling to me. I wasn’t convinced that sexing it up was necessary, at least not as Derek imagined it. I didn’t blame her for finding it ridiculous, given that it kind of was?
- The choice to focus on Veronica’s concert means that characters like Ivy and Tom get casually drafted into what are effectively generic roles: Ivy is the voice of reason for Veronica (a relationship the episode invents for just this purpose), while Tom becomes someone for Derek to bounce off of and a mouthpiece for the “Jimmy’s the Real Thing” lobby. It reminded me of how Glee can often treat its supporting characters as cyphers, able to become whatever they’re needed to be within a given week’s storylines, and it hurt Ivy’s momentum in particular.
- I honestly might have been more onboard with “I Can’t Let Go” as a transcendent moment if not for the terrible cutaways to Derek looking proud and Veronica’s mother being overcome with emotion. And if Veronica hadn’t invited some random writers onstage to share in her curtain call. Who does that?
- I mostly found Julia’s refusal to take the students’ comments seriously insufferable, but Debra Messing’s delivery of “Like songs?” after someone suggested something was missing was so dripping with contempt I couldn’t resist.