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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Smash: “Musical Chairs”

Illustration for article titled Smash: “Musical Chairs”
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Let’s say you want to tell a story about a man named Carl, who has a hankering for cake. If Carl already has a cake in his house, that’s not much of a story. (It’s more like a vignette.) But if Carl goes to a bakery to buy a cake, that’s better, because maybe he’ll meet somebody along the way, or he’ll lose his wallet, or something might happen to complicate the purchase. And if Carl decides to make a cake? Well, now you’ve got a lot of potential, not just for one story but several. Each decision Carl makes and each ingredient Carl buys has the potential for drama, comedy, philosophical musing, adventure… whatever a writer can imagine.

The problem with Smash this season—or maybe it’d be better to say a problem with Smash this season—is that Carl can’t seem to make up his goddamned mind about what kind of cake he’s going to make. A typical Smash episode demands that the viewer live or die with Carl’s determination to get his hands on exactly the right kind of chocolate; then at the start of the next episode we fade in on Carl, thinking, “Or maybe strawberry…?”

A little of that kind of indecision is fine. It’s true-to-life, even. But when it happens week after week, it becomes impossible to get invested in anything that these characters claim to care about, because next week they’ll have a new plan that completely contradicts the one that came before. And because this is Smash—a workplace drama that made the critical error early on to position itself as a primetime soap—the characters will be so adamant about this new plan that it’ll make their inevitable reversal seem all the more ridiculous and shallow.

For example, it wasn’t so long ago—just last week, in fact—that Jerry was practically forcing Derek to quit, so that he could elevate Tom to director, since Tom was more on-board with Jerry’s creative vision. But it only takes a fraction of one rehearsal in “Musical Chairs” for Jerry to decide that Tom’s a disaster, and to start making moves to get Derek back. Partly this is because Tom can’t use Derek’s choreography without Derek’s permission—a fine inside-Broadway plot complication for a change—but it’s also because Tom can’t seem to get Karen to understand that she needs to at least try to implement his modifications, designed to make their Marilyn more “up.” And given that it’s Jerry who wanted the more “up” Marilyn in the first place, his sudden certainty that Tom’s all wrong for this job doesn’t make much sense.

Now, granted, Jerry is supposed to be kind of a dolt. (Which is also a pretty weak creative choice on the Smash writers’ part, but whatever.) Also granted: Katharine McPhee is not-so-good actress, which means she can’t really sell Karen’s confusion about Tom’s direction as anything other than unprofessional petulance. Yet still: In screen-time, it’s been literally minutes since Jerry was so enthusiastic about Tom taking over. Can’t we have just a little time to adjust?

The good news is that the title of this episode—and the path the story takes—implies that the Smash creative team is well aware that this constant switching around has spun out of control. This week, Eileen (with the help of her daughter Katie, apparently back from Micronesia) regains control of Bombshell from Jerry, by confronting him with her knowledge of his collusion with Ellis, and by pointing out that only she has the rights to use material from Marilyn’s private journals. These revelations probably should’ve been punctuated with a drink thrown in Jerry’s face, but regardless, the result is a positive one: the “Jerry takes charge of Bombshell” story is done for now. Eileen’s firmly entrenched as the producer, Tom’s going to remain the director, Julia’s going to tweak her old script to bring in more of the ideas from her post-Boston draft, and Ivy’s going to play Marilyn.


Why’s Ivy going to play Marilyn? Well, it’s for the same reason why I’m not sure I believe that Smash is completely done with what’s become its dominant storytelling mode of late. I’m not talking about Karen’s choice to bolt Bombshell for Hit List, which actually seems like a logical, organic development in the plot, given that it’s been in the works since the first episode of this season. I’m talking about what happens to get Ivy free of her Liaisons obligation.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but thus far in the Liaisons storyline, Ivy has tried to get Terrence Falls to be more serious, and then to be less crazy, and now this week she determines that Falls is too dull when he plays the material straight. (It’s typical of Smash that there can be no middle ground here. When Terrence is dull, he’s over-the-top dull.) Ivy then encourages Terrence to go nuts on opening night, to send a failing show out as a legendary flop. So what exactly was the purpose of the last three weeks’ worth of Ivy story, other than to get her out of the way for a while and give the character some distance from her season one addiction subplot? I mean, this was all more entertaining than Ivy’s usual storylines—and better than anything happening with Hit List—but with the way it played out, the Liaisons arc now feels all the more like the product of a notecard on the wall in the writers’ room and not anything really thought-through. (Plus, Terrence’s big song doesn’t play as “burn it all down” loony; it plays as energetic and entertaining. Also, I really don’t buy that his castmates would’ve been able to adjust to such a radical change in performing style on the fly.)


As for Hit List… crap, do I really have to think about Hit List? The “musical chairs” part of that storyline involves whether Derek’s going to stay involved with a musical that has no Karen, and that might be playing in an 80-seat theater; and whether Jimmy’s going to continue to be obstinate, or whether he’s going to take Derek’s advice and write a new opening song that better explains the theme of the show. There are some small satisfactions here, primarily in the moment when Derek straight-up yells at Jimmy that he’s wasting a chance that just doesn’t come around that often. (I’m always in favor of characters yelling at Jimmy.) But the moment when Jimmy comes through and composes a new song about reinvention feels like the closing scene of every Fat Albert episode, where the gang learns a lesson about peer pressure and then sings a song about peer pressure.

Also, in a show starved for legitimate dramatic complications, the ease with which Karen was able to quit Bombshell and join Hit List felt like a wasted opportunity for something actually interesting to happen. I know it’s a matter of policy on Smash that Karen can’t ever do anything villainous—“You’re a class act,” Tom tells Karen when she announces that she’s stepping aside for Ivy—but it might’ve been just a little bit fun to see what would’ve happened if Eileen had tried to hold Karen to her contract. But I guess the Smash writers needed to hustle Karen over to the other show, so that the Derek-Karen-Jimmy love-triangle can begin in earnest, and make Hit List even more troubled.


Which man will Karen choose? Don’t worry about it. By the end of the season, she’ll surely have changed her mind. And more than once.

Stray observations:

  • Hey, there’s John Cameron Mitchell! No, we’re not actually going to show him. Just trust us. He’s there.
  • I did like the contrast between Tom asking an assistant for a skim cappuccino with an extra shot and Derek being told that at his new theater people have to get their own coffee.
  • Derek tells Jimmy and Kyle, “I still believe in you two,” and my first thought was, “Two? Who in their right mind still believes in Kyle?”
  • According to Jimmy, he has a song in his show about fame and what people do to get it. Gosh, he’s edgy.
  • What if Valmont had smallpox? One pock?
  • Have we really gotten to the end of the Terrence Falls storyline without Sean Hayes ever sharing a scene with Debra Messing?
  • The defining characteristic of Garson Kanin’s Smash: A Novel isn’t Kanin’s firsthand insights into Broadway, or his gratuitous smuttiness, or even his more-than-a-little-disturbing vision of women’s liberation being all about sharp-tongued ladies cooking and cleaning and having steamy sex with over-the-hill writers. No, the main thing about Kanin’s Smash is that it’s huge. It was published in the era of the blockbuster doorstop novel—the kind that had their own commercials on TV—and it clearly means to feel epic. Except that there’s not much in the way of actual plot in the book. A bunch of people gather to mount a Broadway musical, and they have creative differences and sexual escapades. That’s pretty much it. So Kanin pads the book out with a level of descriptiveness that goes beyond mere “insider’s detail” and becomes more like a guy just recording every mundane thing that happens over the course of a single day. When the narrator/heroine Midge Makhakian and the show-fixer Gene Bowman get away to Atlantic City to work on the script, for example, she makes sure to tell the reader, “We loaded, in addition to our bags: two typewriters (each with table and chair), a desk-top copier, a stationery supply, two desk lamps, one Line-A-Time (for me), and the bridge table Gene had been using—he insisted on it—all writers are eccentric, some more than others. A hot-cup. A toaster.” That’s how this book is. A lot of lists. Like, here’s what Midge and Gene had for an afternoon snack in AC: “One tea, cream and milk and lemon… coffee with hot skim milk and a piece of pound cake.” And here’s what they had for dinner: “A charmless meal: steak, baked potato, salad, ice cream, coffee.” Kanin was just filling up space, is what I'm saying. That’s what’s been going on with Smash this season too. Just filling up space.