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'Smash' recap: Welcome to Bollywood

April 24, 2012 |  9:01 am

"Smash" recap: Katharine McPhee, Raza Jaffrey

One of the reasons that “Smash’s” pilot was so compelling (Remember that? Remember those halcyon days when this was still the most exciting show of the midseason and “Girls” was just a whisper on the wind?) was that it seemed this was a show that managed to be a musical without the artifice. As in, the songs blossomed organically from the plot, instead of clawing through it while making little tangential sense (eyebrow raised in your direction, “Glee”).

Sure, it’s not probable that a woman in a Marilyn outfit could belt her heart out on the street at 9 a.m. and still manage to hail a taxi — normally cabbies avoid stopping for the insane — but that was a small suspension of disbelief to make for what was overall a genuine use of theatrics to enhance the drama. If “Glee” is a commercially minded show, in that massively popular songs seem to appear at random in order to give tweens a chance to swoon and buy things on iTunes, then “Smash” appeared to be it’s older, wiser cousin. The songs would still be catchy, but the point was not to drive up clicks but to make a coherent whole that one day could become a coveted album, or perhaps even a real-live Broadway show. “Glee” has become a perversion of the classic musical form in its current state, and “Smash” was here to save the day.

That was all before.

Now I am not sure what this show is — and I’m not sure that “Smash’s” producers know, either. It has gotten away from them somehow, and it is all the more naked a departure because the cast has to keep pumping out tunes every week. A show that jumps the shark while singing and gyrating is a unique kind of train wreck, like a drunk and overexcited relative getting down alone on the dance floor at a bar mitzvah. It’s so easy to be embarrassed for it that you go through stages of denial. Maybe they meant this ironically? Maybe they had a ton of fun dreaming it up in the writer’s room, and it just didn’t fully cook on screen? Maybe they wanted to give their costume department something to do?

I’m of course referencing the Ganesha in the room here, and that is the over-the-top Bollywood fantasy number that dominated the second act of the show. This wasn’t the first musical number to pop out entirely from a character’s psyche (Ivy’s loopy mirror dance takes that title), but it was the biggest and the least sincere, a tinsel spectacle that served only to remind us of what the show might have been.

The Marilyn side of things has gotten stale — movie star allergies this, Karen’s low confidence that — and there aren’t too many chances to infuse new glossy showstoppers into the musical before the premiere. So the spangles must be generated from thin dream sequences, and what results is a number that feels almost aggressively out of place. To quote Stefon, the Bollywood number had everything: Karen with fake eyebrows, Derek feeding Ivy grapes on a divan, Tom rubbing a lamp with a furtive glance, R.J. reaching for a snaky orange, Julia and Frank line dancing for their lives, Dev contorting like a yogi, Ellis holding a velvet box of jewels he probably stole, Anjelica Huston trapped in a hell of her own making. What it didn’t have was heart.

I can understand how it could seem on the surface like a forward development, in that Karen’s spicy curry (no peanuts) fantasy allowed “Smash” to branch out into another direction, both culturally and musically. Bollywood should fit perfectly into this show, what with the big dance numbers and all. But for whatever reason, it didn’t feel earned, and — like “Glee’s” recent misuse of that hit Gotye song -- felt almost desperate. It’s as if the producers panicked and said, “Quick! What sort of thing can we do that will be a huge extravaganza and showcase McPhee’s dancing, which is actually quite good, and give Dev something to do to become a tiny bit likable, all while giving the first half-hour of the show the iTunes single it sorely needs?” I hate to sound cynical, but the Bollywood number did feel cynical.

Meanwhile, a whole show happened on either side of it. Uma Thurman, who turns out to be excellent on television, has taken the young Karen under her wing, presumably to keep her enemies close, etc. They share kale smoothies, get branded lesbians in the tabloids and share heartfelt moments together like singing a Snow Patrol cover in front of an entire audience who is rapt and loving it and not at all upset that the band they paid to see has been hijacked by a Broadway nobody. If they wanted to see that, they could have gone to any karaoke bar in midtown, but this way it is a surprise.

Dev is jealous of the attention Rebecca has been lavishing on Karen, which is rich given that he has spent the last few weeks in R.J.’s ballot box. Rebecca may be using Karen — the wide-eyed innocents who think celebrities are “cool” are always the first to go — but both her and Dev’s lack of regard for Karen as a human being at that dinner scene made me want to throw peanuts at them both.

Fortunately, my ire with Karen’s weak-chinned, swag-accepting, Bollywood-dreaming self has found allies in Ellis and Ivy, who could now be described as the show’s villains if they were not secretly doing the lord’s work. Ellis, sick of manipulating Eileen and grinding flax seeds and kale into drinkable form (Rebecca must be clean as a whistle inside) tells Ivy that she should have the Marilyn role again, and they share a moment of intense staring that seems to say, “We’re just two creepy usurpers with scant morality, becoming BFFs... no big deal.”

It is Ellis’ machinations that lead Ivy back to center stage, singing a tune that’s not at all subtle in its message about a broken up old thing still having a little life left in it. As Uma’s dagger eyes and self-serving suggestion proves, Ivy is on the rise again. And with good reason — after so many weeks of trying to convince us that McPhee is the star, but the moment Hilty opens her mouth, she wins effortlessly. Uma knows it, we all know it, Angelica’s weepy face knows it. And now we have four episodes left to fight against the inevitable.

 THE SONGS:

 “Run”: 3 out of 5 Jazz Hands: Karen’s night out with Rebecca results in her covering an early 2000s alternative-rock hit, because that’s what movie stars do. Her version was nice, I guess. Too much autotune, too much “Like me please!” Karen business. But inoffensive.

 “1001 Nights” 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands: See above. Also, see Anjelica/Eileen dancing with her bartender paramour, who is apparently shocked to see the inside of the Brooklyn Academy of Music and whose bed-worthy compliments include greats like, “You look pretty with your hair like that.” Also, see Julia and Frank, who take some time off of their busy “Holy hell where is our child/confronting teenagers on the street like Mary Kay Letourneau” schedule to dance their hearts out.

 “Secondhand Baby Grand” 4 out of 5 Jazz Hands. I didn’t cry like every single person onscreen, but Ivy’s version of the song moved me. Which was hard to do, since by the end of this episode I was already curled up in a ball on the floor.

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Jaime Cepero on playing Ellis, the guy everyone hates on "Smash"

— Rachel Syme

Photo: Katharine McPhee and Raza Jaffrey. Credit: Will Hart / NBC.

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