'Smash' recap: A Bruno Mars musical and a new Joe DiMaggio
Welcome to Episode 3 of "Smash." Many critics believe it is around a show’s third episode that the whole thing sinks or swims; the big hype has died down but the writing energy is still new. The actors have relaxed into their parts, the writing team is used to staying up all night together to make a plot work. We’re ready to judge. If a show feels old or grating by week three, it’s likely that it’s not going to reboot itself in time for a back-end pickup. If it feels fresh and shiny new, then there’s hope yet. Episode 3 is the Groundhog Day of new programming.
I think that one should give a show an entire season to find its voice -- there are so many moving parts in making television come together that it's a shock when anything feels coherent right away -- but I see the point of the exercise. The first two weeks of a show run on pure adrenaline and whatever fumes are left over from the marketing campaign. The third is for satiating the new fans, the bright eyes who are just hooked enough to come back for more, the willing souls who punched “Smash” into their DVRs and pressed “record season” as an act of faith. The doubters have departed for "The Bachelor" (or let’s be honest, for "Drag Race"), and the faithful remain.
But the third episode is also for snaring the latecomers, who just heard about this zazzy show about Broadway that has that one girl from "American Idol" and that woman from "Will & Grace" in it. So, a lot is riding on this thing.
Here’s what I have to say about that: Get it together, “Smash.” I know there was a lot of pressure going into this, but there was no reason to drop the ball in an episode titled “Joe DiMaggio.”
To begin with, where was the good song in this episode? I know it wasn’t the screamy Bruno Mars number that Michael Swift did to impress Eileen (though don’t you like to sit and contemplate the idea of a world in which Angelica Huston had to sit through several takes of that? It’s delightful theater of the absurd in my head). It wasn’t Kat McPhee’s Karen-oke with her cadre of Midwestern barflys.
And unfortunately, it wasn’t the episode’s original number, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith,” which was far too sleepy even for the love song in a musical (for the uninitiated, duets in musicals are usually down-tempo jams that give the other actors time to change and the leads to slow their heart rates). I liked the general idea of marriage “being a good thing,” but Julia’s madwoman incantation didn’t really translate into a song that radiated any genuine emotion between the two actors. Perhaps this is a sign that Michael Swift and Ivy Lynn don’t have great chemistry, but I think it’s too soon to tell. Mostly, I think that the song could’ve been a bit less cutesy, and a bit darker. These are people whose every move is watched; their love was nearly impossible. A dream sequence featuring Marilyn-as-Donna-Reed gets the point across, but it feels like an obvious and simple choice for the scene.
Sure, every musical has to have a few clunkers, especially during the workshop stage -- but this is not a show that acknowledges such a thing as a clunker. The thing about "Smash" that you have to swallow whole if you are to enjoy it is this underlying premise that Tom and Julia are brilliant, and that everything they write (via the real-life brains of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) is solid gold. We have to believe that they are good at their jobs, or the whole concept deflates. So when a song isn’t stellar, it is more confusing than anything. Is it our fault that we don’t love it, don’t see their blinding genius? Are we tone deaf? Philistines? *Gasp*-- are we not show people? The show hasn’t yet found a way to address mediocrity on the musical side. Perhaps that is coming down the pipe, when investors don’t love every note they hear, but for now we are left in the creative lurch, wanting more and not getting it.
And speaking of mediocrity, how about that Julia slept with her actor storyline? I concede that it is some nice symmetry with the Ivy/Derek thing (PS -- anyone else shocked that liaison lasted into this episode and seems to be barreling ahead? Derek may be a tail-chaser but he seems to park his car in a lot for weeks at a time), but it is also a soap cliche ripped straight from "Convenient Drama-Heightening for Dummies." The powerful woman with the seemingly great husband (have you seen how well that guy chops vegetables?) finds herself sucking face with the artiste on the Brooklyn Bridge midday. And can you blame her? He looks so good in his flannel muscle vest doing the Bruno Mars version of "Rent." (About that: Jukebox musicals are definitely a trend, but that whole deal felt like a Faustian devil bargain straight from the NBC producers to Bruno Mars label to iTunes, right?). The plot of woman-as-cheater felt surprising when it was on "Sex and the City" but now it feels stale. It’s so clear that Julia is going to have a re-run, and if she doesn’t, then rotten secret-straight Ellis will be right there to break up her happy brownstone life like the big ol’ life-ruiner he is.
What’s with Ellis, anyway? What’s his angle? We know he drinks beer on hipster roofs in Brooklyn and weaseled his way into a job via tenuous connections (i.e. every twentysomething in New York). But there is something so sinister in his playing gay for Tom, and his blatant thievery of intellectual property. His robotic manner around the apartment made his “You should be careful about what you say next” speech to Jules all the more creepy. Is Ellis a sociopath, guys? I think he might be.
What else happened? Oh yes, Karen went home to wallow in Iowa, which apparently is a mash-up of Pleasantville and Nashville. Her British boyfriend offered to bankroll her life on a city employee salary (haha) but only after getting in an upsetting possessive spat with her boss. Karen seemed to roll with it, but boyfriends are not supposed to pop in at business meetings. Ivy is insecure about Derek, because of course she is. Eileen threw many martinis at her husband, who seems to be everywhere, because in Eileen’s New York there are only two restaurants. Joe DiMaggio has a kid and family that I suppose we have to care about, if only because Julia is going to make that wife wish she’d never thought “marriage is a good thing.”
“Grenade” 1.5 Jazz Hands
Never, ever make a Bruno Mars musical. The LaMama theater needs to reclaim its besmirched name.
“Redneck Woman” 2 Jazz Hands
Karen: “I’m so shy, don’t make me do this! Oh, I have to do it? I guess I’ll just get everyone in this whole bar to love me and clap along! Because that is realistically what happens in karaoke, you see. No one ever hates the girl visiting from Broadway who belts an old country hit like it's her audition for 'The Voice.' In small towns just they love this!”
“Mr. and Mrs. Smith” 2.5 Jazz Hands
Good concept, bad execution. What should’ve felt special felt twee. It was only missing a ukulele.
-- Rachel Syme
Photo: Megan Hilty and Will Chase singing "Mr. and Mrs. Smith." Credit: Will Hart/NBC.