Smash: Enter Mr. DiMaggio

Posted on February 21, 2012

Previously, on Smash:

Now, the beauty of being a blogger is that you can convince yourself that people want to hear your opinion on all sorts of things. So let’s pretend everyone’s dying to hear what we think of Smash. Like many, we scoffed, rolled our eyes, and declared it a sad Glee ripoff when it was first announced. But here’s the thing about that: Smash isn’t a ripoff of Glee; it’s a direct answer to it. Glee is a fantasy world, where 30-year-old high school students with virtually no training sound like pop stars and execute huge musical numbers that come out of nowhere and fade into memory before the next huge musical number. Smash is no less a fantasy world (by virtue not only of being a musical, but of just being a TV show) but the entire tale is structured around the things Glee doesn’t or won’t show: the grinding rehearsals, the backstage and behind-the-scenes decision-making, the hiring, the money. It would be a little laughable to call this glossy drama, with endless scenes of people walking down very sanitized New York City streets, “gritty,” or even (god forbid) “realistic,” but when a character breaks into song you at least get the impression that she worked damn hard to get it right. Not only that, sometimes the viewer hears a song more than once, sung by different people. It’s not overdone, but that exact technique does more to lightly illustrate the repetition that comes with endless rehearsals than a million scenes of Mr. Schuester saying “Guys, we really have to rehearse for Sectionals.”

What fascinated us most about the first two episodes of this show was how much the narrative resembled a reality TV competition (lots of “judges’ panel” conversations), something we think was quite deliberate to plant that American Idol/X-Factor/The Voice comparison in the viewers’ heads. It was a brilliant thing to do and we were struck by the idea that it’s only a matter of time before someone really does blend narrative with reality TV. “Who do YOU think should play Marilyn? Press ONE for Ivy! Press TWO for Karen!”

What made the Ivy/Karen question so interesting was how well the writers structured it so that neither performer was favored too much. Sure, Katharine McPhee is arguably the star of the show, is shot to look prettier, and is clearly getting more of the “ingenue” narrative stylings than Ivy is, but the show’s gone to great lengths (and been mostly successful about it) to depict both women as equally talented and equally right for the role, for different reasons. It’s funny; when you read through the various writeups on it, it appears the show did its job on this point quite well, because some writers think it’s a given that Ivy’s the one for the part and others are rooting for Karen, but none of them seem to be ambivalent on the issue. It’s almost a shame they had Ivy jump into bed with Derek, because her selection doesn’t feel wholly earned now. Then again, that seems to have been the point. And besides, anyone who thinks the final selection for Marilyn has been made must be someone who’s never seen a TV show or backstage musical before. Prediction: They’ll wind up casting both girls; one, to play the sweet side of Marilyn and the other to play the sexy side; a sort of White Swan/Black Swan thing. We can’t be the only ones who think that, right?

As for this episode, it’s too bad this is the one where we chose to jump into the recapping pool, because it was easily the weakest of the run. Although we’re eternally grateful that we didn’t have to hear another word on Julia’s magical Chinese baby who’s waiting for the Houston family to rescue her. Besides, she’s got a cute guy making cracks about how good she smells and that’s ALWAYS more fun to listen to than “We’ll call your name on the wind…” while Grey’s Anatomy music plays in the background.

Oh, did we mention that glossy network dramas make our asses itch? Because they do. And to be honest, there have been more than a few ass-itch-inducing scenes so far. Too many people are playing it a little too broadly (we’re looking at you, Anjelica) and need to be toned down, not to mention the script occasionally sounds like it was written to make the story easy to understand for low-IQ people. This is a classier, better production than Glee in almost every way, but at least Glee assumes you’re smart and expects you to keep up.

Anyway, Julia’s got a hot Joe DiMaggio who’s got a past with her and that’s a lot more fun than adoption drama and listening to mouthbreathing teenagers whine “Who’s going to rescue her, mom? Who? If not us, which white people will save her from being in CHINA?!?!” Also, Ivy is kind of dumb, no? “Do you guys think I got the part because I slept with the director?” And she’s supposed to be a ten-year veteran of Broadway? Was she asleep through most of that time? But uh-oh, Ivy! You may be in his bed, but he’s still meeting Karen for drinks, to which Dev takes high British offense. We admit, the Brit-off was kind of fun and gave Dev something to do besides being saintly and having a great smile.

Work needs to be done on Karen’s character. Especially since we’re spending so much time with her. Performance-wise, we have no complaints, at least not with the musical numbers. McPhee could use some intensity, though. We get that Karen is sweet and unsullied, but translating that to bland shows a lack of imagination on the creators’ parts. It seems very odd to send her character home so early in the story. We already met her parents and had the cliche of their disapproval hammered home quite effectively. Nothing was really added with these scenes. Felt like narrative wheel-spinning until they can get her back into that Marilyn costume.

Ellis is another character who needs major work. We seem to be the only people on the internet who never believed he was gay and weren’t remotely shocked to see him with a girlfriend. But this character seems to have no motivations or purpose other than to be a scheming pain in the ass. Any employer would have seen through him from the beginning. That he was fired and then hired back makes Tom look kind of idiotic, especially when combined with his violent rejection of working with Derek, who’s clearly making their material work.

As for the material, it varies in quality. “Mr. and Mrs. Smith” doesn’t even come close to “20th Century Mambo.” “National Past Time” was good, if a little pedestrian – but we couldn’t help throwing our hands up in the air because Julia just got finished telling her doormat husband that she didn’t want anyone else doing Marilyn because they wouldn’t respect her, and then we see a number where Marilyn grinds her crotch into guys’ faces, fondles bats, and mimics blowjobs.  We couldn’t help thinking the real Marilyn would have burst into tears at the sight of such a “tribute.” But the big number – and not surprisingly, the best so far – is “Let Me Be Your Star,” which we suspect we’re going to hear at least a couple more times before the show opens, sung by different people.

But we love it; we can’t deny it. It’s not smarter than Glee, but it has way more depth to it. And let’s face it, there’s only so much empathy we can call upon for a bunch of teenagers. It’s kind of nice to watch a TV musical about adults with grownup problems.


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