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'Smash' recap: We're in tech!

May 1, 2012 | 11:12 am

Smash recap uma thurman jack davenport
This weekend, on a hunt for wrapping paper of the Mother’s Day variety, I ducked into one of those over-cluttered gift shops that carries everything from dusty Beanie Babies to waxy candles scented like a wicker basket. And there, front and center, was an entire shelf devoted to Marilyn Monroe-abilia. There were Marilyn mugs, a Marilyn picture-frame bedazzled with rhinestones and pink puffs of marabou, a silhouette-shaped card that played “Happy Birthday” in Marilyn’s voice. There was a pen that stripped Marilyn down to a two-piece when tipped, and an air freshener for the car dash that gave off a kind of cheap, rosy perfume from a cutout of her head.

With all that Marilyn kitsch crowded together, any single item looked devoid of meaning. Suddenly, Marilyn seemed a big, bawdy joke, an American punch line. It’s the same effect one might get from watching “Smash.”

Over the weeks, I have been admittedly less than enthusiastic about the show’s development -- I felt robbed after the exuberant pilot of "The West Wing" for Broadway we were all promised. Instead, what emerged was a daffy soap opera filled with pop covers drowning out the compelling original score. The “Smash” album hit iTunes Tuesday and has already rocketed to the top of the charts, but it is worth noting that only five of the 13 singles on the album are “Smash” originals.

That said, I’m ready to let go of the side of “Smash” that secretly wants to be “Glee” and to accept the hits for what they are: vehicles to get people to tune in every week. I’ve made my peace with it. And I’ve decided that deep down, the Auto-Tune isn’t what bothers me most about this show, which has become less of a pleasure and more of a guilty one (or a show that I “hate-watch,” to use Emily Nussbaum’s words). What bothers me the most is that the use of Marilyn Monroe has become increasingly clumsy and blunt, whittling her essence to a few chintzy pieces on a shelf.

“Smash’s” big gamble, starting out, was whether or not anyone would care enough about Marilyn to care at all about “Bombshell.” The musical-within-a-musical could have been about anything -- the Tudor dynasty, contemporary politics, Joni Mitchell, the roaring '20s, you name it -- but they went with an iconoclastic character partly because she’s familiar to a mass audience and partly because she is glamorous and fun and beautiful, qualities the producers wanted to stamp onto their own young stars. The Marilyn story comes with drama already baked in; the high-highs and the low-lows, the rapture and the fame and the suicide.  But as the show proves, there are complications that go with Marilyn, and hers is not a story that belongs in just anyone’s hands.

“Smash’s” producers couldn’t have picked a better subject to dissect, but the gold is all in the execution, and theirs has become increasingly ham-handed. Instead of showing us what Marilyn would do with snappy musical numbers, they are telling us (the ultimate sin in plot-writing), constantly. In this episode alone, Derek has two separate scenes in which he has to break down Marilyn’s motivations for Rebecca -- he might as well be handing out “WWMMD” bracelets to his cast. He tells her, “You know Marilyn was always afraid of being a joke. That feeling of not being authentic, of having something to prove.”

It’s in laying bare these basic perceptions about Marilyn that “Smash” plays a big trump card; it tells you what it is doing and what it wants you to think. More sophisticated shows like “Mad Men” or “Breaking Bad” never explain to you what their characters are doing or why they are doing it. But this isn’t a sophisticated show. This is a frame with pink marabou around it.

The twist of Derek sleeping with Rebecca is supposed to shock us because he has told Ivy that he “loves” her (which I would chalk up to her bringing him a hot cup of caffeine at a crucial time more than an admission of true feelings) and because he seemed to be climbing toward moral high ground of late. But I wasn’t shocked, mainly because the show’s insistence that Marilyn wielded her sexuality like a weapon broadcast this turn of events from miles away. Derek told an insecure Rebecca to seize her “star power” like Marilyn did, and she finally does, breaking out that Mr. President bit and feeding him cake from her sweaty glove-hands like a raja. But then, in true Zanuck fashion, he also breaks her down, piece by piece, until she is reduced to a quivering girl who caves at the first compliment and becomes jelly in his arms. WWMMD? She would take her reward on her dressing room floor, apparently.

And then there’s the other side of Marilyn, according to the show, at least -- the side that is self-destructive and terribly sad and standing alone in perpetua in a rainy room, and we have Ivy to turn to for that. Her soulful sing-off rendition of “I’m Going Down” transmits the manic-depressive side, and the semi-awkward silence in the room after she finishes says it all. She might have won the drunken sing-off, but she kind of ruined the party.

Of course, there’s the early Marilyn, the innocent Norma Jean who divorces her first husband in hot pursuit of the celluloid dream. We have Karen for that version, as the ingenue who slinks away from her beloved just as the ring pops out, using the lame excuse of being “in tech,” when what she really is is out of love. Dev makes it easy for her, fessing up to the RJ snogging (not a great tactic to get someone to marry you, admitting to barely not sleeping with another person a few days before). Karen represents the girl on the rise, the one all the powerful men are rooting for and secretly hoping to break in like a new saddle.

So many shadow selves to keep track of! And I thought the shadow selves were not supposed to sing. Do you feel the Marilyn fatigue?

Elsewhere in this episode, in the land of real people who are not supposed to be a metaphor for someone else, Julia is trying very, very hard to get her marriage back on track, down to proving that she can, indeed, flip a pancake to save her life. When the Michael Swift question comes back to haunt her, she over-overcompensates, threatening to quit the show if that usurper should dare show his handsome face around her again. She goes so far as to yell at Anjelica Huston, which is something you just don’t do and live to tell the tale, but she’s a scared animal caught in a desperate corner. Lose the show or lose her family? Or perhaps she could just grow up and realize that a consummate professional would be able to keep both. Her son/hubby tag team assure her that this is indeed the case, but don’t worry, they will be coming to Beantown to baby-sit. Because a marriage that requires 24/7 supervision is a healthy one, indeed.

When she isn’t being yelled at, Eileen is back at Bushwacks, whining to Nick about how the show is going to be a big, fat, floppy failure. He has the insight of a Buddha, because that’s what all bartenders on television have, and decides to close up shop early to mix her a private martini. Is there nothing this man can’t do, save stay on the right side of the law?

Ellis is his typically creepy creep self, having been anointed Ivy’s chief investigator. A natural spy, Ellis takes to the role with aplomb, but his night-watchman skills are undone by a simple neti-pot errand. One minute off “his post,” and Ivy is a cuckold. Again, a relationship that needs a baby sitter ... .

And then there are Tom and Sam, whom I love, and who seem as if they are in a completely different show half the time. The scene that concludes with Tom saying that Sam is his “best self” is as sweet and honest as anything this show has done. It’s no surprise that Marilyn was nowhere to be found in it.

THE SONGS:

“Another Opening, Another Show”: 5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: I have never given a perfect jazz hands ranking, but it had to happen sometime. And I just adored this. Christian Borle! A number from a classic Broadway musical (“Kiss Me, Kate”)! A song that actually works within the context of the plot! A huge, sweeping shot of Grand Central Station. I admit, I was sold.

“Happy Birthday, Mr. President.” 2 out of 5 Jazz Hands: If this is what “embracing your star power” looks like, Rebecca Duvall can keep it. Her sleepy, winky version of the song was embarrassing enough, but the fact that it successfully seduced Derek is more mortifying still.

“I’m Going Down” 3.5 out of 5 Jazz Hands: No one can deny Megan Hilty’s talent, and she would have won the sing-off even had Karen tried to top it. But all of the rain and thunder felt too obvious for what was already an emotionally revealing song choice. We get it, Ivy is as blue as it gets. Her man is gone. Her part is gone. She is living in a rain cloud.

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-- Rachel Syme

Photo: Jack Davenport and Uma Thurman. Credit: Will Hart / NBC.

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