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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Smash: “Understudy”

Illustration for article titled Smash: “Understudy”
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Forget Ivy, forget Karen, and maybe even forget Rebecca Duvall, even though the brief glimpse of Uma Thurman we got tonight has me excited to see what she’ll do next week. Until then though, can we re-make Smash into The Tom Show, non-stop? Because this week’s Smash was Tom-riffic, from our piano man filling in as Daryl Zanuck in Bombshell’s new steam room number, to him trading dishy remarks with future boyfriend Sam. Tom even celebrated the tenth anniversary of his first show with Julia, Three On A Match, by attending a high school production, as is their annual tradition. Tom was busting out all over.

Here’s what I liked about the sudden upsurge in Tom: Two weeks ago, in one of the few decent scenes in the trainwreck that was “The Coup,” Tom accused Derek of homophobia, and Derek accused Tom of treating Marilyn Monroe as sexless camp, which at the time seemed to me to be a rare case of Smash getting at something deeper and more interesting than its too-frequent “hey kids let’s put on a show” approach to the backstage musical. The truth is that gay icons like Marilyn do sometimes get de-sexed—or at the least have their sexuality put in quotation marks—when they’re converted into homage. During Derek’s rant, I was thinking of the recent film Burlesque, which seemed to go out of its way to turn sexiness into passionless pantomime. And even the double-entendre-filled songs of Bombshell have struck me as a little like SNL’s old “Tales Of Ribaldry” sketches: oh so naughty, but never explicit, because that would be gross.

Yet while Smash has been doggedly unsexy when it comes to its women, it’s been refreshingly frank about its gay men. Seeing Tom and John in bed together, laughing about their bad sex, or seeing Tom and Sam this week bantering about the schadenfreude of watching bad musicals, there’s an evident ease that’s been lacking in the show’s portrayal of every one of its heterosexual relationships. (Dear God, remember Julia and Michael? What the hell was that all about?) To top it all off, the Zanuck/steam routine was easily the sexiest number we’ve yet seen from Bombshell, and it was as gay as a spring day. With Tom filling in, it was as though he was throwing sexuality—homosexuality, moreover—right back in Derek’s face, in a “be careful what you wish for” kind of way. Just delightful.

Tom playing substitute also connected with the theme of an episode that was all about replacements and placeholders. Tom also gets to be Julia’s ersatz husband as they celebrate their “anniversary,” while John gets to be Tom’s temporary boyfriend while Sam waits in the wings. (Though John now knows that his time’s up.) Dev loses the press secretary gig to that usurping pervert, and he eventually gets fed up with waiting for Karen to support him, especially with his journalist pal so willing to show her sympathy for his plight by gingerly touching his hand. Eileen gets annoyed with her foot-dragging would-be backers, and lets her favorite martini-maker (and eventual kiss-buddy) introduce her to rich burnout rock star Randy Cobra, who agrees to pay the show’s bills. And while Rebecca Duvall is stranded in Cuba on some humanitarian mission, Karen becomes the “Understudy” of the episode’s title, filling in until the show’s new star can arrive.

Once Karen steps in, though, she’s her typical self: She can sing like a dream (or at least I think so), but damn, the woman still can’t act. As she’s running lines with “Arthur Miller” in a scene about how silly Marilyn finds the script for Some Like It Hot, Derek’s yelling at her about stage directions when he should be yelling about her sleepy, slouchy performance. Instead, Derek has a vision of her as Marilyn, and is convinced that they’ve had a breakthrough. If he can feed the entire audience the same hallucinogens he’s on, he might be right.

Frankly, whenever Tom wasn’t front-and-center in “Understudy,” I found this episode pretty tedious. Not even bad really—because bad might’ve been good in its way—but just dull. Any episode that’s one-fifth Dev already has a pretty steep hole to climb out of, and add in scenes of Julia being all touchy and weepy about her broken marriage, and man, that’s a long slog uphill. (Though I did enjoy the moment where a defensive Leo tells his mom, “I’m not the problem here.” Oh, sweet Leo. You keep telling yourself that, champ.) Mostly, “Understudy” itself seems like a placeholder, doing the dull work of moving some characters out of the way so we can begin this season’s final third.


But if wheels must be spun, may as well let Tom do the spinning. And Ivy as well to some extent, as she recovers from her Heaven On Earth debacle and decides to help Derek behind the scenes by giving him advice on how to handle Karen. Ivy’s only playing nice so that she can get back into the show, but at least she hasn’t been forgotten. She even gets the big contemporary musical number of the night, as she walks past Broadway theaters and sings “Breakaway.”

Though wait… We have a song made famous by an American Idol, sung by a music theater veteran who’s fighting for screen time with an American Idol runner-up. Who’s the real understudy here?


Stray observations:

  • Has anyone seen the latest issue of Gabster? Or Patois?
  • Gotta love the reporter who begins his question, “According to Wikipedia….” That moment is probably more realistic than entertainment journalists would care to admit.
  • Hey, an actual Broadway show! War Horse! Anyone know if that was one of the show’s actual stars walking out while Ivy sang?
  • What’s to become of people like us, guys? Y’know, us workaholic political junkies?
  • Have y’all checked out “The Act Break,” NBC’s fake-blog about the backstage drama at Bombshell? This week’s post had a little more info on Randy Cobra, “Of the seminal punk band The New York Cobras… Sang that one song about the pizza at CBGBs and has been living off the royalties from that song ‘Punk Christmas’ for the past 30 years.” Yikes.
  • I liked the steam room number, but could’ve done without the appreciative nods from the peanut gallery.
  • Also, that little camera move in Julia’s apartment where suddenly the family photo is in focus instead of Julia and Leo? Could’ve done without that, too.
  • Between Joan telling off Dr. Rape on Mad Men and Derek apologizing for his casting-couch move on Smash, this was quite the week on TV for past sexual misdeeds being dragged out of the shadows.
  • I was kind of hoping Ivy would take a closer look at that “Babysitter Wanted” notice out in the hall outside the practice space. I would totally watch the adventures of Ivy Lynn, Babysitter.
  • Aren’t we overdue for a Bobby Raskin appearance? Or has that subplot gone the way of the Chinese baby adoption?
  • Update on Garson Kanin’s Smash: A Novel: The book has gotten better now that Kanin is focusing less on his narrator’s “boopers” and more on what it takes to mount a Broadway musical, from the importance of making memorable “moments” to making sure that the male tumbler standing in for a female chorine has his “false twat” on under his dress. Kanin does though indulge in a structural affectation that strikes me as fairly lazy, wherein he renders long, dialogue-filled scenes as though they were script pages. But between all that jazz, there is this fine passage, which occurs when Midge works late with one of the writers:

He leaned over and kissed my cheek. I hate a man kissing my cheek. It suggests either that he’s a woman or that I’m a faggot. He said, “I won’t be a minute,” went into the bathroom, but left the door open. He took off his shirt and washed up—the way Pa used to do when he came home from work—and came out. He put his soiled shirt into a laundry bag in his closet, got out a fresh shirt, and put it on. While he was doing all this, I framed a sentence, rehearsed it silently, was about to say it, changed my mind. The lost remark was: “You must think I’m made of ice cream, mister.” Looking back, I’m glad I didn’t say it. Who knows what it might’ve led to?

As he put his jacket on, he asked, “Where do you stand on the steak question?”