‘Smash’ – ‘Let’s Be Bad’: Change of a dress

A review of last night’s “Smash” coming up just as soon as sports are anathema to me…

You may recall that I gave “Smash” a relatively positive review – not love, but a fair amount of like – when it premiered a month ago. But a strange thing has happened as I’ve revisited the first four episodes (all of which I saw in advance) each week: I’ve liked the show less and less the more I’ve had to think and write about it. Maybe it’s a show that’s not really built to stand up to the kind of weekly scrutiny I usually give (“Grey’s Anatomy” is an example of a show I enjoyed significantly more the second I stopped reviewing it), or maybe I just ignored some significant flaws at the start because I liked the idea of the show and the talent involved and wanted to focus on the things it did well.

Whatever the reason, I’ve been waiting more than a month to see an additional episode, and I hoped that “Let’s Be Bad” would help clarify my feelings a bit. Instead, it just kept things muddled, as I strongly disliked the bulk of the hour, and yet found one sequence so strong – and such a good example of what “Smash” could be if it left its various bad habits behind – that I’m not ready to walk away yet.

Let’s accentuate the positive first. The fully-realized “Let’s Be Bad” number was terrific. Even more than the two “Marilyn: The Musical” songs from the pilot, it felt wholly plausible as something that would work on Broadway. And even if Tom, Julia and the other characters haven’t to this point had particularly insightful things to say about Marilyn Monroe, that number suggested the musical itself could take all the cliched sentiments about Monroe’s life and make them, well, sing. It was also a good example of the value of letting us see fantasy versions of how these numbers might look when we move from workshop to full-fledged show, as the song was much less impressive before we added costumes, sets and all the business with the “Some Like It Hot” crew. And it should go without saying that Megan Hilty killed it.

That number made me care about the idea of “Marilyn: The Musical” coming together. The problem is that “Smash” has consistently failed at making me care at all about any of the people involved in making it.

Take Karen, for instance. The show and NBC have positioned Kat McPhee as the star, and they want us to like and root for her. But while I don’t dislike her – nor do I object to her dancing around in her underwear while singing “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World” – she’s not enough of a character to feel invested in at all. She’s a blank slate, naive about everything and making every decision based entirely on the advice of others (whether Dev, Derek, her new dance class friends or even Ivy). We’re meant to want her to win the role just because that’s how the series is designed, and to make sure we don’t get confused, Ivy is written as more and more of a neurotic, bitchy, unsympathetic mess the deeper we get into the series.

What’s frustrating isn’t necessarily that the “Smash” producers don’t think that Hilty is better for the gig than McPhee. That’s a matter of taste. What’s frustrating is that they don’t seem to recognize how much more interesting everything would be if we were given the chance to root for both of them – to empathize with the veteran chorus girl trying to navigate her first big break after years of toil, to have to genuinely weigh Karen’s it factor against Ivy’s polish and suitability for the role, to feel conflicted from scene to scene, episode to episode, about who we want to see ultimately play Marilyn when the show comes to Broadway. “Smash” doesn’t want anyone to be Team Ivy, though. It wants its audience to get on board with the pre-determined outcome, and that’s just as boring as Karen herself is.

And that’s been an unfortunate pattern in everything “Smash” has done: it telegraphs each move, not necessarily realizing it’s doing it, and then wants you to applaud or gasp or cry at something that was obvious four or five scenes earlier at a minimum.

But back to the characterization problem, I don’t think the show is succeeding at any of what it’s trying to do with the ensemble. There are people like Karen or Eileen we’re supposed to like but have done little to earn that affection (Eileen is coasting almost entirely on whatever pre-existing affection we might have for Anjelica Huston), and others like Ivy or Derek or Ellis are almost cartoonish in their villainy. (I was just relieved that Ellis appeared only briefly, given that the description for the episode suggested a more prominent role.) And then there are people like Julia, whom the show attempts to give some moral shading to, but who ultimately comes across as too much of a spoiled narcissist – how is she somehow completely unaware that she’s kissing her ex-love right under her son’s(*) window? – for me to feel anything but impatience with.

(*) Leaving aside the bad performance by the actor playing Leo, “Smash” has done a terrible job of being consistent with who this kid is. One second, he sounds like an 8-year-old crying over what’s going to happen to his hypothetical baby sister in China, the next he’s getting in trouble for smoking pot and acting resentful that his mom cares so much about his hypothetical baby sister in China. The only way it makes sense at all that she would believe Leo would have gone right to bed was if he was actually supposed to be an overgrown elementary schooler, and maybe not even then.  

I do like Tom, who’s also self-involved much of the time but more consistently shows empathy for the likes of Julia and Ivy, and who gets benefit of the show’s most charming performance by Christian Borle. But beyond him, and McPhee and Hilty when they’re singing and dancing, there’s not a person on camera I would miss in the slightest were they to disappear in the next episode, and several (Ellis, Leo) I’d be happy to never see again.

What did everybody else think?