I spent some time over the weekend considering the possibility that the reason Smash hasn’t lived up to its potential so far (to put it mildly) is that the creative team behind the show hates television. They’re theater folk, who perhaps think of TV as vulgar and shallow, and so that’s why Smash’s subplots have been so excruciating and its characters so frequently moronic. Because that’s what the Smash team thinks television is like, and that’s what they think TV watchers want.
Except that’s not true. Smash’s creator, Theresa Rebeck, is primarily a playwright, but she’s worked in television extensively, on shows like NYPD Blue, Third Watch and Law & Order: Criminal Intent. She’s even won awards for her TV writing, and has served as a producer before, so she certainly knows how to put a show together. And yet each week, I watch my favorite currently airing TV dramas—The Good Wife, Luck, Justified, Switched At Birth, and Southland—and there’s an ease and confidence about them that’s completely lacking from Smash. And within the next couple of weeks, Mad Men, Game Of Thrones, and Fringe will all return, which ought to make Smash look all the paltrier.
Here’s the good news about this week’s episode of Smash: The actual workshop sequence of “The Workshop” contains some of the best sustained filmmaking and performances since the “Let’s Be Bad” number a couple of weeks ago. Though we’ve heard most of these songs before, the way the episode cuts cleanly between the rehearsal space and the Dream Theater, as well as between Ivy and Karen (with the latter in her imaginary Marilyn garb), really gets across the excitement of putting on a show. It also—maybe for the first time—conveys exactly what this Broadway dream means to Karen. Our perpetually open-mouthed starlet gives up her chance to meet with the legendary pop impresario Bobby Raskin in order to hover around in the background of this workshop as a chorine, and her awe as the show comes together is touching to see.
Also surprisingly good this week: Will Chase as Michael Swift, at least when he’s singing the one new number in “The Workshop,” a jazzy lament called “Lexington & 52nd Street,” all about how Joe DiMaggio felt while watching Marilyn Monroe’s skirt blow up in The Seven-Year Itch. For once, Chase doesn’t grunt or strain, which matches the song’s plaintive melancholy. It’s his best vocal on the show so far.
Unfortunately, in nearly ever other way, Michael is a drag on “The Workshop.” Even his performance of “Lexington & 52nd Street” emerges from the awfulness of his affair with Julia, since he’s merely singing out his heartbreak while thinking of her. As if last week’s “let me just invade your personal space and tell you how much I desire you while a whole roomful of people are watching” moment wasn’t idiotic enough, this week Michael (and Julia, for that matter) find newer and more irritating ways to make the home viewer shout, “Dude, not here! Be cool!” They kiss in a room with an unlocked door, where they’re caught by Tom (and Ellis, hiding in the corner). They try to have intimate conversations about their future as a couple while their respective spouses, children, and colleagues are milling about. They share their feelings in front of Derek and Eileen while they’re supposed to be running lines with each other. They just seem generally ignorant of how people who are having a secret affair are supposed to behave.
But then, nothing about their affair makes any sense, really. Why are they so passionate for each other? Because they are. Why are they so willing to risk thriving careers and happy families for the sake of a little action on the side? Because they are. What is their endgame here? Who the hell knows? Look, I’m not a robot. I know that sexual desire makes people choose poorly, and that this kind of horndog irrationality happens all the time. But that’s not what Smash is selling here. The writers are suggesting that these two people feel deeply for each other, and they’re asking us to take their word that it’s so, without doing the work to set it up.
But then that’s been the way of Smash. The show keeps trying to force stories rather than letting them develop organically. That was apparent this week with the arrival of Ivy’s mother, Leigh Conroy (played by Bernadette Peters), a legendary Broadway star who revels in the adulation of the ensemble and belts out “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” on request. It’s a blast to watch Peters being Peters, and her energy definitely improves every scene that Leigh Conroy appears in, even if it’s just due to the way that everyone is forced to react to her. (I loved Derek’s response to “Everything’s Coming Up Roses,” for example. He rolls his eyes a little, because he’s had plenty of experience with Broadway divas; but he also smiles a little, because hey, it’s Leigh Conroy!) But it’s apparently not enough for Leigh to embarrass and shame Ivy in small ways, such as when she casually remarks that she won a Tony without all the pills and palliatives that Ivy has at her disposal. No, instead “The Workshop” builds to a scene in which Ivy lays into her mom for being selfish and emotionally withholding, and says that Marilyn Monroe became an addict because her mother never loved her. All a bit much, yes?
That said, the big Ivy/Leigh blowup is beautifully staged, with a mirror behind mother and daughter representing both how alike they are and how much closer they are to each other than they know. And for all my beefs about the frustrating parts of “The Workshop”—and bear in mind that I didn’t even mention pot-smokin’ Leo—I’d say on the whole I liked more of the episode than I hated. (It’s just that the hate is so strong.) There’s a lovely montage of the various characters in bed on the day of the workshop that’s yet another example of how nifty Smash’s editing so often is; and as noted up top, the workshop itself is well-played, and enhanced by multiple added dramas: a faulty heating/cooling system in the rehearsal space; the presence of a CAA agent who may have a star in mind to replace Ivy; and the tension between Derek and his lover/star as he tries to goad her into giving a stronger performance.
There’s even a glimmer of hope at the end of “The Workshop,” as the creative team reads the savage blog reports and makes the decision to drop Michael from the show. On the one hand, this automatically improves the chances of future Smash episodes not being shout-at-the-screen annoying. On the other hand, as the team itself notes, scapegoating never saved a show that’s not working. And musical numbers aside, right now too much of Smash is not working.
- My mother bought me the boxed set of Stephen Sondheim’s books Finishing The Hat and Look I Made A Hat for Christmas, and in the section on Gypsy, Sondheim claims that he invented the phrase “Everything’s Coming Up Roses.” That little tidbit stunned me.
- I’m sure the whole Bobby Raskin subplot is headed somewhere, but this week it seemed very much like an afterthought, thrown in to give Katharine McPhee something to do. Yes, the Raskin business establishes Karen’s preference for the theater over a recording career, but it’s also gives McPhee a chance to sing a Colbie Caillat song in the middle of an episode in which Megan Hilty is commanding most of the spotlight.
- Tom finally learns that Sam is gay, after a cringe-inducing scene in which he rants to Ivy about how Sam is too straight and square to handle two dudes kissing in front of him. So the clock is now officially ticking on when Tom and Sam get together.
- During one of the rehearsal scenes, Derek shouts, “Where’s Arthur Miller?” That’s an excellent question. The workshop performance of Marilyn ends with her and Joe, but clearly that can’t be how the actual musical ends. Now that we’re losing our Joe, it’s time to feature Arthur, right? (And maybe JFK?)
- Hey, remember SARS?