Smash, if you’ve got a moment, I’d like to pull you aside for a pow-wow. I know you’ve heard me give these notes before, about how you look nice, and have a lot of zazz, but how you keep hitting the same bum notes over and over with some of these corny subplots and dull characters. (Plus, one of your stars can’t act. No offense, Smash. Sweet gal, but no chops.)
But y’know, you’re not terrible. It’d be easier if you were, really. Then I could just sit back and smirk and watch you embarrass yourself for my amusement week after week. But no. You keep coming up with these moments where I think you know what you’re doing, and that’s enough to make me believe that deep down you’ve got it in you to be a smart, entertaining, involving backstage musical.
Take Sam. Sam’s great. You did real good there. You teased out the possibility of a Tom/Sam relationship for way too long, but thus far, you’re sticking the landing. Christian Borle and Leslie Odom, Jr., have real chemistry together, with Tom’s rolling his eyes at how young Sam was when Rebecca Duvall’s first big hit movie came out, and Sam’s tsk-tsking at Tom’s “girlfriend”-speak, and the two of them eying each other hungrily in a public street. You know I’ve always been a big fan of your gay romances, Smash, which have been more down-to-Earth and honestly passionate than any of your straight romances. (Not that the gay relationships have that far to go to outpace the straight on your show. But anyway… I’m trying to be positive right now, so forget I said that.) As for Sam stopping Tom’s carnal advances in this week’s episode because he’s a churchgoing boy and thinks of sex as holy? I loved that. On other shows, that kind of move would be a sign that you were shying away from the more explicit homosexuality, but you’ve already shown two naked guys in bed together, so you’ve earned the right for Sam’s (relative) chastity to be a character quirk, as well as an opportunity for him to analyze and criticize Tom’s fear of commitment.
(Oh, and don’t think I didn’t notice how you had Tom and Sam talk about their favorite Sondheim musicals without ever feeling the need to tell us that was what they were doing. You knew we’d get it, and I appreciate that. Same as I appreciate you having an actor doing a Lee Strasberg impression during the Actors Studio scenes of Bombshell, without ever outright calling him Lee Strasberg. That was nifty. Of course I ain’t buyin’ that Tom’s a Frogs man, given the kinds of musicals he creates, but I’m willing to let that go.)
And then there’s Rebecca. I’m not sure where you’re going with this whole “bringing in a movie star to save Bombshell” thing, but Uma Thurman is a lot of fun. She gives that character some pop, playing both the shallow, demanding side of celebrity (as she deals with her drunken ex Colin, and demands more drama and “a little less singin’ and dancin’” in the show), and the sincere, talented side (as she arrives late to a meeting and admits that she won’t sound so flat and tuneless if they can lower the key, give her more vocal support, and pick up the tempo). So sure, it’s not so realistic that Rebecca would’ve been hired without anyone really hearing her sing. That’s okay. For now at least, she’s a kick to watch.
Also, I gotta give you credit: The addition of Rebecca gives Ivy and Karen something to bond over. When Derek brings Ivy back into the show (to be a backup to Karen, who’s a backup to Rebecca), Ivy gets to make fun of the way that Karen moons over Rebecca, wishing she had her life. “She’s annoying,” Ivy says, in a sisterly fashion. “We hate her.” And when Rebecca sings badly, Ivy nudges Karen and says, “That’s the sound of a thousand ticket-holders demanding their money back.” There’s something there, Smash: something about what it takes to be a star, and how Ivy has the ruthlessness but not the quality, while Karen’s just the opposite.
Look, you’re not Mad Men. I get that. It’s not fair to you, really, that I spend Sunday nights watching The Good Wife and Game Of Thrones and Mad Men, and then on Mondays you have to follow those acts. (I mean, did you see that Mad Men last night? So crazy good.) Still, you’ve got themes you can explore. It’s just that you explore them so sporadically that I’m never sure whether they’re even intended, or if I’m just looking at a mess of dots and seeing a sailboat, if you get my meaning. This idea of Ivy and Karen as the two sides of Marilyn Monroe, at war with each other… That’s real, right? That’s intentional? Because you mentioned tonight about bringing back the “shadow Marilyn” staging to help out Rebecca, and that would be a really powerful visual to have Ivy and Karen in Marilyn garb behind the star of the show, handling what the lead can’t. I hope you do that. I hope you use the music and the image to dig deeper into the meaning of this Hollywood icon and how she exemplifies the promise and curse of stardom. You don’t even have to underline it. Like Lee Strasberg and the Frogs/Into The Woods debate, it can just be there.
Speaking of digging deep, I can’t say I was blown away by your big Actors Studio number, Smash, either in the practice space or in the Dream Theater. But it was fine; it was acceptable. And it was much better than the other big number, with Karen as Marilyn singing Amy Winehouse. What the hell was that, Smash? Why do you keep showing Derek being starstruck by Karen, when we can see with our own eyes that she has no vivacity or depth. She’s got a great set of pipes and she’s a looker, but any scene where she speaks or tries to emote is half-inert at best. Even when Karen’s telling Dev that they should go see Rebecca’s Casual Fridays 2 because he loved the first one, and, “We haven’t laughed together in a long time,” it sounds like she’s calling in a takeout order, not trying to save her relationship. (“I just need to get back the man I fell in love with. No fried wontons. Dressing on the side.”)
Speaking of Dev, when will you get through your head Smash that we don’t care about him, his attraction to that reporter lady, or the stupid press secretary job he didn’t get? And while Eileen’s fine, you’re not fooling anyone with this whole “Will she or won’t she get with Nick?” and “Is Nick a criminal?” jive. That’s just busywork: something the ol’ Wheel Of Plot Complications spun up to give Anjelica Huston something to do.
As for Leo… did you think we were going to get through this without talking about that guidance counselor scene, where Julia confesses her adultery in a passive-aggressive way that somehow makes her even more unsympathetic? Or—dear Lord in heaven—that scene where Leo tells his mom and dad that there’s no point to him studying and getting good grades and getting into college, because that just leads to falling in love and then marriage and then affairs? You thought you could waste our time with five minutes of that nonsense again this week? Huh? Did you?
Wait, Smash, where are you going? Now I feel bad. Don’t take it so personal!
You need to have a thicker skin, Iowa!
- What? It’s lipgloss. Whatever.
- I’ve started to really like “Let Me Be Your Star.” Not so much when Rebecca sings it, of course, but as a song.
- I liked how Julia looked at her phone and said, “Ew, school.” My sentiments exactly.
- Just when you think Karen can’t get any worse, she texts during a movie.
- More comeuppances for Ellis! First, Rebecca’s assistants order him around like he works for them, and then he fumbles a call-waiting switch and accidentally tells the guy he slept with to get to Rebecca that he thinks he’s a loser. Showing us Ellis failing: It’s like Smash is finally giving the audience what it wants.
- In Garson Kanin’s Smash: A Novel, the production has moved to Boston for a tryout, which has prompted a few genuinely insightful tidbits about how producers worked to improve a show circa 1980. (One tool: cassette tapes! They recorded the show to gauge audience reaction, scene-to-scene.) As for the heroine’s sex life, it takes an unexpected turn when she gets a late-night call from the show’s female lead:
She was not beautiful, but everything about her was: hair, eyes, brows, lips, figure. She seemed to have arranged every detail of her being. But beautiful, no. Handsome. That was it. A handsome woman. Age? Indeterminate. Forced to guess, I should say mid-forties. Strong in the jaw, and a prizewinning combination of neck and throat. She turned and caught me staring at what I could see of her breasts. “Breasts” does not describe what she had. Tits? Ridiculous. Boobs? Of course not. Bosom? Not at all. Suddenly, it struck me. Poitrine! The first I had ever seen to fit the word.
- There follows five pages of lesbian bangin’.