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'Smash' recap: Has Marilyn gone rogue?

April 10, 2012 |  9:07 am

Smash understudy recap megan hilty ivy katharine mcphee karen

If I know “Smash” like you know “Smash” (and I know the show exactly as much as any of you who have stuck with it for 10 episodes), then I can predict that the love heaped upon Karen’s cherubic face in Monday's episode will last for approximately, well ... it’s probably evaporating already. “Smash” is a show that, by its very premise, has to continually flip-flop between its starlets, never making a solid commitment to either, always promising them more. In other words, kind of a heartless jerk. And I won’t be surprised if the pendulum swings away from Karen faster than Angelica Huston can swill a martini.

“Smash’s” most powerful fuel is the rivalry between the two actresses for the part of Marilyn; it’s the tension that got viewers so titillated during the pilot, the drama that raises the ante every week (well that, and the decision over whether there is a Marilyn to cast at all). It’s a compelling beginning, but as the show groans on there is only so much back-and-forth that viewers can take.

First, Karen won the a slight edge thanks to a provocative birthday fan dance (Karen now fondly remembers this as “sexual harassment”), then Ivy surged ahead with her pout-erful line-read and her willingness to play at the national pastime with Derek. Then Karen threatened Ivy, with her blatty-blat vibrato and inability to wallflower in the background, and Ivy’s confidence became as flimsy as her grip on reality. So then Ivy’s out, and Karen’s back in the picture, writhing around in bedsheets to a low-rent-Britney club jam.

Of course, her rave-of-one is seen as disloyal (never side with the straight guy in theater!), and so she’s dumped from the musical as well. Ivy responds to her rejection by ruining a Broadway show, and Karen, similarly dejected, dives into the emotional muck with her old rival. The two give a superbly awkward but rowdy busking performance in Times Square, lulling us into thinking that maybe the show has reached some sort of stasis; that with their little "Once" routine, our girls have reached common ground and will glide ahead as equals into the bright lights.

But lo, our dreams are deferred again. Ivy’s little drug binge had serious consequences, and now she isn’t in any show. Meanwhile, Karen is somehow back in the “Bombshell” ensemble, the newly crowned understudy for a missing person. Karen is our triumphant Marilyn ... and we are back to where we started! Aren’t you exhausted?

The interesting thing about this episode, “Understudy,” is that after weeks of pushing and pulling, there seems to be a slight breakaway in the race. The look that Derek and Karen share in the last scene is one of silent connection: Derek’s eyes say, “A star is born, but it isn’t your time just yet.” And Karen’s watery woodland-creature visage seems to respond, “I get it. Just put me back in when this movie star can’t actually sing a note, coach. I’m ready to play.” Derek loves a good line-read.

Most important in this final shot is the characters' blocking. Ivy is outside the room looking in at her shattered dreams, and Karen is front and center, all eyes on her, blossoming. I can’t believe that after all this time (and after learning that Megan Hilty has a far more powerful Marilyn voice than McPhee), we are going to have to root for Karen, but it seems like the show has tilted in her direction. Like I said, it won’t last, because the producers have to milk some more episodes from somewhere. But I think if this had been the show’s final episode, we would have left it believing that Karen’s guileless Norma Jean star is on the rise, while Ivy’s haggard Marilyn is left to overdose on Seconal in peace somewhere. End scene.

“Smash” has been renewed, so that’s not our final coda. There are still many more Marilyns to go -- but this episode made me believe that Karen can command the role. Until now, her mousy Iowa routine never seemed strong enough to counter Ivy’s buxom bravado. But with Ivy on the wane, Karen’s innocence seems to be paying off. She hasn’t (yet) cracked, maybe because she has no idea how much is on the line. Ivy’s sense of stakes got to her; Karen just doesn’t know what the stakes are. As in, she’s going to lose her boyfriend over this, she’s going to be pushed to her physical limit, she may have to sleep with Derek, and she’ll definitely have to betray someone. Karen doesn’t know all this yet because she didn’t grow up in a Broadway house with Bernadette Peters modeling bad theater behavior at every turn.

And what of Ivy? She’s gone fully rogue now, eh? What with her sneaking around rehearsals, binged out on painkillers, hearing Kelly Clarkson in her head while she imagines herself putting on a complete Marilyn costume just to go about her day. The ghost of Marilyn has possessed Ivy in a way that’s borderline creepy -- she is now telling people what to do based on what Marilyn would have liked. She gives pro Derek babysitting/directing lessons, and tells Sam that her evil plan is to kill 'em with kindness, just like Marilyn did. She’s method acting to the core -- if only she had the part still, it wouldn’t feel so pathetic.

Even More pathetic is Julia, who has resorted to stealing Leo’s phone to call her (soon to be former) husband, who wants zero to do with her. Poor, sad Julia, sitting at cafes alone, waiting for a cuckold who will never come. On the one hand, I feel bad for her. She is paying the worst possible price for what she did, but also, she did it, and this is how it shakes out. I’m glad they haven’t resolved the marriage quickly; it’s one of the aspects of the show that feels most true to life. Julia doesn’t deserve to get away with it.

Tom also finds himself single again. Enchanted by Sam’s sporty physique, love of Broadway cheese, and ability to not vote Republican, Tom slowly pushes his conservative Ralph Lauren model partner away. And what he’s left with is a best friend who is a mess, and can’t even sit through a community theater production of their first musical together. (P.S. "3 on a Match" is definitely an old Bette Davis movie about being best friends with someone, and of course Tom and Julia chose that for their first show.)

I suppose I should mention Angelica Huston and the bartender who she’s making out with but who is clearly some sort of criminal mastermind, or at least maybe an illegal immigrant. Whatever it is, Ellis has all the dirt in a smoking gun file, and Eileen wants none of it. Why would she want to sink her relationship with the best $7 martini in town? Plus, he has an aging rocker friend who has insane amounts of money to invest in Broadway (and yet seems to live inside an abandoned music venue?), and that’s a bridge you just don’t burn.

Instead, you burn the contracts of legitimate investors in a wastebasket, at the only bar that ever matters or exists (Eileen’s surrogate office, Bushwacks), in a bacchanalian celebration of independence and potential future trouble with the law. But who cares? Eileen is getting her millions and her man. What could go wrong? Just don’t tell that journalist from NYU. That kid ruins everything.

SONGS!

“Breakaway” 1.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands One thing that “Smash” had mercifully avoided is the song with no purpose, the “Glee”-style random song break that defies reality and has no place in story development. Now they’ve gone there. Ivy’s nuked-warm version of the old Kelly Clarkson single came out of nowhere except her own mind; and even then, why is this the background for a Marilyn hallucination? I know Ivy wants to “break away,” but I’d prefer she did it with a number that isn’t most closely associated with “Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants.”

“Zanuck/Steam Room Number” 4.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: This episode’s bright spot was this return to songwriting form -- I loved Tom as studio head Zanuck, talk-sinking with a marker as a cigar, about how Marilyn is a “tomato” that can be replaced. It was so daffy and funny and lively and full of boys in towels. More of this please!

“Never Give All the Heart” 4 out of 5 Jazz Hands: We heard a bit of this torch song in the pilot, when Ivy cut the demo and Karen sang along on YouTube (oh, how the tables have turned), but it was lovely to hear it all the way through in Karen’s voice. Of all the Marilyn numbers, this one is suited most to her breathy tone, and she does become Marilyn for a few seconds in the middle for me. More so than when she is doing her line-read, and Derek suddenly envisions her in costume. All I heard then was Karen’s voice transforming into that of Derek Zoolander. Listen again, trust me.

RELATED:

Last week's 'Smash' recap

Complete "Smash" coverage and recaps

"Smash" renewed, but Teresa Rebeck departs

  --Rachel Syme

Photo: Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee. Credit: Will Hart/NBC.

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