'Smash' recap: Ellis stirs up drama with a capital 'D'
Hello, my lovely Smash-Test Dummies! I hope this week’s "Smash" was more fun for you than it was for me. I apologize for the belated recap, but can you blame me? After watching “The Coup,” I fell into a deep slumber and entered a dream state in which “Smash” took place in another world entirely, a Broadway paradise where Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin rule like gods over a benevolent kingdom made of tap shoes and pancake makeup. A world in which all children learn jazz squares and drag slang and what it means to exit stage left.
But then I woke up, and realized we are not living in that world. “Smash” is attacking that fantasy, bit by bit -- as it is trying to shove aside all of its original Broadway vibes and replace them with pop friendly iTunes-bait.
Last week, I mentioned that the “Glee” bug had bit “Smash” right in the cortex, and that hasn’t changed. In fact, this week, we got no show tunes at all; the one original song, “Touch Me,” was written by OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder, a club banger more indebted to Gaga than Gershwin. While I saw some hope for the theater diehards last week with Bernadette Peters’ cameo, this week’s full-court pop press proves that “Smash,” which just got renewed for a second season, is not the “West Wing" of theater we thought it might be. Instead, it’s every other soap opera in primetime with karaoke thrown in for good measure.
This is not to say it is not fun stuff -- I will admit to being way more into this show than I’m comfortable with -- but it is frustrating, and frankly, not turning out to be the bill of goods we were sold. Of course, in one of her more cynical interviews, showrunner Teresa Rebeck told New York magazine that she wanted to make “a huge hit” for NBC, and would act solely in that interest. I don’t know if it says worse things about us or “Smash” that it’s devolved into a mess of deeply unlikeable characters with access to a jukebox. Maybe that’s what we want? Maybe that’s what makes a hit? Man, this is getting as depressing as an Arthur Miller play.
The other option is that Rebeck is a genius. That in taking the show from high-minded principles into a gaudy ploy for song downloads is a statement on what has happened to contemporary American theater. Just as Eileen now wants a star for “Marilyn” and Ivy Lynn is kicked to the curb to disappoint her mother yet again, perhaps “Smash” is showing us that dreams are futile and what matters in the end is who holds the paycheck.
That’s what Ellis discovered from observing all those disgusting artists, anyway. Ew, artists. Always striving, always trying. What losers! Why be like them when you can be a Broadway producer, wining and dining like a jaja? I feel like someone should tell Climby McBrownnose that if he really wanted to wield power, he might try, say, working at Goldman Sachs instead of in theater, but eh, I want to see him fail more than Julia does.
As much as I loathe to say it, this episode really did belong to smarmy, serpentine Ellis. All of his skulking around and double-crossing everyone he meets finally mattered, what with him managing to break Ivy and Karen’s confidence by planting one little secret, overstep Tom’s trust and weasel his way into a new job with Eileen as her assistant and resident best friend. Ugh, Ellis. It would be more entertaining to watch his machinations if there seemed to be some kind of human behind his cold eyes, some demon spirit that is actually alive. Instead, Ellis is a robot, or perhaps an alien life form, who in his short time on Earth has discovered that one should always wear Sesame Street colors and hate loser artists. It’s no fun to hate Ellis, because Ellis has no fun hating anyone else. He’s just carrying out the orders from his alien overlords.
He did stir up some mighty delicious d-rama though! As much as the music disappointed me this episode, I think the Tom-Derek fight may be one of the better things the show has done. The insane tension between them could have been comical, but I still believed it -- kudos to Christian Borle and Jack Davenport for doing that elusive “good acting” thing -- and I liked that the fight wasn’t linear or very easy to understand -- in real life, arguments are just as messy.
It’s still not clear why Derek sunk Tom’s career or talked smack all over town, and apparently Derek’s father is a man with a penchant for male drama critics (we are just supposed to gloss over that one for now), and none of it really made sense. But the climax -- where Derek goes off on a tirade about gay men in the theater, and Tom calls him a homophobe with this amazing sneer, and Derek then accuses Tom of writing cutesy songs with no backbone or real connection to the blood and guts of the Marilyn myth, and they are so close that I half expect them to make out -- that worked. More please!
That fight felt earned, and maybe even a little bit true, a rarity in the “Smash” universe. But don’t worry, everything else was completely absurd, so the show is right on track. For example, Grammy-winning songwriters apparently work for theater commissions in dirty warehouses in Greenpoint, Brooklyn, and take time out of their busy schedules to listen to demos from unknown BFA grads. Or you know, a guy takes his wife and kid to a meeting with his mistress and everyone is totally cool about it. Or a girl who has been in Micronesia for the last year can suddenly furnish a whole apartment in a single morning. Or of course, friends meet in bowling alleys and proceed to reenact the “We’re Gonna Score Tonight!” number from "Grease 2," taking over several lanes to do a dance number. Perfectly natural.
Wait ... what? In a universe not scripted by theater nerds, that group of people would have been kicked out of the alley. Or if not, they would have gotten the eye rolls of death from the hipsters who wanted to come to Brooklyn Bowl to drink some beer, eat some fried chicken and crank out a few overpriced frames. Anyone who has ever been on a college campus or in a public square of some kind knows that when singing and dancing folks take over a space, be they a flash mob or an a cappella group or the glee club, most people are not amused.
Meanwhile, Dev’s enjoying Karen’s spicy curry, but maybe a tad more than he usually does because of all that pent-up RJ steam. Eileen has a daughter whose nickname is “Mahatma” even though she has a trust fund, the politics of which I won’t get into here. Ivy continues her quest to be as creepily like Marilyn as possible by going ahead and sleeping with a man who has abused and neglected her. Tom’s boyfriend is perfect and the Picasso of getting teens out of jams. And that’s about it.
“Three Little Birds” 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands. Julia’s husband, Frank, is played by Broadway star Brian D’Arcy James, so it makes sense that he would get a number somewhere. What didn’t make sense is why it had to be reggae, and done through the guise of Rock Band. I like how they try to make the songs naturalistic on this show and work all the music into the plot line, but this move just served to cement Frank as the lame dad to Michael’s dashing stud. Julia may have said goodbye to Michael (while having to watch him gratuitously suck face with his wife), but she can’t be satisfied with the chemistry nerd left back at home.
“Dance to the Music” 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands. See above comments about public singing and how outlandish this seemed. Detract even more points for the guys doing air guitar.
“Touch Me” 3 out of 5 Jazz Hands. Secret: I would absolutely buy, download and work out to this song. But I won’t, because I can’t support this movement away from show tunes and toward Tedder jams as the “future of Marilyn.” I’m not saying I didn’t like Kat McPhee in a satin sheet getting groped in a bed-cage surrounded by Jabbawockees ... but OK, I didn’t like it. Julia’s “the HELL?” face said it all.
-- Rachel Syme
Photo: Anjelica Huston and Jaime Cepero. Credit: Patrick Harbron/NBC