‘Smash’ – ‘The Workshop’: Get me rewrite!

A review of tonight’s “Smash” coming up just as soon as I have stupid gaydar…

If I didn’t know something about TV production schedules, I would look at “The Workshop” as an instance of “Smash” going meta with a response to the response to the show. The super-mega-talented team of Derek, Tom, Julia and Eileen put on a rough version of the show that they’re convinced is awesome, and the potential investors are indifferent at best, brutal at worst, leaving the team to gather in Eileen’s office to figure out what the hell happened and how they can fix things. They look for a scapegoat, with some trying to blame Ivy’s presence in the lead role, before ultimately deciding to get rid of Michael, who’s a bigger problem than Derek realizes.

On paper, all of that tracks closely with the story of “Smash” itself, where the reviews after the pilot have grown increasingly unkind, where the ratings haven’t been what NBC had hoped for (but are still more than good enough to merit an easy renewal for next season), and where some viewers have pointed fingers at one or both of Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee as a big problem, and at the Michael/Julia relationship (and Will Chase’s completely unsuitability to play Joe DiMaggio) as an even bigger one.

But since the episode was written before “Smash” even premiered, “The Workshop” is just another expected stop on the familiar path the show is traveling. “Marilyn: the Musical” can’t go from idea to hit without a lot of bumps, and if the workshop were a rousing success, where would the tension come from for the rest of the season, let alone next year?

I’d like to be an optimist and look at some of the decisions made late in the hour as signs that the back half of the season may be more interesting than what we’ve gotten so far. But there continue to be trouble signs.

Dumping Michael for whatever reason at all can only be a good move – unless, that is, we’re now being set up for even more drama where he protests his firing, begins harassing Julia at home, etc. More importantly, though, the workshop being a disaster will hopefully reorient the drama back around the show itself and not on all the tedious and/or hateful personal subplots the show has going. Things have gone a bit too smoothly for “Marilyn” thus far, and too many of the decisions and problems have been tied to terrible romance stories, whether Ivy’s neuroses about Derek or Julia’s writer’s block being cured by some good, adulterous lovin’ from Michael. But if Tom, Julia, Derek and Eileen are forced to take a long, hard look at the show and figure out what didn’t work and how to fix it, that could be interesting.

Then again, “The Workshop” also spent so much time setting up future romantic entanglements – aristocratic Eileen dabbling with her commoner bartender friend Nick, or the ongoing countdown for Tom to dump John for Sam the chorus boy – that maybe I shouldn’t get my hopes up. Maybe the romance will continue to parallel and inspire all the work, and Ellis will continue to run amok and be annoying.

There were also problems with how individual things in “The Workshop” went down. I don’t think, for instance, that the episode did a very good job of making the workshop itself seem like a disaster. Yes, the heat was on too high, Ivy stumbled a couple of times and Karen fell off a stool right before intermission, but the performances and editing of those scenes didn’t suggest anything notably off the mark from previous successful versions of these numbers. (Not helping was the decision to recycle previous footage of Ivy and/or Karen in full Marilyn dress.) In fact, as I watched the early workshop scenes, I wrote in my notes, “They’re at least doing a good job this episode making Ivy sympathetic and clearly great in this part.” There are times when “Smash” tries to tell us that something or someone is awesome and then fails to actually show that as the truth; this felt like the opposite.

As for the sympathy angle, for the most part the scenes with Bernadette Peters worked. Having Ivy’s mom sing “Everything’s Coming Up Roses” – the quintessential Broadway song about a mother who casts too giant a shadow over her daughter’s life – felt like too much of a sledgehammer, even if we later find out that Lee doesn’t want Ivy to go into showbiz the way Rose wanted her daughters to join the act. Peters is a Broadway legend, and any song you give her is going to suck up all the oxygen in the room and demonstrate how Ivy disappears the second her mom turns up; why go with that exact, unbelievably on-the-nose choice? But on the whole, this was the most human Ivy’s been in a while, and the first hour since maybe week 2 where it didn’t feel like “Smash” was trying to make the audience hate her so we’d root for Karen.

Speaking of which… I want to like Karen, “Smash.” Really, I do. I liked Kat McPhee on “Idol” and think this is a great vehicle for her. But you’re making it very difficult. The whole bit where Karen refuses to bail on the workshop to have the meeting with our mysterious Tommy Mottola stand-in is, I’m sure, supposed to make her seem admirable and pure of heart and whatnot, but she instead comes across as both woefully naive (always a huge Karen problem; there’s innocent and then there’s just dumb) and almost obnoxiously self-righteous. If you sell it as Karen staying because she thinks she still has a chance to play Marilyn – and she does, after all, spend much of the workshop fantasizing that she’s at center stage – then it’s an understandable, human response. But the way those earlier scenes play, she’s the worst kind of Mary Sue. It’s like the writers are afraid that if they let her have any faults at all, we’ll turn against her, when instead her spotless rep and the way everything (as Ivy notes) falls into her lap instead makes her seem like the opposite of an underdog. It’s annoying and it’s also completely counter-productive to how the show wants to position her.

And the less said about the various gross Julia/Michael scenes – and then the final scene where the show asked the in-over-his-head actor playing Leo to cry – the better. Again, I really hope this is the end of that.

“The Workshop” is a crossroads kind of episode for “Smash.” We’re close to the halfway point of the season, and “Marilyn: the Musical” has faced its first major stumble, which will require everyone to regroup. I just don’t know if the episode presented enough evidence that the people making “Smash” can successfully course correct the show outside the show.

I’m going to take the next few weeks at a minimum off from writing this one up, just to see how things go. If things improve notably, I’ll come back to write that. If the same mistakes keep being repeated, though, I’m okay with backing off altogether at least until the start of the presumed second season (when they’ll have had a full season of evidence and audience response to figure out what worked and what didn’t).

What did everybody else think?