Recap and review of Smash – Season 2 Episode 3 – Recap and Review – The Dramaturg:
Well, after the disastrous ratings for the season premiere of Smash, it looks like the show might not be long for this world. Or maybe it’ll continue to survive simply by virtue of NBC really having nothing else to plug into the timeslot, who knows? All I know is that, while I absolutely adore the show, I can understand why it’s having trouble finding an audience. For as much as they’ve done to improve the second season over the poorly-reviewed first, there are still a couple of lingering problems that still remain: namely that Karen (Katharine McPhee) isn’t really all that relatable, or even very likable. Her vendetta against Ivy (Megan Hilty) is certainly justified, but Hilty being the better actress means that she’s better able to convey sympathetic emotions. She tends to come out of each episode feeling like the person, of the two, who deserves stardom more – and I’m not sure that was ever the show’s intention. And that’s a problem, although it’s one I’m not sure the show can fix, given that Karen is already such a central figure to the show. However, one problem that can be fixed is Julia (Debra Messing), who remains one of TV’s most unlikable protagonists. She’s basically written to be an overgrown lady-child who can’t take criticism or good advice, and I spend each week desperately wishing Tom (Christian Borle) would give her a good smack. Of course, this is what makes “The Dramaturg” so satisfying, as it introduces a character who, verbally, does just that. I don’t feel like it will lead to any substantial change in Julia’s character, but it’s still fun to watch. Which brings me to the third problem preventing Smash from really finding its audience, yet it’s the one thing I actually wish was a bigger part of the show: its Broadway sensibilities.
I get the feeling that the theater jargon and the relatively dry business of getting a show written, funded, cast and staged probably turned a lot of people off to the series, perhaps more so than the dead-end romantic entanglements or the insufferable Ellis. Not everyone is all that enamored of The Great White Way, or the business dealings behind the scenes. The show often talks about the history of theater, or what’s hot onstage today, and it’s easy to imagine that there’s a significant disconnect between that theatrical sensibility and the general audience the show is trying to reach. Yet it’s frequently the aspect of the show that resonates the most, for me. There’s something exhilarating about the process of putting a show together, and while I’m sure a lot of people just want to see Bombshell open already, I find the work of building a stage show from scratch far more intriguing than the show itself (although the Bombshell soundtrack released last week is outstanding. Seriously, if you’re a fan, you should buy the hell out of that album). But not everybody is going to feel that way; thus, “The Dramaturg”, an episode that is primarily concerned with the business of production, is going to leave some feeling cold.
Karen is struggling to get Derek (Jack Davenport) to take a meeting with Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle (Andy Mientus) to discuss potentially developing their musical. Derek, however, has problems of his own. He’s still trying to convince the producers of the new stage version of The Wiz to take him on as director. To this end, he plans a new staging of “They Just Keep Moving the Line” to perform for the producers at a meeting arranged by prospective star Veronica Moore (Jennifer Hudson). When Karen can’t get the choreography down, he brings in Ivy, who is busy preparing an audition for the part of Cécile in Liaisons, to help out. It’s a mish-mash of a story that seems to suggest that Ivy is still jealous of the attachment between Karen and Derek, but I’m not sure this is a very worthwhile direction for Ivy’s storyline to take. Or Karen’s, for that matter. Karen as the person helping to midwife Jimmy and Kyle’s show into the world is a solid direction for her character to take, while Ivy’s work with Tom in preparing for the Liaisons audition is great, because it’s a storyline that stands independently of Ivy’s feelings for Derek/jealousy of Karen, and Tom’s dealings with an increasingly unstable Julia. Ivy gets the part after Tom helps distill the role of Cécile into a Marilyn comparison, resulting in Ivy telling Tom he’d make a great director if it was ever something he wanted to do, and I’d totally welcome that development if Tom-as-director is where they’re deciding to go. Although I will say it’s a shame that we didn’t get to see Ivy’s audition. In fact, the phone call is less about Ivy finally achieving her Broadway dream, and more about Tom being awesome at what he does. Regardless, I still enjoyed the developments, as Ivy is woefully underutilized as an independent figure in the narrative.
Meanwhile, Julia is indignant that Eileen (Anjelica Huston) hired a dramaturg to help rewrite the book of Bombshell. The dramaturg, a handsome cad named Peter (Daniel Sujata), doesn’t put up with Julia’s self-aggrandizing attitude, detailing the numerous problems with the show. Julia can’t fathom that anyone would dare think her work anything less than God’s gift, and flips out on Peter when she learns from Eileen that he lied about having never actually seen Bombshell – he saw it four times during the Boston run. Feeling ambushed, she derides Peter for trying to muscle in on her work and change everything about it, while Peter fires back that Bombshell has no character development, and it’s only focused on the romance with DiMaggio because Julia was in love with the actor playing him. Worse still, Peter tells her that she doesn’t even bother to charge any of the scenes with sexual energy, arguing the book lacks “heat”. Incensed, Julia rouses Tom and, together, they break night writing a new number for Derek to perform for the producers of The Wiz. It’s titled “Our Little Secret” and depicts Marilyn’s steamy first encounter with JFK. It’s a well-staged number, even if it’s not really as sexy as the show probably thinks it is. That said, I’m a fan of the song itself, since there aren’t any numbers in the show as jazzy as that number. Peter is vindicated, and Julia is now stuck with a hot dramaturg she’s likely to end up having angry, passionate sex with before the season is out. But, unfortunately for Derek, The Wiz producers hate it, even if it proves popular with everyone else – particularly Veronica, who decides to drop out of The Wiz in order to do more adult numbers like the one Derek staged. To this end, she asks him to help her plan a “One Night Only” (cute Dreamgirls reference there) concert to really establish that she’s no longer everyone’s Broadway Baby. Derek is onboard, though he’s got other concerns – namely, keeping his promise to Karen that he’ll meet with Jimmy and Kyle, having had to cancel the first planned meeting.
After acquiring his lost notebook from a dangerous figure from his past, Jimmy (busted lip and all) is able to put together the first act of their show just in time for Derek and Karen’s impromptu arrival. Jimmy reiterated to Karen earlier, once she and Derek had canceled on them, that he’s only doing this for Kyle, since his best friend deserves to have his dreams come true. More than that, he deserves not to have his heart broken, so he tells Karen to tell them now if she has no plans of following through on her promises. But Karen makes certain to get Derek to meet with the boys, and once there, Jimmy (with uncharacteristic enthusiasm) regales him with the story for their show. It follows a downtrodden, misunderstood young musical genius whose songs get stolen by a beautiful, rich wannabe popstar. She keeps coming back to him for new songs, as fame is her drug of choice, and the young man feels compelled to oblige her, even though his primary mission in life, beyond making it in the entertainment business, is getting revenge on all the people who have lied to him or used him (his “Hit List”). Kyle cuts in to add that the story gets pretty dark from there, and that ultimately everyone dies. Derek, however, responds by saying that they really only need one good death. The director seems to see the potential in the story, saying that it’s definitely current, and adding that “Hit List” is a good title for the work. As Jimmy sits at the piano with Karen and Kyle, he starts playing the music for the show from the top, and it looks like “Hit List” is finally in business (although I guess it’s hard to say “finally” about any storyline only three episodes in. But then, I really loved “Broadway, Here I Come”, so if this musical produces more songs like that, then “finally” sounds about right).
The episode isn’t going to win any converts to the show, but I feel like this serves as a real statement of purpose for what the show is trying to do, going forward. All these different productions in the works (Bombshell, Liaisons, Hit List, Veronica’s concert) all give the narrative a sense of urgency and purpose that didn’t exist before – at least not to such an extent. Of course, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still problems. For instance, as much as I love the music from Hit List so far, I found it kind of silly that the story they’ve cooked up just happens to be an exact mirror of Jimmy’s situation with Karen. But hey, write what you know, right? Regardless, I feel like the good far outweighs the bad with this show. Given the ratings, that probably isn’t a very widely-held opinion, yet even on its worst day, Smash has a certain ambition and scope that’s admirable for a network series, even if the execution occasionally leaves a lot to be desired.