‘Smash’ – ‘The Callback’: Being Marilyn Monroe

A review of tonight’s “Smash” coming up just as soon as I get you to understand p orbitals…

So one week in, “Smash” is neither NBC-saving instant hit nor mortifying flop. The numbers on their own were very good for both a 10 o’clock drama and a scripted show of any kind for NBC, but it lost a massive chunk of “The Voice” lead-in and dipped again at the half-hour mark, which suggests some people who tuned in due to the promotion or timeslot weren’t that engaged. I’ll be very curious to see how many came back for tonight’s episode, which is very much of a piece with the pilot in both its strengths and its weaknesses.

On the plus side, I continue to like the original songs, whether the reprise of “Let Me Be Your Star” or the new “20th Century Mambo” number, and both Kat McPhee and Megan Hilty did a good job with the pop covers that bookended the hour. I also really enjoy Jack Davenport as Derek, a familiar type, but one played very well by an actor who doesn’t usually play this type.(*) I’m also enjoying Eileen’s ongoing disgust with her husband, even though my memories of “Rubicon” have me worried that the Michael Cristofer character will be sending her an envelope with a shamrock inside it any day now.

(*) As I mentioned on last week’s podcast, Davenport’s transformation from his usual stammering nice guy roles feels very much like when Hugh Grant did “Bridget Jones’ Diary” and “About a Boy” back-to-back, and you realized both how versatile he was and how well his skills could be channeled to the dark side of the Force.

On the down side, Julia’s home life remains dull at best (the husband’s reluctance to adopt), cringe-inducing at worst, with the teenage son’s “My sister is waiting for us in China. What is going to happen to her if we don’t go get her?” tied with Julia’s “At night, we will call to you on the wind” monologue for the episode’s clunkiest moment.(**)

(**) Not helping matters is that her letter was followed by universal praise from the members of the group. On the whole, I think “Smash” does a good job of having the stuff that gets praised (the musical numbers) be worthy of the praise. But it definitely feels like there are a lot of moments where either Theresa Rebeck or one of the other producers was worried the audience wouldn’t properly appreciate a moment and have to have multiple characters respond to it with great enthusiasm, whether it was Julia’s letter here, or, last week, Karen’s audition (greeted with beaming smiles by most of the people at the table) and the “YouLenz” video clip. Obviously, praise is a part of the world in question – and the rave reviews for the leaked demo were a key plot point – but it’s a very fine line the show needs to tread or else it becomes “Studio 60” and doesn’t understand why you can’t see the genius it keeps telling you about.

There’s also the uncomfortable moral calculus that has Karen declining to have sex with Derek and losing out on the part to Ivy, who happily hopped into bed with him. Yes, the casting couch exists on Broadway and in other forms of entertainment, but given that we kept being told how close this contest was – even though, to these eyes and ears, Ivy is blowing Karen’s doors off to this point – it feels like another attempt to make Karen the sympathetic one, when I think she’s perfectly likable even without that note. To me, it’s a more interesting underdog story if she starts out the season clearly behind Ivy not just in connections but ability before she puts all her raw talent together and steps into the role when something inevitably happens to Ivy.

And I feel very confident that Karen will wind up replacing Ivy at some point, because perhaps the biggest flaw of “Smash” to this point is predictability. Through these two episodes, there hasn’t been a moment that doesn’t feel borrowed from similar backstage dramas – did anyone, for instance, not see that Karen would miss Dev’s big dinner and get into a fight with him about it? – and while I think most of the cliches are being well-executed, I wish I couldn’t picture every development at least five scenes ahead of when it happens.

Your reaction was mostly positive last week, with a few negative comments here and there. Now that you’ve seen a second episode, how’s everyone feeling about “Smash” and friends?