Smash's sophomore episode built on the complexity of its pilot and then topped it with sparkling performances.
With the pilot ending on the cliffhanger of which girl would be chosen to play Marilyn, the second episode was a prolonged examination of the nerve-wracking suspense of that final moment: The production team, torn between the two candidates, decided to have a second callback. It was pleasing to see that despite his rejection, Derek Willis (the wolfy director) supported Karen, dismissing Ivy as unattractive in comparison. The loyal Tom fought for his friend: She's been a tremendously good sport in singing the initial song, dancing in the audition number, and has had a decade of onstage experience.
The rest of the episode would go onto illustrate that Derek was rooting for Ivy, who would eventually earn the role. And while yes, a night between Derek and Ivy may have been instrumental in changing his mind, it was certainly not Ivy's goal to seduce the director, or the director's intention to punish Karen for not sleeping with him. In the moment when Derek and Ivy were working on Marilyn's monologue about whether or not she's crazy, it was clear that both were seduced by a mutual dream—hers, as an actress, to embody Marilyn, and his, as a director, to see Marilyn realized before him.
When Derek campaigned for Ivy later, it came across less as him giving his vote to the most willing participant on the casting couch, and more as an artistic vision that had veered away from the ingénue Norma Jean, and toward the more matured and experienced Marilyn.
The striking parallel here was the show's discussion in both the musical number and through Ivy (who proved herself a worthy vessel of arcane Marilyn Monroe history) that while Marilyn always preserved her artistic integrity and revered an ideal of love to an almost religious degree, she found shrewd use for recreational sex in an environment where women were commodities.
Ivy referred to Johnny Hyde, Marilyn's first agent. He championed Marilyn, bankrolled her, and made her his live-in girlfriend. When he became fatally ill, he begged her to marry him so she would inherit his money, but Marilyn refused, insisting she could only marry for love. His death left her penniless, friendless, and determined to succeed by any means. Ivy said at one point that Tom was her Johnny Hyde, her loyal advocate, but ultimately it was only Derek who could validate her and get her the role. Is Derek promoting Ivy because he wants a squeeze on set, or because he saw the version of Marilyn that Ivy embodies, and that won her the role? Where is the line between personal and professional in show business, when so much is based on personal appeal and personal relationships? And isn't that true for most fields outside of those which are necessarily strict meritocracies (like, say, plumbing?)
If I were a little younger, I would be more on Karen's side. And while I haven't lost the sense that pure talent is more important than old ties, with age I have gained an appreciation of Ivy's character, the scrappy chorus girl who is willing to put aside her pride and audition again and again after having already proved herself, in good faith that her dutifulness will be rewarded. Karen's boyfriend creates such a soft space for Karen to land, it's hard to rally to her side. She's got her biggest fan already. Also, she'd better not go out in the sun with that shirt on.
However, Derek's hands-on choreography and snippy attitude toward Karen gave us a note of very real, tangible awkwardness right before the opening credits came in. (Have I mentioned how much I love the opening of "SMASH" with orchestral flourish? Perfect.) Karen still hasn't told her boyfriend about the director making a pass, and whether she feels merely awkward or secretly flustered is left up to us to decide. Derek was wretched to her in rehearsal, and the editing captured the frustration and awkwardness of a struggling neophyte.
And the actual number: Katharine McPhee can dance! I loved the choice they made, when entering the jazzy blue and red "visionary realm" that the production crew is seeing, of Karen staying in her modern dance clothes and being whisked about by '40s-era studio hands. Great number, relevant on many levels to the questions of loyalty, sex, and transformation going on—and a huge improvement on the baseball routine from the pilot.
So Derek is a good choreographer, and in spite of his detestable womanizing, he scored a lot of points this episode for deciding to stay with the fledgling production out of loyalty to Eileen rather than return to My Fair Lady with her hater ex-husband Jerry. Well done, Derek! You've graduated from slime bag to beastly rogue! I teared up with Angelica's reaction. She can get more warmth out of the line "You did?" than most actresses can wring out of reciting a Thanksgiving poem while pulling a pie out of the oven.
The strikingly off-tempo motif going on in this episode was Julia's adoption. So many problems with this storyline this episode.
First, her husband has decided that because it will take two years for the adoption to happen, he doesn't want to go through with it. "I'll be 65 when she graduates!" As opposed to 63? Like, he's done the mental math before, right? Two years is not that huge a difference.
Second, their son is so freaked out that they aren't going to adopt his sister. He had a huge speech about how his mommy has always promised him his sister was waiting for them in China. Dude, you are 25 years old. You shouldn't be still living in the house in two years, so manage those expectations about your little sister a little bit. Plus when she finally comes along you can kiss goodbye to half your trust fund, so, have a good long think about who's side you're on here.
And then okay, when Julia started reading the letter to her unborn Chinese daughter, she threw in a reference to lions first, and I was like, alright, fair enough, referencing an important figure in Chinese folkore, that’s poetic, I guess. But then she started talking about "of two lands" and "we will talk to you on the wind" and it was like hoooooollleeee shit, she thinks China is in pre-history. You know they make the iPads over there, right? Pearl Buck wrote those books a long time ago, Jules! AWKWARD.
I'm sorry, Julia just makes me so angry. Anyone who goes out of her way to snipe at an assistant is going to lose me, and her home life is just so whiny and boring. I kind of hope the brother and husband move to China to go through the adoption process for the next two years off-camera. Yet still, the show was a phenomenal follow-up. And Ivy winning the role at the end made me like the production staff for being loyal to the girl who's been doing a bunch of free work for them. Ivy getting the lead also promises some kind of serious upheaval in the next few episodes. I mean, we've seen the promotional photos and its Katharine McPhee at the top of that pyramid of jazz hands, not Megan Hilty, so something is going to go down.
Meanwhile, the ending was both satisfying—Hilty's ballad was absolutely breathtaking—and a believable and enjoyable way to introduce a song into the realism of the world (as well as a parallel—another of Karen's dreams, her fantasy from the beginning, coming true for Ivy). A crazy dream coming true is a perfect way to describe this show existing and getting beamed into my house. Brava, Smash! Encore, encore!
... So will Karen become the understudy for the role, or will they split the role into Norma Jean and Marilyn like that one movie—what's it called—oh, Norma Jean & Marilyn.
... Did you get chills during that opening they imagined with all the girls trash-talking Norma Jean before she started singing? I DID!!!
... Did the director cast Ivy for the right reasons?
... Will Tom be disappointed when he finds out about Ivy and Derek?
... Why didn't Karen at least text her boyfriend when she was several hours late?
... Marilyn Trivia bonus question: Which other famous blonde star did Johnny Hyde discover and champion? (**And CONGRATULATIONS to estella87 for being the first commenter to have the right answer last week: Marilyn named the dog she got from Frank Sinatra Mafia, or Maf for short**)