'Smash' recap episode 5: What would Marilyn do?
OK, “Smash,” we get it. Marilyn Monroe -- in the minds of your creative team anyway -- was a sultry slinky sex kitten who was eaten alive by her own deep insecurities, revealing cracks in the otherwise vavoom veneer that led to alcohol, drugs, and likely suicide. She was a blinding talent who couldn’t feel safe, a screen gem who lost her way. She was undercut not only by the men who refused to see her as anything but a toy, but by herself, every day. Every mirror she looked into became her enemy; Norma Jean morphed into Marilyn, who morphed into a gorgeous fragile harbinger of heartbreaking self-destruction.
Wait a minute. We could be talking about Ivy, right? Or Karen? Jig's up, “Smash” screenwriters, we know what you are up to. Thanks to the powers of overwriting, we now know that the two ladies vying for the part of Marilyn are Marilyn. Ivy and Karen are slowly becoming wedded to Norma Jean’s psyche for the sake of a meta-storyline that happens to be both the laziest and best thing about the show at the same time. Without the whole Monroe’s ghost energy buzzing between the starlets, the show is just Debra Messing yelling and kissing and Angelica Huston forgetting how to use a computer. We need the Marilyn drama; it is “Smash’s” raison d'être, the covenant we signed when we agreed to devote a few months of our lives to this thing. And yet ... it’s only episode five and I find myself feeling bombshell fatigue. Aren’t you? Let’s have some real talk.
Marilyn Monroe is fascinating to us because she was so enigmatic; a tough nut to crack. The nut also happened to be stunning and clever, and taken together, the combination was almost lethal. Filtered through the “Smash” machine, however, the grand legend of Marilyn starts to taste as weak as deli coffee.
Ivy and Karen -- and everyone else in their orbit -- are constantly chattering about what Marilyn “would do” in any situation (note to NBC: make WWMMD bracelets immediately), and this familiarity they feel with her, as if they are taking her very place in the pantheon of stars, diminishes her essential mystique. It’s kind of like talking about "Fight Club." When Ivy Lynn stands in front of Karen and tells her Marilyn had a certain pizazz that couldn’t be taught, it just sounds embarrassing coming out of her mouth. Real stars don’t stand around talking about what real stars do. They just command a stage, fill a room, make themselves impossible to ignore.
That both of the candidates for the leading role feel they need to “become” Marilyn so much as to constantly rock a near-suicidal inferiority complex doesn’t feel like a tribute to Monroe’s glory, or even to her real-life problems. Just as Tom and Julia are fictionally exploiting Marilyn to write their opus, so “Smash’s” producers are constantly invoking her spirit simply to make us feel something for the main characters, and it’s getting old fast. If this sounds cynical, so be it. Play with iconic Hollywood matches, sometimes your show is going to get burned.
All that over-thinking aside, we can now proclaim episode 5, “Let’s Be Bad,” as the episode where everything got really dark all of a sudden (and Ellis didn’t even have to be evil!). To wit: Ivy has now completely melted down to a masochistic puddle, Karen is doing one-boob flashdances to her own reflection while her boyfriend possibly shags a reportress with an unpronounceable name, Tom and his dreamboat lawyer have bad chemistry, Derek reveals himself to be the worst kind of misogynist (one who claims to be dating his work), and Julia, when she is not delivering shrill mom speeches or arranging Frank’s 1,000 flights to teacher camp, is having an affair right in front of her teenager. And spurred by the sweet stylings of Leon Russell, no less. When all it takes for a forbidden ex to lure you back is to sing some tepid white-guy soul on your stoop, you didn’t really want to resist this person. In fact, it would have been easier to dismiss Swifty within seconds of that cheesy noise, but Julia preferred instead to snog in front of her entire neighborhood. The smart choice.
And here she is, drunk at Derek’s door, letting him feed her lines about acting like a sociopath in rehearsal because he is married to the show. It’s classic Ike-hooey, and Ivy goes Tina with the choice to sleep over. We just know how this ends. Because “Smash” isn’t subtle about anything, we know that Ivy’s “Let’s Be Bad” number deals with a woman who can’t stand the pressure of her life and starts drugging herself to cope with it. I don’t think it will be a shocker to anyone if next week, Ivy starts hitting the sauce hard. Because you know, WWMMD?
As for sneaky ol’ Karen, methinks she wasn’t as ashamed of her “Happy Birthday” as she told everyone she was. For one thing, she did it, and she did it well. For another, she wants the part more than Dev wants to give that Times writer the scoop (if you know what I’m saying), and all of her niceties to Ivy are just a prelude to her owning the fact that she is better. Karen has a real double personality thing happening, though I’m not sure it’s sinister. I think it’s more that the writers don’t know how to show her transitioning from an ingenue to a prima donna, and so the development is jerky and uneven. One moment she is talking about how down home Iowans don’t flaunt their sex appeal, and the next she is giving herself a peep show. She tells a stranger that she has the part of Marilyn (a first sign that she is breaking bad), but she can’t work the sexy angle without being incredibly awkward: “Uh yeah. I’m wearing this so men will look at me. That’s what Marilyn would say, right? Should I sing you Happy Birthday? WWMMD?”
Tune in next week, when everything you think will happen likely will. And if you get very bored, just start practicing your hip gyrations. Because that’s what Marilyn would do.
1) "Let’s Be Bad": 3.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: I actually found this number oddly compelling given the dour tone of the rest of the episode. This was the first dream sequence that actually felt like the Broadway show, what with the dialogue over the vamp and Ivy’s big entrance (P.S. Julia; the book better not be finished because this should be your first draft, girl). I liked the disturbing element of showing Marilyn dance while zoned out on pills. Also, was the nerd in the cardigan supposed to be Arthur Miller?
2) "It’s a Man’s World": 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands: Points go to Karen’s abs, Karen’s left breast, and Karen’s blusher brush. No points go to Katherine McPhee.
3) "A Song For You": 1 out of 5 Jazz Hands: I’m glad Julia liked this, and it led her to commit sweet, sweet public adultery, if that’s what she wants. As for me, I would not have been able to sit through that a cappella swoon bomb without having a giggle attack.
-- Rachel Syme
Photo: Megan Hilty as Marilyn. Credit: Will Hart/NBC