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After watching the Smash season finale “Bombshell” over the weekend, I started to think about Derek Wills in a new way. At one point in this episode, Derek overrules Eileen—the woman who’s supposed to be his boss—and insists that Karen is the right choice to play Marilyn Monroe, because she fits his “vision” for the show. That’s bold talk from Derek, and I’m sure that in the “vision” of Smash’s creative team, Derek is a genius who knows what he’s doing. But maybe it’s because “Bombshell” has forced me to grapple with Karen’s persistent deficiencies—and by extension Katharine McPhee’s—that the name “Simon Cowell” popped into my head. During his stint on American Idol, Cowell too seemed confident in a Derek-esque way, coming across as the ultimate arbiter of how a pop star should look and sound. But Cowell’s version of “brilliant” has always tended toward the safe and bland. He’s not partial to genuine eccentricity, or to musical genres that make some people uncomfortable. And maybe that’s who Derek is too. He doesn’t want a real Marilyn Monroe: an emotionally damaged, unnervingly sexy woman who both plays to and subverts male fantasies. He wants a pageant-winner in a platinum wig.
Look, the weaknesses of Karen Cartwright are not Katharine McPhee’s fault. Not entirely. I know that McPhee’s performances on Smash have frequently been audibly sweetened, but I remember McPhee well from her American Idol days, and she can definitely sing. And I know that her line readings have been mumbly and wooden, but that’s more a mistake of casting and writing. I can conceive of a Smash where McPhee is given a role more suited to her talents—where she’s not expected to shoulder such a melodramatic romantic subplot, or to be such a no-doubt superstar. Plus, McPhee was born and raised in show business, and as much as cultural commentators complain about the sexualization of young pop stars these days, we’re talking about a highly conceptualized kind of sexuality. This is the culture of plastic surgery after all, where body parts are scientifically designed to look right, but not so much to be passionately groped in the dark. So it’s no wonder then that McPhee can’t be credibly sexy when her Karen is lounging in bed in a Marilyn costume, cooing, “I’m lying here naked waiting for you.”
Still, as Smash ends its disappointing first season—with yet another episode that swings wildly from moments of real excitement and creativity to moments that are jaw-droppingly stilted and awful—I have to acknowledge, once and for all, that that the central, driving plotline of the show is flawed. Many of you, and many critics, picked up on this from episode one. I resisted this line of attack initially, but even I—an apologist by nature—have had to succumb. Karen Cartwright, as played by Katharine McPhee, has no business being the lead in a Broadway show, and that she finally gets to play that part in “Bombshell,” and apparently wows a paying audience to boot, strains credulity.
To Smash’s credit, “Bombshell” does put the show’s remaining Karen-doubters front-and-center at several points during the episode, even if it’s just to show how wrong they are. Ellis confronts Eileen, admitting that he put the peanuts in Rebecca’s smoothie to clear a path for Ivy, who he feels is the rightful star. Eileen responds by firing Ellis (at last!), though it’s clear that Ellis plans to take some legal action to retain his producer credit. Meanwhile, in public, Julia and Tom congratulate Karen and tell her she’ll be great, while behind her back they make silent “we’re so screwed” gestures to each other. But Julia and Tom are so busy trying to write a triumphant final song for Bombshell that their take on Karen isn’t so germane. The character whose skepticism matters most is Eileen, who keeps reminding people of this musical’s seven million dollar pricetag. But with her ex Jerry lingering in the wings, and with early backer Lyle showing up to return her Degas sketch, Eileen’s too distracted to stand up to Derek when he claims Bombshell—and Karen—for his own.
The largely unmotivated returns of Jerry and Lyle are examples of this finale’s raging case of wrap-up-itis. Even worse is the creaky resolution of the Michael/Julia/Frank love triangle, as the annoyingly dogged (and apparently dim) Michael tells Julia about his separation from his wife, right when Frank walks into the theater and catches the two of them talking in the dark. But surprise, surprise: Frank’s not mad, because he trusts Julia now. (And why wouldn’t he? She seems so sincere!) When she follows him outside to plead her case, the two of them talk about where they are now in their marriage, and how, yes, the bad times won’t be forgotten, but, hey, “Other things will be there too. Good things. That we created.” Cue Leo, walking up to say, “I got us lunch.” Great timing. Too bad the poor kid can’t even announce a meal convincingly. (Anyone else enjoy that?)
In further i-dotting/t-crossing business, Ivy finally makes her big play to knock Karen back to the chorus, by handing her Dev’s engagement ring and confessing what the two of them did. Sure enough, a rattled Karen flees rehearsal in the middle of a costume change, and a chipper Ivy rushes in, in full Marilyn regalia, saying, “You guys need me?” But alas, by then Derek has rallied Karen, by telling her to use her heartbreak in the performance, because it’ll bring her closer to Marilyn. Poor, poor Ivy.
As usual, Ivy gets some of the most poignant moments in “Bombshell,” even if they start to seem like piling-on after a while. It’s heartbreaking to hear her tell her mother, “They didn’t pick me, Mom.” It’s crushing to see Derek yell out, “Shadow-selves to the stage!” and to see Ivy take her place in her little box. It’s annoying that the episode ends with Ivy holding a handful of pills, but I’m going to hope during the offseason that the new showrunner will decide that the next shot of Ivy should be of her throwing those pills in the trash. It’s time for that character to make a comeback.
And while I found almost everything involving Karen, Michael, Frank, Leo, and Eileen in “Bombshell” to be either time-wasting or actively annoying, the episode does have its high points. I’m still enjoying all the small, realistic details about the theater, such as the info that “understudies don’t get rehearsed in until after previews” (which is why picking Karen isn’t an automatic), and the way the stage manager has to tell Derek that “equity rules still apply” and that he has to allow the crew to take a break, no matter how much deadline pressure they’re under. Plus, there’s a welcome moment between Tom and Sam, where the latter reminds the former that he does this job because it brings him joy to create something that will bring other people joy. I’m glad Smash hasn’t forgotten that. Too often, Smash has seemed to emphasize the backstabbing and the misery of Broadway—the business, more than the show.
Of course that is part of the story, sure. As a character in Garson Kanin’s Smash: A Novel says, putting a musical together is messy because:
It’s conception and gestation and birth. It’s giving birth, collectively. Listen. It’s hard enough to do it alone! But in collaboration! So it’s full of screwing and morning sickness and worry about what’s going to come out eventually—a doll or a cretin. And the pains—worse as it gets closer, and then the agony. And then it’s there—whatever it is.
For all the problems with Smash, and all the problems with “Bombshell,” the show is there—whatever it is. And no matter what the “hate-watchers” want to think, it’s not all bad. I for one think that the big closing song (which Tom and Julia work on right up to the opening curtain, believe it or not) turns out quite well, ending the season on something of an up note. I also liked the “Who’s Marilyn going to be?” tease of the opening, and I’ve always felt that the technical aspects of this show—the lighting, the camera moves, the staging—deserve more praise than they’ve gotten. I’ve seen plenty of TV dramas that are beautifully written and acted but aren’t as well-shot as Smash. And upon hearing the Bombshell songs for in some cases the fourth or fifth time, I have to admit that they’re pretty much all of high quality. I don’t know how well they’d fit together as an actual Broadway score—they’re maybe too eclectic for a fluid evening of musical theater—but they’re good. And that should’ve been the hardest thing for this kind of TV show to get right: the original songs.
That’s why it stinks so much that the part that should’ve been easiest to get right—casting a powerful lead—went so very wrong. And this episode doesn’t make it any easier on itself by inserting a couple of “clipshow” type moments, compiling all the times that Karen and Ivy have dressed up as Marilyn, and comparing Ivy’s sexy, smooth rendition of “I Never Met A Wolf Who Didn’t Love To Howl” to Karen’s more rushed, arrhythmic one. After all that, to have Derek pick Karen is to have him deny the evidence that’s been put right in front of us, over and over this season.
Karen’s fine for the chorus. She’s maybe even fine singing in orange juice commercials. But the only time in this entire season that she’s appeared remotely sexy is for a few seconds in this episode, when she storms exasperatedly onto the stage in her underthings to complain about the rushed costume change. It’s such a disarmingly human moment, and there haven’t been enough of those involving Karen Cartwright. She’s just hasn’t shown enough nuance.
And she’s not Marilyn Monroe. If she’s Derek’s “vision” of Marilyn, then he’s in the process of neutralizing the enduring power of an American icon. The creators of Bombshell wanted to mount a show about a woman. Instead, they’re fading in on a girl.
- “Hello, Michael Riedel. I’m using your full name so that the people watching at home will know who I’m talking to on the phone. I was going to say, ‘Hello, influential Broadway reporter/critic Michael Riedel,’ but that seemed a bit too forced, even for Smash.”
- I have to give Smash credit for giving at least two of the non-Karen, non-Sam chorines actual personalities. I wish they’d been used more, but I did appreciate that whenever I saw Bobby or Jessica singing and dancing in the background of a scene, I could think of them as real people.
- Julia throws up. She never throws up. The last time she threw up was when she… Wait, you don’t think? But now what will become of Leo’s baby sister in China?!
- Thanks to Zack for taking over last week. Somehow I get the feeling he won’t be raising his hand for this assignment again next season. (And I hope you don’t take it personally that I was otherwise occupied. I promise, I wan’t running away from you. I was running away from myself.)
- I’m afraid we have to shelve Kanin’s Smash until next season, just when the troupe in the novel has moved on from Boston to Philadelphia, and just when our narrator/heroine has met the man who wrote the book on which the musical Shine On, Harvest Moon is unofficially based. Will she eventually have explicitly described, possibly kinky sex with this gentlemen? I’ll let you know next year. In the meantime, revel in her descriptions of him:
Those perfect teeth. Real? Gray hair, pink face. Rugged. Scar on chin. Tall. Stolid. Athletic. Male as hell. Was he a young-old man or an old-young man? I couldn’t tell. I still don’t know. My first impression was that here was a man who not only loved life but enjoyed it. In the hours ahead, I was to find that my first impression had been—as it rarely is—perfectly correct. … I was thinking that I’d better not fall for this man—too complicated, too talented, which usually means too infrequently available. But I was twitching pleasantly down there between my thighs and I resolved that when he came on (why did I think he would?), I would hold back only long enough to make it look respectable. My instinct (infallible in these matters) told me that he was not one who would respond to a predatory female—which I have been on occasion, with lovely results.