There was a point in the history of network television when the drives of artistry and commerce were both considered, and almost instantaneously artistry was laughed out of the room. Since that day (probably a week before Felix the Cat aired) anything of distractingly high quality has been viewed as almost ostentatious, And Smash is just that: noticeably high-quality, with higher aims, with higher ends, and with higher standards than the shows it is meant to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with, a predicament it now shares with its protagonist, Karen.
I do love seeing people tell Katharine McPhee to pipe down. While my cold coal heart has warmed to Karen, it is in no small part because in this episode she was force-fed humble pie.
Karen's first rehearsal for the new workshop established three premises that are sure to guide the rest of the story: 1) the absolute value of being the star, possessing the role of Marilyn, 2) Karen's realization that Ivy is sleeping with Derek, and 3) Ivy's insecurity with regard to Karen. This is really all the premise the writers need to conjure up a Greek tragedy in Danskins. And while Ivy was put in a position to blossom into a bitchy diva villain in the first part of the episode, the second part made her a heroine again, when her show-stopping swing number secured the future of the workshop by charming zillionaire tween Nick Jonas.
I know the Jonas brothers are a big deal or something, and this tween did a great job, but honestly, when Megan Hilty is transitioning from breathy Marilyn to Broadway virtuoso in that dress, its well-nigh impossible to take your eyes off of her. Especially while Ivy clearly feels like her hard-won role could be plucked from her at a moment's notice—as Derek says, "There's nothing safe about being a star." It's hard to imagine that Karen would have pulled off such a high-pressure impromptu performance.
The number was another example of Smash working hard to make the musical numbers arrive organically in the script, and it was a gracefully placed interlude that intertwined the two story threads—Eileen's struggle to hustle funding for the workshop, and Ivy crossing the threshold from chorus girl to star (a transition that will also hopefully take her from Derek's secret squeeze to his public muse). Even though the financing subplot was written with fairy-tale simplicity, it was both intriguing and believable.
Less believable were the Lee Press-On Best Friends that Karen acquired after a speech about how SHE could have had Ivy's job but she decided NOT to sleep with the director. You can climb down off that pyre anytime, Joan of Arc, because it's quite possible that life is a little more ambiguous than that. Maybe if I were a bigger fan of Katharine McPhee I'd be like, "Yeah, damn, can't you all see she's so talented?! She was robbed?!" But hey: It's effing Megan Hilty as Marilyn. That's kind of a perfect fit! And Karen was audibly singing over her in rehearsal, which is rude! Unless Ivy pushes Karen down the stairs, it's going to be hard for me to root against Ivy. And shame on Ivy's friend for not defending Ivy and telling Karen, "Hey, Ivy's single and free to mingle. Get a life." Instead, Ivy's friend (did she ever have a name?) decided to round up two other dancers and fairy-godmother Karen into some new rehearsal clothes.
I don't blame Karen for coming to the conclusion that Ivy won her part on the casting couch; if I were in her position, I would have been furious. And her awkwardness in rehearsal was truly endearing, it was the adversity we'd long been missing for our presumed heroine. Still: A) I'm fairly certain there is NO trendy NYC Karaoke bar just lets people dance onstage to music and then cuts out key solos, and B) Karen winning over her fellow backup dancers felt a little rushed. If they were all brand-new, it would've read as the phenomenon of people in a new city cliquing up preternaturally fast. But these are seasoned ensemble dancers—Karen is the only real newbie—so it's hard to believe they'd take their precious time and spend it on teaching Karen not to sing over the lead vocalist.
And considering that the goal of their intervention was to keep Karen from upstaging the rest of the ensemble, they kind of failed. Because Karen elbowed them all out of the way for a solo during their chicken-dance rendition of "Rumour Has It."
Onward. Tom's date was handsome as can be, he looked like Paul Rudd with a smattering of Gavin Rossdale, I hope he sticks around. Julia had an awkward moment with her ex-lover, and I admit, the way she veered away from Ellis in the opening of the episode cracked me up. There's no dust on Debra Messing's comic timing. Thankfully, the show seems to have jettisoned the bewildering, angsty adoption and is now basing its stories firmly in the rehearsal space, an airy dance studio that welcomed us back with the flourishes of light piano and the laughter of stretching dancers. The naturalism of the setting is another perk of the show-within-a-show premise: This gorgeous studio, as I found out yesterday during an interview with Megan Hilty, is also where the cast rehearses off-camera.
As long as Smash stays predominantly in that space, with occasional forays into restaurants, offices, and Karen's apartment, it can capture with stunning clarity such a rich and layered world. Smash is already better than it has to be, and this episode really brought more complexity to all the relationships that the first three episodes worked hard to set up. There is so much going on emotionally and financially and in the relationship dynamics of the cast, and so much spectacle, and yet it's all kept entirely plausible and neatly contained in a pacing and dialogue that rarely feels unnatural.
That said, given its alarming ratings drop since the pilot, Smash's star status is as uncertain as Ivy's at this point. There's nothing safe about going above and beyond on TV, of honoring certain standards of performance and production value simply because you want greatness, not just profitability. If Smash goes under, it will be because of the superiority and integrity of its artistry, and not because of any lack, and that will be an indictment on all of us.
– Are you still kind of rooting for Ivy or did she become more of a villain this episode?
– Nick Jonas did a fine job, did you want to see more or less of him?
– Did this episode make you like Karen more? Was it fair for Karen to assume that Ivy had slept her way into the role, after what Derek put her through, or was that writing off Ivy's talent too quickly?
– Do you ever go to dance bars in NYC and dance up onstage while people watch? Is this a new trend?
– Is >Smash the best thing NBC has done in years and is that why its flagging in the ratings?
– Can everybody tell at least five of their friends to watch Smash?
Finally, staggering applause for the10thsmydr, who got the trivia question from last week: Marilyn refused to accept being cast by Fox in the titular role of The Girl in the Pink Tights. This week's Marilyn Trivia Question: What remarkable inscription was engraved on a money clip Marilyn gave her make up artist, Whitey Snyder?