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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Smash: “The Cost Of Art”

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After last week’s episode, I get the feeling that a lot  of you would prefer that I just tee off on Smash each week, knocking it around for its corn-itude and preposterous-ity. Which wouldn’t be hard to do. (I mean: “That Bruno Mars thing?” C’mon. It’s like the show’s begging to be thumped.) But that’s not my preferred mode. I’d rather meet shows on whatever plane they’re choosing to operate on, and engage with what they seem to be trying to do. My biggest beef with Smash thus far is that I’m not always sure what it’s trying to do: Is it meant to be a mature, realistic drama about the business of Broadway, or a broadly old-fashioned showbiz melodrama with outsized musical numbers? I still don’t know, four episodes in. But as I wrote in my review of the pilot, the premise of Smash is novel enough (for a TV series anyway) that I’m willing to give the show plenty of time and room to find itself. If you want to mock Smash in the comments, feel free. Maybe I’ll join you some day; but I’m not there yet.

“The Cost Of Art” is typically all over the map, albeit non un-enjoyably. The episode builds to a big musical number, performed at the apartment of Lyle West (played by Nick Jonas), a millionaire TV star who owes his career either to Derek, Tom, or Eileen (depending on which one you ask), and who thus may be willing to invest in Marilyn. To sway Lyle, the gang throws together a quick performance of “I Never Met A Wolf Who Didn’t Love To Howl,” a sexy showstopper about how Marilyn Monroe realized her power over men once she began developing curves. Unlike the previous Smash split between the real world and the Dream Theater, the performance at Lyle’s place seems to exist somewhere between reality and dreams, like something from an old Hollywood musical, in which people who’ve never even heard a song are suddenly dancing, singing, and playing along with it. “I Never Met A Wolf” itself is a fine number—though I prefer the more modern, poppy “History Is Made At Night,” heard elsewhere in this episode—but the staging struck me as odd.


On the other hand, one of the silliest elements of “The Cost Of Art” proves to be one of the most fun: I’m speaking here of Ivy and her friends freezing out Karen at rehearsal, and then those same friends taking Karen under their wing when she shames them for their unfairness. It’s a creaky old plot device, sure. But the gusto with which the other members of the ensemble mockingly call Karen “Iowa,” and the wounded look on Karen’s face (played believably by Katharine McPhee, who knows a thing or two about being the runner-up) really sells this storyline. Yes, the switch from “let’s exclude Karen” to “let’s give Karen a makeover” happens awfully abruptly, and yes, I’m not sure how Karen went from counting every penny last episode to buying a whole new wardrobe in this one. But there’s something primally satisfying about the talented-nice-girl-gets-her-due arc, however accelerated, such that I even enjoyed the extremity of the turnaround. One minute, Karen’s being iced out of the cool kids’ table; the next they’re all singing and dancing to Adele at one of those nifty Smash nightclubs that allows the local Broadway types to commandeer the stage whenever they like. If Smash is going to go over-the-top, I’d rather they do it like this.

“The Cost Of Art” doesn’t forgo the more down-to-earth stuff, either. The title of the episode has multiple meanings, the most literal having to do with Eileen’s ongoing efforts to come up with the funds for the Marilyn workshop. (Here she tries to sell a Degas sketch that her husband Jerry gave her, but since the law still recognizes the Degas as in Jerry’s possession, she instead uses the sketch as collateral for Lyle’s investment.) But in a more metaphorical sense, the title refers to Ivy, who has wasted no time in becoming an intolerable diva. Even her friend Sam, who was a chorine with Ivy in Chicago 10 years ago, recognizes that Ivy has become a bitter pill, though that may be how she needs to be in order to be effective as the lead in a big Broadway show.

As with last week, this episode ties together what’s going on with the characters and the songs they’re singing. Marilyn’s big number about using her sex appeal echoes the details of Ivy’s big break, which may have stemmed from sleeping with Derek. There’s not much that’s subtle about “The Cost Of Art”—not even Ivy’s passive-aggressive complaints about Karen’s loud singing voice. But I loved the way that Megan Hilty plays these scenes, with a non-threatening “aw shucks” chuckle. I’d rather Ivy not be an entirely unsympathetic villainess, but there’s a lot of potential for juicy drama (and more than a little camp) in these power-plays between Ivy and Karen. After all, it’s a long way to Broadway, and as Derek notes, “Nobody’s anybody until we start rehearsing.”

Stray observations:

  • Following familiar melodramatic models is fine, but I wish the dialogue in Smash weren’t so moldy. (Like when Karen asks whether Ivy and Derek are sleeping together and one of her fellow dancers says, “I don’t think they’re getting that much sleep,” or when Ivy tells Tom that she’s a big girl who can take care of herself.)
  • I also have some qualms about the scattered locations of this episode, which could’ve easily have taken place almost entirely in the practice space and Lyle’s apartment, and likely would’ve seemed more focused if it were more stage-bound.
  • What did we think of Nick Jonas as Lyle? Seemed a little lightweight to me at first, but he did reasonably well with the rearranged Michael Bublé song, and when he slips into business mode with Eileen, he was fairly convincing.
  • Tom gets a subplot of his own in this episode, as his mom sets him up on a blind date with a nice young man, whom Tom dines with at a steakhouse before taking him to Lyle West’s party for the big number. Not much happening there yet, but it’s nice to see a gay romance presented so matter-of-factly.
  • The Ellis drama persists in this episode too, as Julia finds that all her entreaties to keep Tom’s assistant out of the mix have been falling on deaf ears. Ellis even shows up at Lyle’s party, with his “friend.” Debra Messing way overplays both her frustration with Ellis and her flustered reaction to ex-lover Michael, but in a way that adds to the pleasurably overheated atmosphere of this episode.
  • Though Karen’s new friends praise her dancing, I still think McPhee looks like she’s counting the steps in her head. Still, the Karen-boosters are right that she grabs the spotlight when she dances. I hardly notice anyone else.
  • I’ve always liked “Rumour Has It” better than “Rolling In The Deep.” Glad to see it finally getting a little airtime.