This week on Smash, we got our first fully staged musical number. Is this an indicator of where the show is headed?
Let’s take a closer look after the jump.
Overall this week’s episode rang true to Smash form, with the exception of the aforementioned fully-realized stage number and the occasional genuine emotional beat. Our main storyline revolves around rehearsals for Marilyn where director Derek (Jack Davenport) appears increasingly annoyed with everyone and everything in the show. He unfortunately targets much of his annoyance toward our star, Ivy (Megan Hilty). Although I do buy that he’s an “artist” and is simply passionate about his craft, I did think that his choice of directing techniques (i.e. shouting, yelling, rolling his eyes) were a bit over the top. It would have been nicer to see more of a progression of his frustration rather than just starting off with full blown wrath.
As much as I appreciate how we cut away from rehearsals to explore the characters’ lives to get things like depth and narrative intrigue, I think the show might function better if we had less of this in favour of really focusing on the nuances of putting the show together. It seems we’re always just starting a number which is interrupted for one reason or another, or we come in right before one ends and everyone takes a break. Considering that mounting a brand new musical is a huge project (see: Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark) there’s more than enough drama and opportunity to peel back layers of our characters without resorting to these “slice of life” moments.
One scene I would have loved to see was Ivy and Karen’s (Katherine McPhee) one-on-one training session. After Derek humiliates Ivy by bullying Karen into standing up and singing “Happy Birthday” in front of the entire cast, he recommends the two have an aside so Karen can show her how it’s done. We cut to the scene where Karen attempts to apologize for the display and tries to clarify that she’s no threat, only to be met with Ivy’s suprisingly steely competitive bitchiness. That is until the piano player enters and Ivy immediately is all smiles and bubbles again. Ivy’s attack and her clear “hot and cold” turnaround was uncharacteristic and successfully launched her into the pile of clichéd archetypes that I’ve been complaining about from day one (which she had avoided thus far). It would have been great to see the two working together. I’m certain that we would have seen a different side of both characters and would have added much needed richness to their hate/hate relationship. Instead it’s quite easy to infer that Ivy’s lashing out at Karen is a product of her own insecurity while Karen remains the innocent doe-eyed victim. Instead of allowing our characters depth, this keeps them stuck in flat, one-dimensional character types that unfortunately just aren’t very interesting.
All this leads to the pinnacle of the episode: a cutaway to the fully-staged “Let’s be Bad”. I’ve been trying to understand why I don’t particularly care for these staged numbers and I believe it’s because it’s missing the fundamental quality that makes live theatre so exhilarating. There’s a living, breathing audience and an immediacy in the theatre. There are no multiple camera angles, close-ups and fancy crane shots. Despite spectacular performances, beautiful costumes, and astute choreography, (all of which this number had) there’s just something missing that I can’t quite put my finger on and for me it’s that excitement of theatre.
Translating the stage experience to screen is no small feat and I don’t presume to have a definitive answer on how best to do this. I will say that I felt closer to that feeling of immediacy when we got the scenes in the rehearsal room vs. those on stage. Perhaps it feels more authentic because there is an audience watching (the creative crew)? Or because it really isn’t about anything but the performances? It’s hard to say, but even though I felt distanced, I was pleased to see a fully realized number nonetheless. Maybe we just need more of them or ones that aren’t presented as fantasy projections.
The only other narrative aspect worth mentioning is the rekindled flame between Julia (Debra Messing) and Michael (Will Chase). As the episode plays out, she seems much more active in quashing any flirtation, whereas he get subtly more persistent. This culminates with a moonlight serenade outside her Manhattan brownstone. Although the cheese factor was reaching capacity, Chase’s vocals really save the scene. Until he started singing I couldn’t help but wonder about how crappy a husband/father he was being to his own family. She’s equally to blame but Julia’s son is somewhat grown-up and her husband is out of town. Michael, on the other hand, has a young baby and a wife who is presumably taking care of it all on her own while he goes out drinking and having dinner at his mistress’ house. But most of that fell to the wayside once he started singing; no matter how contrived it felt, his voice overwhelmed my moral objections.
Overall, I think my biggest problem with the show is that it doesn’t quite know what kind of show it wants to be. Is it a show which focuses on how to get a musical to Broadway? Is it a show that wants to explore the creative process? Is it all about how a ‘star is born’? Is it a show in which characters spontaneously break into song to further accent the narrative? Or is it a somewhat soapy drama that just happens to take place amidst the mounting of a musical? I think right now Smash is trying to find some harmonious blend of all of these elements, and as a result ends up with interesting moments here and there, but fails to function well as a whole.
- I didn’t appreciate the treatment of Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.) After it’s revealed that he’s gay man who likes sports, Michael suggests he needs to wear a “rainbow bracelet” or something in order to attract Tom’s (Christian Borle) attention . Riiight, because that’s not offensive. Me = unimpressed.
- I did appreciate, however, the post-coital scene between Tom and John (Neal Bledsoe). There was an ease about their conversation that allowed me to picture it taking place between any couple, gay or straight.
- I was quite peeved at Dev’s (Raza Jaffrey) whiny insistence that Karen wear something sexy to his work dinner function. He’s got a hot girlfriend and wants “to show her off”. Between that and Derek’s equally misogynistic comment to her in the opening (“You’re afraid of anything below the neck”) I actually felt sorry for Karen this week.
- Jack Davenport does another great job in talking Ivy off a ledge near the closing of the episode. I don’t know if he’s just using her, or if he genuinely is an artist who puts everything behind his craft. I honestly don’t know and I love that about Derek.
- I don’t really have much to say about the apparent cliffhanger of Julia’s son watching her mom kiss another man from the window aside from thinking that it’s just another derailment from the show’s strongest element – the musical.
What did you think Smash viewers? Do you think the series has been successful at carving out its identity? Let us know how you’re feeling in the comments section!
Smash airs Mondays at 10pm ET on NBC