Screens: Universal Television

Workshopping And Pill-Popping

The Marilyn musical gets a star, and a name, and a new star. Let's discuss!

Our Players

Hello, I'm West Coast Editor Tara Ariano.
Hello, I'm Previously.TV contributor Adam Grosswirth.

The Talk

As we rocket through the casting into the workshop (with Ivy installed as star WHERE SHE BELONGS) and beyond, I feel like we're just now getting into what a complete scumbag Ellis is. I mean, don't get me wrong -- I (barely) remember what it was like to be an ambitious young person -- but I feel like you have some thoughts about his demand for a co-producer credit.

You mean besides "Ugh, fucking Ellis"? Not really! Weirdly, upon rewatching, I'm most disappointed in Ellis as a point of wasted potential (hear me out!), because in the pilot he makes a (seemingly) innocent mistake and is actually totally relatable. I've definitely been in a similar position in my intern days. Perhaps beyond. And he makes that speech about just wanting to be a part of it all. Like I said last week, he could have been the character who needs everything explained to him instead of making Karen a moron unrealistically, but instead he turns into this bizarre scheming villain when you've already got Jerry and (while not villainous, certainly a dick) Derek. And he decides he wants to be a producer because "artists are losers," which is a weird stance for this show to take.

I guess I don't understand why he still has a job. I mean, I know Eileen's assistant leaves her for Jerry so Ellis just oozes into that position, but once he makes that big declaration to her about how he's not going to answer her phones anymore...like, does she not realize she can fire him? And should?

It's weird because literally everyone has this reaction to him:

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Gif: Previously.TV

So while Ellis is not entirely useless, it doesn't really make sense. He's clearly bad news. Speaking of bad news, let's talk about our star Ivy Lynn. I mean, she's obviously amazing, and the best Marilyn, no contest (sidebar: every time we see Karen as Marilyn, it is utterly laughable. Not that I think one needs a lookalike to be in a biographical fiction, but she looks ridiculous in that wig), but she seems unable to handle the pressure from day one of the workshop. I'd forgotten how quickly the show planted that seed.

Bringing in her Broadway superstar mother, Leigh Conroy (Bernadette Peters, OBVIOUSLY), is an economical way of suggesting a lot of backstory that would have both driven Ivy toward a career in theater as well as establish the kind of expectations she would set for herself with that in her background. And Peters really goes for it as a simpering, passive-aggressive monster upstaging Ivy at every turn. It would have been too much if she'd stayed, but I think the glimpses we got of her are effective.

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But...yeah, that means Ivy has baggage that Karen doesn't have, along with the experience Karen also doesn't have. And on top of everything else, Ivy's sensitive to drugs?! UH OH!!!

On top of how amazing Bernadette Peters is and how even more amazing the ensemble's reaction to her arrival is...

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Gif: Previously.TV

...there's also a TON to unpack on the realism front here, all of it good. First off, Ivy's secret parentage explains her painfully obvious stage name. Second, when Leigh finally breaks down and has an emotional moment with Ivy, she says one of the truest things the show ever said about working in theater: "I know how heartbreaking this world is, and I can't stand to watch you go through everything I went through. Even now I wish you'd find something else. Not because you're not good at it; because you're my daughter, and I love you, and for years I watched as people without an ounce of your talent have passed you by. That's the theater." It's lovely.

Finally, as soapy as all the prednisone stuff is, those side effects are also 100% real. I worked with an actor (no one famous, no dish here) years ago who was getting regular prednisone shots to get through the show, and I didn't know any of this at the time so I just thought he was a dick, but after looking this up because of Smash, I now know he was just Ivy Lynning!

I also liked that after all the scenes in which Ivy complains about Karen being too loud or too big that seem like they're just there to show what a diva Ivy is about her first taste of stardom, her bitching turns out to be completely legitimate. The "Rumor Has It" performance is...unnecessary and painful. But I appreciate that the other chorus girls and boys finally took Karen aside to explain to her that she had to tone it down, and why. (And as a viewer I especially appreciated it. GET OUT OF MY FACE, KAREN.)

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I so want to believe that the "Rumor Has It" number was an homage to "Higher Ground" in Center Stage, but I suspect it was an accident. I'm still mostly, shockingly, in the I-don't-hate-Karen camp, and I especially loved that moment when she stands up for herself with the bitchy chorus kids -- sorry, ensemble, which leads to all that. Also, it's really true that being in the ensemble and being a lead, like being a good assistant and being good at being in charge, are actually two different skill sets. Lots of people have both, but it's not an automatic ladder up. People spend their entire theater careers -- great careers! successful by any measure careers! -- never being leads, and certainly never becoming stars. Being an understudy is yet another thing. Karen was probably a big fish in a small pond wherever she worked in Iowa or in college, and Ivy's been doing good work as a singer/dancer, but has never been under this kind of pressure. They both have things to learn and the show explains that really well.

Since I do so much complaining in these posts, I have to acknowledge the staging of "Let's Be Bad": it's probably my favourite of all the numbers we've watched to date and really something special.

SMASH Cast - Let's Be Bad from juankuzz on Vimeo.

The lead-in parallel between Ivy's emotional issues around this role and Marilyn Monroe's real-life struggles is kind of on-the-nose, but Ivy's performance in the number is so strong: it's impossible to take your eyes off her. And Megan Hilty's performance of Ivy's performance just underscores, again, the gulf between her and Katharine McPhee. I'm just happy they never tried to make us buy Karen doing this one.

The show really starts to show its ambition with that one, and with some of the pop numbers too -- which are mostly terrible but they show that Smash is both about a musical and a musical itself. Ivy has that breakdown in her room (which ends with her hallucinating Karen-as-Marilyn in her mirror which, NOPE) but again Hilty's performance sells the hell out of it. I almost wish they hadn't done that and had just stuck with the one or two Bombshell songs per episode, but I do appreciate the effort.

Speaking of ambition, I pushed back last week when you said the show thinks it's Important, but in these episodes there's something about how it's addressing homosexuality that's admirable, and also kind of subtle, and also kind of the worst? I mean, it makes perfect sense that a show set on Broadway would have a bunch of gay characters but isn't specifically about that, and so they get to show us lots of different types of gay guys just going about their lives. And Tom's inability to process that Sam could be gay essentially just because he likes sports is a very real bigotry within the gay community, particularly in Musical Theater Land.

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And the queeny chorus boy is just as real. But the way it's written makes it all play a little bit like "LOOK! A GAY GUY WHO LIKES SPORTS! AND ISN'T BOBBY JUST OUTRAGEOUS?" I guess this is partly the burden of being literally the only show at the time that had more than one gay character on it. And I do love that Ellis's heterosexuality was played as a shocking twist. And that's real too! The straight guy who wears vests and is into musical theater so he must be gay.

Yeah, the effort to shore up Tom's gay cred in the face of Sam's sportsiness was insulting to me as a person who doesn't care about sports but is also not a complete moron. "What's a bruin?" Good lord.

But honestly, the handling of straight relationships is also not going to win any...uh...un-GLAAD Awards either. Not one but two men each apparently feels the need to Defend His Woman by punching a rival in the street, which first of all is repetitive storytelling, and secondly is not behaviour that should be celebrated.

It's bad that the healthiest straight relationship on the show thus far is Ivy and Derek's, right? I'm not particularly judgy of Julia and Michael for having an affair, but I am judging them for being terrible at it.

FOR REAL THOUGH. It's been established that Julia and Michael had an affair before and apparently no one found out: did she suffer a head injury since then that made her forget how to be sneaky? New York can feel crowded and claustrophobic sometimes, but it's not SO small that you can't find a place to make out with your side piece other than DIRECTLY IN FRONT OF YOUR HOUSE, WITH YOUR CHILD INSIDE. And while infidelity is wrong, duh, after the fortieth longing look/"We can't do this" speech combo, I was screaming at them to just get it over with already. I certainly didn't mean for them to do it on that couch, and (weirdly) stripped only to the waist. (I was surprised that this was the only time Julia didn't get a scarf or five to cover her shame.)

She walked from Brooklyn to Manhattan in her pajamas and it's the one time she didn't grab a scarf! And yes, look, fine, the rehearsal studio is the only place you can hook up, on the couch that people have to dance on. Let's assume they cleaned up after. But then the next day, exchanging this look is not the model of discretion:

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Nor is making out during rehearsal while Ellis is in the room (I think literally hiding in a closet? But still, people are everywhere in a rehearsal!). Nor is not just making out on the street below your son's room, but SINGING BEFOREHAND! Not "we're in a musical" singing -- ACTUALLY SINGING. And then Julia is so distracted by the whole thing that she somehow gets pancake mix in places that only another person could possibly get pancake mix.

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...sorry, I really hate this whole arc.

And then it ends so abruptly, on top of everything else! They have sex once, they have a fight about it the day of the workshop performance, and then Tom suggests firing Michael and Julia's like "Totally" and she goes to a park to tell Michael and he's like "Cool, bye." We don't see Julia's lack of professionalism go into overdrive, though, until Frank finds out, whereupon she blows off work, is bitchy to a poor student journalist, and can't even put on a brave face for the sweet New Jersey high school kids putting on her and Tom's corny first show, and ONLY THEN does she tell Tom that Frank left her? It's all very contrived, and only makes her more hate-able.

On the bright side, we do get to hear Brian d'Arcy James sing something for real, if only a little (the song Julia wrote about her affair and then left lying around next to the adoption papers), and unlike in the first three episodes, we finally see that she has actually written some scenes for the play and they're not terrible. So there's that.

I do wonder if Katharine McPhee ever slipped Emory Cohen a twenty for consistently being a worse actor than she is. I get that he was, at the time, almost a decade older than the character he was playing, but in each successive scene, Leo seems more and more...delayed? Acting younger doesn't mean acting dumber, dude.

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We should talk about your beloved Derek, who actually started to win me over here: even if I still think his power move of making Karen come over to his place in the series premiere is unforgivable, I feel like his development as a character makes that seem more like a pilot move for a character that hasn't been totally figured out yet; mid-S1 Derek doesn't seem like that big a cliché.

Well, that's still a part of him for sure. His relationship with Ivy is real, as evidenced by the fact that it continues beyond the workshop, but it's also fairly inappropriate. He's sleeping with an employee, and he absolutely uses that power over her in rehearsal. That they're sweet at home doesn't make it okay. This is a totally real thing that happens. Boundaries are fucked up in theater; I mean, of course, it happens in other workplaces, too, but I like how the show explores it here.

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But mostly I just think he's fun to watch, and Jack Davenport plays the hell out of him. And especially in contrast to Julia and her index cards in the first few episodes, he seems to be legitimately talented. He says things that are true about the business and about the show. Tom and Julia don't like him but they need him. Granted, in at least three places my notes simply say "GASP!" or "WOW DEREK" because Derek said something completely awful and manipulative to either Karen or Ivy. He's an asshole, and his talent doesn't excuse his behavior, but unlike Ellis, Dev, and Frank, at least he has talent.

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That Ryan Tedder number, though.

Fair point. Though the songs that are the biggest disasters in context are also among my favorites to listen to out of it (more on this next week!). It's not the worst idea ever, it's just a completely different musical. I would have loved if it had been an arrangement of one of Tom and Julia's songs instead of a whole new one. But the whole thing was so bizarre. Why invite them to see someone else's Marilyn musical? Not one thing about that made sense. It was all shit-stirring. (Though that, Karen wouldn't have been getting paid for.)

But of course, that's just one of the experiments being attempted during the period between the workshop and the run up to the out-of-town trial, ending with the successful casting of a movie star big enough to have a billboard in Times Square: look out for Casual Friday 2, occasionally visible in the top right corner.

And in classic movie-star style, she knows how to make an entrance: timed perfectly to step on her understudy's big moment.

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Ellis's involvement and the raising of funds from the absurdly named rock star Randy Cobra (Terrence Mann, Broadway's original Javert and Rum Tum Tugger) aside, all the stuff about casting post-workshop is so so so true. Very very sad, but true. Broadway is risky as shit, and Eileen's shaky finances have been established, so the fact is they need a bankable name and that name isn't Ivy. And given her shitty attitude, I'm not surprised they didn't offer her the understudy job either (even though they'd probably have to buy her out of her contract from the workshop...but never mind, that's for the Pedant's Guide!).

So we'll pick back up with the infamous Rebecca Duvall. Remember: our next post is a peanut-free zone.

We'll see you in a thousand and one nights!

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The Pedant's Guide To Smash

Everything in this batch of episodes is still either just on the edge of real or at least totally justifiable to me because television. Like I am never going to complain about them giving Christian Borle a big peppy production number no matter how little sense it makes.

The big thing -- which is still miles from how bad I know it's going to get -- is Karen's greenness. And it's less about theater business realism and more about sloppy TV writing. Her timeline makes zero sense to me. How old is she supposed to be? I assume she didn't meet Dev in Iowa (we know he went to "uni" in England), and they live together, so let's say that puts her in New York for at least a year. She's been on a bunch of auditions (and here's where the real pedantry comes in: she's at the same call as Ivy, which means she's in the union and probably has an agent too), and while it's totally believable that she could do that for a year or more without booking anything, it does make her naïveté and the fact that she appears not to know a single other actor or ever consider taking a dance class in the city before she meets Bobby and the gang seem bizarre. There's a great design touch that I didn't pick up on the first time around: Karen has show posters in her apartment that are definitely not Broadway; they're presumably from college or whatever summer or regional theater she worked at before. I suppose they could just be from shows she's seen, but Derek says early on, "She's certainly trained." She's been in plays before. She would know to have a pencil in rehearsal. And she would know that if she forgot one she could get one from the stage manager.

...especially when the stage manager is the amazing Linda. I don't have much to say about Linda yet, but I want to acknowledge her arrival in Episode 4, joining Maria from Slings And Arrows and Scooter in the pantheon of great TV stage managers. And look, this is probably saying too much about my erstwhile stage management career, but this face in rehearsal is REAL:

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Gif: Previously.TV

The stuff about Karen leaving the workshop to go meet with the music producer: girl, NO. You have a contract. Obviously, no one wants to watch a primetime soap about Actors' Equity contracts, but how about just committed professionals doing their jobs well? Like a musical theater West Wing? "No one will notice, you're only in the chorus." It's like a chorus of ten, and she's standing directly behind Ivy in the opening! I THINK THEY'LL NOTICE! She doesn't go, but it's super-weird that everyone let that dialogue through.

Okay, the big Broadway event in these episodes is Ivy's drug-induced breakdown during Heaven On Earth, and there's a lot to unpack there. First, Broadway theaters have doormen, so Karen could have left Ivy's sunglasses at the stage door and never come backstage. That she runs into Dennis and he walks her in kind of explains this, though what's she supposed to do with the glasses, hand them to Ivy on her way to her quick change? When Ivy collapses onstage, Norbert Leo Butz (credited as "Himself") yells at her to get off, which I can't imagine even the biggest diva doing, at least not while his mic is on. Either stop the show or keep going; don't show the audience you're an asshole. And of course the big one: she leaves the theater in her costume. I can almost buy this; there's a lot going on and she bolts, and while there are a lot of people backstage, they all have jobs to do, like the next set and costume change. But in that moment all those people are watching her, and there are crew members in supervisory positions who aren't hands-on in transitions, including the Wardrobe Supervisor who you better believe isn't letting those white wings into Times Square. And on a Broadway musical, there's usually one stage manager who's either watching the show or in the office doing paperwork, so that's at least one person who could have chased her out the door. Most importantly: how does Ivy get into her apartment later? Where are her keys?

In the next episode, Ivy's been fired from Heaven On Earth, which I'm actually not sure would happen either. It's pretty hard to fire someone from an Equity contract for a first offense (which I'm sure Tom and his Republican boyfriend could have a good argument about), though Ivy's offense is pretty big (and is multiple offenses, including the whole "leaving the theater in costume" thing!). But also, I've heard stories of actors who've done much worse and because it was drug-related their producers put them on leave and got them help. For all the bitchy "watch your back" stuff Smash portrays, people actually really care about each other in this business (which, to be clear, Smash also portrays pretty well). It's not like anyone's in it for the money.

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