Oh, Smash, poor Smash. NBC’s canceled you forever, and I’m feelin’ so sad.
To be sure, I felt a twinge of… something when NBC canceled Smash yesterday. I wouldn’t quite call it sadness, but I’m certainly going to miss this ridiculous beast of a program. Very little about it worked, and as we head into the season’s final episodes, the show is once again relying on bullshit melodrama, because that appears to be its default mode. But I’ll always like the ideal version of Smash, the sort of Broadway version of The West Wing that follows a bunch of idealistic characters fond of rapid-fire dialogue through an insular world most of us don’t get to see the inner workings of. There was a version of that suggested in the pilot, and there’s been a version of that suggested at times in both seasons. Who’s to say that with even more time and less attention from NBC brass, the show wouldn’t have found a way to become that?
Oh, who am I kidding? Tonight’s major plotline involves Derek replacing Ana in Hit List with Daisy, because he feels (and Julia doesn’t contradict) that Ana’s sluggish energy is what’s dragging down the show. She’s just not ready for the cavernous spaces of a Broadway theater, and since the show transferred, it’s lost a little something (something that will be found with text messaging, but I’m getting ahead of myself). Daisy is the woman that sued Tom back in episode two or whatever, but when we see her perform, Julia tells us that she’s “got something,” which is this show’s way of telling us that she’s a potential star in the making. The last time we were being told this, it was about Karen, but Daisy is at least sort of entertaining to watch because she keeps making facial expressions like this.
Karen and Ana come up with a crazy idea: Daisy must be blackmailing Derek to get the part of the Diva, because there’s no way that Derek could possibly choose Daisy over Ana in a fair contest, and it’s not what Kyle would have wanted anyway. (I actually rather liked the way that Derek was trying to get everybody to stop insisting on doing only what Kyle wanted in this episode; that kind of reverence after death can do real harm to a creative work that’s still evolving.) For roughly the first half of this episode, I was at least somewhat involved in this storyline. I didn’t give two shits about Ana having the part, since the show hasn’t bothered to develop her as a character at all, but at least it was a conflict derived organically from the world of the show. What do you do when somebody isn’t cutting it? You replace them, and it’s going to hurt them and their friends, but it’s sometimes necessary. That’s a story that Smash could tell and tell fairly well.
The problem, even at this stage of the game, is that the story occurs in a vacuum. We don’t really care about Ana or Daisy, because the show hasn’t made them characters so much as interchangeable cogs in a machine. We’re supposed to care about the former more, because we’ve seen more of her, but the complete lack of character building involved in Daisy makes it harder to dislike her as a villain—or even see where she’s coming from. She’s just a woman who dared accuse her director of being a sexual harasser (boo! hiss!), and we all know what should happen to women who do that. The series has always had a weird relationship with its female characters, and this just continues that.
Yet it somehow gets even worse. See, Karen and Ana are right. Daisy is blackmailing Derek, and she has a sex tape on which he offers her a role in Hit List, and she’s holding it over his head because she knows the release of it would kill his career (which seems unlikely given the long series of resurrections in the careers of men who have done far, far worse, but I’ll go with it). Suddenly, the story isn’t about what we thought it was about. It isn’t about a director weighing two approaches to a role, or an actress realizing that she’s lost her shot at her dream. It’s about an evil plot device forcing another character to do something for the excuse of having “drama” happen. And, yes, all TV shows have characters who act like plot devices, but very few of them actually veer away from stories that could have been interesting to indulge in them. It’s just another symptom of a disease Smash has always had: the regular characters must be right at all times syndrome.
I thought the “Kyle’s death” episode was a colossal misfire, but at least it had some sort of idea behind it. (You can read more about that idea in this Buzzfeed article, which made me like the episode even less.) This episode is just deliberate mediocrity, tossing plot points out to the audience seemingly at random, without pausing to give them any thought. I mean, Ivy does an actual commercial for the Ford Fusion, and it’s far from the weirdest thing in the episode. The show contorts itself heading into the Tonys that it might have Ivy and Karen being rivals again instead of friends (which, ugh) and that it might force Derek and Ivy into an uncomfortable talk about their relationship since she’s pregnant now, in a closing twist so ludicrous it made me giggle.
Fortunately, there’s a rough throughline here worth holding onto: the dissolution of Tom and Julia’s partnership. I know that my colleague Myles McNutt wasn’t too bothered by the idea of them breaking up, and I agree this would have had more weight back in season one. But I thought the storyline here, of Julia continually ignoring the concert being thrown in their honor (since the duo have never won a Tony Award and would like one very much, please), was pretty good as Smash storylines go. Yes, it ended exactly as you thought it would, with Julia popping up at the last minute, and Tom smiling to see her, but Debra Messing and Christian Borle played the hell out of their little duet, and the ultimate reveal of Eileen being behind the leaking of their split to the press was predictable but satisfying. (I love how Anjelica Huston increasingly plays Eileen as a spoiled 4-year-old who always gets her way.) And maybe this is me falling for something obvious, but it really does feel as if the two are going their separate ways, instead of arriving at the obvious conclusion of having Julia write Gatsby and Tom direct (though I’m sure they’ll arrive at this conclusion in the two-hour finale).
None of this has any meaning, though, because it’s stuck in the midst of all of the Hit List nonsense. The more I saw of Bombshell, the more obvious it was that the show was exactly the sort of big-budget Broadway musical that critics mostly give a pass because it’s not actively terrible. This tracks more or less with the reviews the show has gotten and the musical numbers we’ve seen. The more I see of Hit List, though, the more miscalculated its “edginess” seems. The two musical numbers we see from the show tonight seem actively pretty terrible, and I just can’t imagine anybody seeing anything in this show (also, who is Sam playing now?). It doesn’t help that the whole aesthetic seems to be a New Kids On The Block concert right as they were declining from the height of their powers.
The Ana/Daisy storyline is ludicrous enough, but Jimmy’s big idea to save the show—send the audience text messages during scene transitions—is just… I don’t know. Maybe it’s because I’m a grumpy old man prematurely, but I just can’t see myself going to the theatre and getting a text message and reacting in delight, as the Hit List audience does. It just seems weird to me, and if you’re going to do it 22 times during a show… well, don’t you ask people to put their phones on vibrate? The more I see of Hit List, the more it seems like that Time cover on Millennials: trying desperately to understand what the young people are into nowadays and largely flailing.
- I’m well aware that this was fixed on your TV screens, but I just had to show you the sequence where Jimmy gets sad that Julia won’t work on Hit List anymore because she needs to stick it out with Bombshell. He walks past an ad for another canceled show…
…and looks at an advertisement for his own series (which I presume was a Bombshell poster when this aired). Wacky!
- Okay, so was that VMAs number in Hit List supposed to be an elaborate homage to Black Swan? Because I would watch a heady, thinkpiece musical version of that movie. Get Adam Guettel on the line!
- As far as other musical numbers go, Ivy’s burlesque number once again proved that Megan Hilty is going to have a long, healthy career now that this show is canceled.
- Hey, that's Tony award winner and reader of The A.V. Club Lin-Manuel Miranda talking trash with Tom. I like to imagine Christian Borle and Lin-Manuel Miranda have this relationship in real life.
- I tried to make a collection of all of Daisy's hilarious "acting" faces in the VMAs number, but I was unable to. I'm sure you'll rewind that number again and again anyway.
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!)
His voice rattled across the moonscape, echoed at all times by the canyon’s walls. “Khemkaeng!” He was low on oxygen, but there was nothing to do but chase the man who had caused him all this heartache. If worst came to worst, he would open his helmet, greet the near-vacuum with tears for all he had lost.
If nothing else, Frank Fisticuffs had learned to cry.
And then, a glint. A glint of something behind one of the moon rocks. He had nothing else, so he charged, bellowing across the landscape, seeing the frightened face for only an instant before his fists worked themselves into a fury.
It was not easy, pummeling a man on the surface of the moon, but it was necessary. In that instant, he felt the horror of everything this man had done to Margaret, of letting him believe they had been friends, of the death of Dr. Kangaroo.
Later, they would say that Khemkaeng’s body had not been found, but Frank knew the truth. It had been found because he knocked it from the surface of the moon into low-Earth orbit, where it collided with a Turner satellite and briefly disrupted CNN Headline News for millions.
Sucking on Khemkaeng’s oxygen tank, Frank Fisticuffs walked back to the moonbase across a moonscape covered in moonblood. He would sleep well tonight. And in the morning, the search would resume.
FRANK FISTICUFFS WILL RETURN IN SHARKS APLENTY