Well, hey. Thanks Smash. I needed that. With the end of this week's episode, we're just about at the end of this season's first act, and once again this episode ratchets up the tension and forward motion appropriately with an increase in energy, advancement of juicy plot threads, and a refreshing choice to reinforce the characters and plot over an inclination to throw in an extra musical number or six. We'll get to that in a second.
The short version of this episode: Rehearsals for the workshop of "Marilyn" officially begin, with Ivy in the lead and Karen amidst the ensemble. The book (script) is still in flux, so rehearsals begin with musical numbers in raw form, with the script hopefully coalescing over that. We see that not only is Ivy talented, she's also popular--her coworkers/castmates tend to be fiercely loyal to her, and there's a solid "Mean Girls" vibe to the threat Karen provides (real or imagined). Karen's ostracized and cut from number after number as Ivy manipulates her way through the script, with Tom acutely aware of Ivy's discomfort at Karen's presence and a more-than-willing attitude to bolster Ivy in every way he can.
Meanwhile, Eileen's run out of money, as her husband's financial acrobatics have dried up her finances and threaten the production. Salvation comes in the form of Lyle West (Nick Jonas), a child actor who starred in Eileen's production of "Oliver!" fifteen years earlier and went on to TV stardom and a fortune in the $80 million range. It turns out Derek and Tom gave him his first big break a decade earlier, back when they were sterling collaborators and the best of friends (interesting...), and the young man's got the serious hots for Ivy.
The cast (including Julia, Tom, and Derek!) perform an impromptu number from "Marilyn" at Lyle's party, and Lyle's duly impressed. One thing leads to another, Ivy gets jealous of Derek, she and Lyle almost sleep together, and Lyle becomes an investor in the show to the tune of $175k, with a Degas painting of Eileen's as collateral. Oh, and Tom's mom sets him up on a date with a high-roller businessman...who finds him really cute. D'aww.
At the same time, Karen finally does something other than look cute while others talk about how talented she is--she responds to Ivy's offensive with a new rehearsal wardrobe, taking an aggressive dance class, and starting to both make connections and friends amongst the cast and finding new ways to both enrich and show off her gifts. The episode ends with her and the ensemble bonding in an after-hours club with a performance of "Rumor Has It" that starts out a little cheesy, but does the job of both showing how she's made new friends, and how they respond to her legitimate pipes and charisma.
WHAT WAS GREAT THIS WEEK: You know what? I love Anjelica Huston. Even when her scenes are a little underwritten, her charm and naturalistic acting can really carry the story. She's fun to watch. And she doesn't even have to throw a drink this week. It's a lot of fun to see the rehearsal process start, and to hear the numbers from the last three episodes used as incidental and background music throughout these scenes is a really nice touch that adds a good deal of binding and authenticity to Smash.
This week's big musical number, "I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Love to Howl," is a standard Marilyn sexpot song...with a twist. I think what I like most about how the musical within Smash is shaping up is that yes, the creative team is remembering that the story of Marilyn is both sexy and heartbreaking...but Marilyn Monroe was also FUNNY. The willingness to flirt with humor and fun in some of these songs really makes me look forward to seeing how the show-within-a-show pans out. It's a quality move.
Let's talk about Nick Jonas for a second. I, like the rest of you, was completely terrified at stunt casting here (we'll talk about this more in a few weeks, when Uma Thurman joins the cast). But he's a decent performer, charming and adorable and fluid when he needs to be, and pairing him with Eileen in most of his scenes adds a certain pedigree. He added to the mix of Smash tonight, instead of throwing off the balance.
Ah, and this brings us to Karen. FINALLY. Finally, thank you, McPhee, for bringing your A-game. By setting up the game of "chess" between Ivy and Karen, and forcing Karen to change the way she plays to stay afloat amidst the cast, we get to see how Karen works, and what she wants out of this process. By putting her under attack, she gets to shine in ways playing her against her boyfriend or parents simply wouldn't allow. And seeing her bond, legitimately, with the cast, with Dev present and supportive, was a necessary, subtle choice that didn't really "wow" anyone, but it did flesh out the story.
And hey, seeing the cast and creative team all perform together was a nice little treat. By the nature of how assembling a show works, I don't think we'll see much more of that, and it was a cool touch.
WHAT WAS A LITTLE WOBBLY: Nick Jonas was autotuned to the point where he sounded like Kanye West and Frank Sinatra had an angry, bored child. His "Just Haven't Met You Yet" felt obligatory and snooze-inducing. Tom's Ivy-induced attack on Karen was a little grating, but his date also softened him up. And I want to find out more about Tom versus Derek, which didn't really go anywhere this week. Also, the Michael and Julia flirting took a backseat this week, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. It's there in the background, it just needs some fleshing out so it feels less forced and weird.
THE LAST WORD: This episode succeeded because it finally took characters out of their siloed interactions--Julia really only had scenes with Ellis and Tom and her family, Eileen mostly chatted with her husband and Derek, and so on--and mixed things up. We see everyone together, and characters find new and different ways of pairing up and interacting. I keep referencing The West Wing against the sprawling nature of this cast, and this mix-up is a necessary step in bringing out that richness. There's a lot of balls in play, team--it's time to start with new combinations, and this week really delivered on that front.
This episode was also a little shorter on music than the previous weeks--and I think that's why I like this episode best. There's only two bona-fide music numbers here ("Wolf" and Nick Jonas on that cringey Michael Buble cover), with a peppering of rehearsal songs here and there and "Rumor Has It" at the end, which starts out with Adele singing lead until the club DJ pulls down the vocal track and Karen takes over. I had a frowny moment in reaction to this, initially--but then I realized something. I'm here for the story, and the songs need to serve the story. Last week, that was...well, less so. ("Grenade?" "Red Neck Woman?"), and this week, the musical elements served the advancement of the characters and plot, instead of being these inexplicable explosions of elaborate singing in the middle of something else. I mean, if I want that...well, there's always Fox, 8pm, Tuesdays, you know?
The musical parts of Smash should always be a delight and attention-grabbing, and should fit in with and expand the story and characters. And this week, that's what happened. They didn't feel superfluous (even the Buble cover was tolerable in how forgettable it was) and the whole thing came together.
I'm looking forward to next Monday, gang. See you in seven. Have a great week.