Smash's Season Finale: A Star Is Born

Smash S01E15: "Bombshell"

We are living in a Golden Era for TV. TV means something to you if you're here on this site reading this, but much the way that groundlings at Shakespeare's contemporary performances probably didn't realize they were witnessing a cornerstone of cultural significance shifting into place, it's easy to take today's TV for granted—especially network TV, which will happily inundate you with all the ceremony and prelude of a faucet turning on.

Only on rare occasions do we say to ourselves, "Okay, wow, that was amazing. I felt something. By seeing this, I remembered parts of myself and experienced a symphony of curated emotions that I'm proud I was capable of." Frankly I can count the number of times I've had that reaction on maybe one hand. But the finale of Smash was one of those times.

The specific world Smash has created has always breathed authenticity visually. Just the point-of-view of Karen rounding the narrow halls and heading toward the stage in the beginning made my heart race and my adrenaline surge, but the production values are well deserved by the depth of the first season’s web of relationships. There's the talented, naïve Karen, the jaded workhorse Ivy, the lecherous director, the neurotic, hyper-sensitive writers, and the producer with something to prove. All of which were carefully culminated to make this opening night of previews mean something intense to all of them, and make us personally invested on each of the characters' behalves... most particularly in the star, which from the beginning of the episode Smash teased us with. I was cringing with worry that Karen WOULDN’T be Marilyn.

Of course, we had a lot of ups and downs to get through before the show would reveal whether or not Karen would debut the role. Ellis, big surprise (NO big surprise. Predicted this last week, obvs) spiked Rebecca's drink with peanut oil. Eileen fired him, although personally I think she should have grabbed him and declared a citizen’s arrest until the police showed up. Karen was proclaimed Rebecca's replacement and struggled to learn everything in four hours, leading Ivy to question Derek about why she hadn't been chosen to fill in for Rebecca.

Derek's answer was, yeah, heartless. He told Ivy she just didn't have “something” that Karen did. Since Megan Hilty is currently playing Loralei, Marilyn Monroe's breakout role in Gentleman Prefer Blondes, we can all roll our eyes at this in real life, but Megan portrayed a troubled diva internalizing the most damning note of her career with heart-rending acuity, and portrayed Ivy’s transition from rival to flat-out villain with restraint and subtlety.

On paper, throwing Dev's infidelity on top of Karen and then showing up in full costume to take her place is ridiculously awful, but the writers managed to keep Ivy's villainy plausible and somehow touchingly pathetic. Derek, however, is heartless with everyone until he needs to mold them in a Pygmalion manner. When someone achieves the status of being his creation, he cares. Which is TOTALLY COMPELLING.

Like, my goodness, when he told Dev that Karen was his and then followed the bits of Marilyn costume to find Karen and sat beside her—oof, that was TV heroin for me. There is so much chemistry naturally between Jack and Katherine the actors, and it gave an unspoken edge to an already loaded and meaningful conversation. Yes, she does want this, and even if she loved Dev it's not going to deter her because she's more in love with performing than any one person, which is a motive behind every star. And Derek underlined the point of the season: she had everything before except the heartbreak, and now she’s known real loss , which she couldn’t understand Marilyn without experiencing. Of course, I don't know if we can realistically compare being tossed from foster home to foster home and continually abandoned and betrayed with finding out your fiancé is a low-down dirty dog, but the point was nevertheless well made.

And my goodness, I give Katharine McPhee a hard time in these reviews, but she was absolutely amazing. Yes, it was weird seeing her in the wig and garish makeup at first:

But by the end of the night she had transformed into some towering, 2k12 avatar of Marilyn that was weirdly appropriate. Our stretched-out ideal of beauty in 2k12 coupled with the total fragility and joy and her voice, not as grossly over-produced as in previous episodes, was a powerful combination. Tom and Julia's last song gave me chills (there were some corny lyrics mixed up in there but the final refrain gave me goosebumps and tears in a good way) I had to rewind and watch it several more times- the upraised arms and head thrown back, the huge portrait of Marilyn…so triumphant and sad and transcendent, and then the intercut of Ivy considering a handful of pills, yikes!

This show went for broke at the end, it promised a Smash at the beginning of this series and had the balls to claim they had an amazing director and writer and really risked setting themselves up for a meta-failure. Remember that one show that preceded 30 Rock called Sunset Live or some foolishness? Remember how it failed because they tried to make a drama about doing live comedy that wasn't really funny, so everyone talking about how funny it was just looked like an idiot? Well, Smash risked being that by claiming to make a hit musical, but luckily for Smash, the final song LANDED and they really nailed a final image and no joke, if they do a Broadway version of this in with McPhee in NYC I will get on that damned plane and see it. This series worked because this last song was phenomenal and it has everything to do with McPhee shedding her good-girl act and marrying a complete depth of hurt with her voice. McPhee, you glorious siren, you've won me over. And not just her hitting a difficult note at the end (because she is like the Superwoman of having a voice so that was not a surprise) but her acting on the phone, lolling about in bed…very subtle, very lovely, so captivating.

I do want to take this moment to say I am one of those people who don't believe that Marilyn Monroe took her own life. There's no evidence in her autopsy of any dissolved capsules or dye from barbituate pills in her stomach to suggest that she took an overdose, and the first responders found bottles of pills by her bed but no water. There's actually evidence to suggest that though found lying face down, blood pooled on the backs of her legs and arms as though she had died while laying on her back. There's a lot of weird circumstances surrounding Marilyn's death that make me tremendously popular at parties when I start hashing this shit out and people edge away as I shout louder and louder about JFK and Sinatra and suddenly a taxi is waiting for me outside and my hostess is walking me to the door, is what I'm saying.

But back to the show. Yes, Leo showed up one last time with a tiny bag that he claimed contained 3 hot fish lunches and saved his parent’s tremulous marriage—

—(which ultimately I think is a bad thing…Frank shouldn’t stay with someone who cheated on him, and Michael is free to be with Julia so, um, UPGRADE.) Tom and Sam had a touching moment, and that was great. Derek and Karen blew me away with their chemistry and horrible co-dependent Pygmalion relationship. It all fed into the thrill of this complex and lovingly painted arc landing so perfectly. Yes there are things about production they gloss over and points I am still confused about (do they have a live orchestra?)

But at the end of the day, this series has so thoroughly entertained me, and touched me, and engaged my mind in a way no other NBC series—hell, no other network series—has done since I was a teenager. It’s returning in the MIDSEASON for 2012-2013, which makes me blue, but I’m so grateful it will be back and I thoroughly look forward to getting the DVDs and watching them one episode after another any time I want to completely immerse myself in this world. So thank you, Smash, for a brave and intense season that uplifted and never talked down to its audience. You said you’d depict a girl becoming a star and a musical becoming a hit, and you totally did.

QUESTIONS: 1. Should Ellis um, GO TO JAIL?

2. How will Ivy’s suicide attempt effect the production/Derek?

3. Was Derek weirdly harsh on Ivy? Why?

4. Should Julia leave Frank?

5. Did Karen KILL IT in the final song?

6. Do you think Marilyn Monroe killed herself or...?

7. What are your thoughts on the finale?

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