Smash: Now in 3-D

Smash S01E03: "Enter Mr. DiMaggio"

Now that we've reached the third episode of Smash, I need to pause for a moment and quit gushing about the sexy rehearsal spaces, bracing New York air, and layered storytelling. It was all there last night (except, of course, during Karen's visit to Iowa) but from here on out this show will be dogged by my high expectations. Instead I am going to focus on the characters, because they are meeting the high standards of realism set by their gorgeous setting and frankly I just want to give a tip of the hat to the writing room.

Derek is probably the most fascinating character on the show right now. He's having an affair with Ivy, a fact that was quickly broadcasted to her colleagues in her current production, as well as Tom and Julia. The issue of whether or not she got the part because she slept with the director was pithily summed up with: "Well, it didn't hurt." Derek is hot and cold on Ivy, and we were left wandering right alongside her how invested he is in their relationship. He claims he hasn't had her over to "his place" because plumbing work has turned his kitchen into a disaster area. The genius of their was that Smash never showed us the kitchen to confirm or deny his excuse for keeping her at arm's length, so we're left analyzing Derek and Ivy's relationship without really knowing anything, just like Ivy.

Something else Ivy doesn't know: Derek arranged another late-night meeting with Karen, who's awkwardly been hired to join the ensemble of Marilyn, and told her that "a lot can happen" between a workshop and a Broadway premiere. "A lot can happen between the director's sheets, too, in five years," is what I heard in that statement. Dev crashing Karen and Derek's business meeting/sexy cocktails outing was very charming. I like a proactive love interest, and his little sparring match with Derek had just enough edge.

Karen continues to be the world's most enviable sad sack. Yes, she did not land a giant Broadway role with no experience, but she's been cast in the ensemble and her boyfriend keeps diligently offering to financially support her. Her trip to Iowa revealed that her loving, if concerned, parents live in a ginormous house and her friends go into frenzies of adulation when she walks in a room. I thought her gift to her pregnant friend (a human-sized teddy bear with eyes seemingly made from a swirling existential void) was the creepiest, lamest gift you could ever give a new mother, especially if she's a single mama, which is what I think they were insinuating. And then of course we got a rip-rollicking karaoke song from Karen. We GET that she's got a wonderful voice. You can check that box, we understand. Is Karen going to get a five-minute slot in EVERY episode to tread the boards of the cross-platform marketing? (The Smash Cast's version of "Redneck Woman," now available on iTunes!)

There is a lot of room for Karen's character to grow, is what I'm saying, but I suppose she will have to wait until rehearsals start, just like the rest of us.

The real centerpiece of last night's episode was Julia's character. On the one hand, things came to a head with Ellis, Tom's long-suffering (and apparently ambitious) assistant. After a couple episodes of her sneering at him or curtly dismissing him, Ellis gave her a little talking to, asserting that he works for Tom, not her, so stop threatening to fire him. If you've ever worked as an assistant, there were fist pumps happening. Debra Messing is great as Julia, but it's blatantly apparent that the way she treats Ellis—like he's an android powered by dog turds—is the way she thinks people are "supposed" to treat assistants. I have a feeling her own assistant is probably watching that scene on a loop and recovery-sobbing right now.

But in tandem with her further disregard for the feelings of "the little people," Julia blossomed in last night's episode as her character was sketched out a bit more to include a past affair with the outrageously talented and handsome Will Chase (Michael Swift). The production team was considering Will to play Joe DiMaggio, and Julia was reticent to cast him because that could mean a resurgence of the feelings that once made her betray her super-boring husband. And now that Michael is also married and has a kid, the stakes are that much higher. The angsty combination of Julia's bitter disappointment in herself and her high-school-crush levels of hormonal bliss was perfectly captured in a silent moment when Julia and Michael walked side-by-side on the Brooklyn Bridge. Julia's regret—both over her betrayal and for having to lose that connection—really served to round out her character to a level of three-dimensionality you don't often see on network TV. I love that she told Tom and only Tom, the fact that she had guarded the secret for so long and revealed it to him alone gave weight to both the affair and her partnership with Tom. And how awesome that Ellis overheard, because you know he is going to play that trump card.

Having a secret affair served to rescue Julia from the realm of protagonist stock player and push her into real human woman territory. She's mean to the help, she's a good creative partner to Tom, she's a frazzled writer, and she's got a giant crush on a hot guy. She was the most compelling character on the screen this episode, and that's saying a lot: well done.

In other news, Eileen is struggling to get funding together while making Manhattans the Slushee of Smash.

The staged musical number in this episode was tepid at best. It seemed more high school theater than the other numbers we've seen. Hopefully when they take it to workshop the production team will veto it. That is okay! Karen's rollicking redneck Valentine made up for it and won her the approval of her father, measured conveniently in zeroes on her send-off check.

Smash is making huge leaps in character development in every episode. Frankly this is one of those shows that makes me forget I'm a critic (until the "Redneck Woman" starts tooting up, and then I go fix a sandwich), and just turns me into an ardent, captivated viewer. The storytelling and characters are developing with the complexity and depth the pilot promised us, and if a major misstep is going to be made, the show can confidently say it got to the three-episode mark without making it.


– Ellis: Don't trust him, or you've done the assisting thing and want to see him scrap his way to the top?

– Derek: calculating seducer or restless womanizer?

– Does Karen's cushy set-up in Iowa make her slightly less heroic or more realistic? (The odds aren't exactly stacked against her, with loving parents on one side and a super supportive boyfriend on the other)

*** Finally, pop the champagne, JediViewer, because you correctly answered "Lana Turner" for last week's Marilyn trivia question, "What other star did Johnny Hyde discover? ***

This week's Marilyn Trivia Question: Fox tried to make a movie out of a certain musical and offered Marilyn Monroe the starring role, which she was completely insulted by. What was that musical?

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