Recap and review of Smash – Season 2 Episode 4 – The Song:
If there’s one theme I had to pinpoint about “The Song”, it’s that art, more often than not, goes hand-in-hand with a certain amount of self-absorption. Smash illustrates that many of the people involved in show business need to be at least a little self-centered to succeed, if only to defend their work. Sure, it’s pretty insufferable when Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) bangs on as if his music is God’s gift, but there’s a kind of integrity to his obstinacy that’s almost admirable. But that doesn’t mean the show necessarily deifies the self-absorbed: Julia (Debra Messing) is a complete monster, a writer who feels that her work is the greatest thing ever written, and shouts down anyone who tries to tell her different. If there’s a positive in Julia getting rid of her ugly-ass scarves, it’s in how her neck is now open to strangling hands. Because, really, she’s a far more problematic character than anyone else in the entire series, and I’m not sure that hasn’t been the case since day one. That said, at least they’re giving her a little bit of self-awareness, illustrating her as someone who is willing to set aside her ego in service of the bigger picture. Not everyone is like that, as we learn in an episode that turns out to be a solid hour.
“The Song” centers on the One Night Only concert for Ronnie Moore (Jennifer Hudson), an event that is going to be filmed and televised by Bravo, which Ronnie hopes will remake her “good girl” image. For Ronnie, this concert is every bit as much about establishing an independent identity in which she can feel something akin to self-satisfaction, as it is about getting out from under the yoke of her oppressive mom/manager/”momager” Cynthia (Sheryl Lee Ralph). When Derek (Jack Davenport) tries to take Ronnie’s signature song, “I Got Love”, in a more overtly-sexual direction, Cynthia is there to threaten him with termination. Derek has no choice but to acquiesce to Cynthia’s wishes since, as she says, it’ll be bad for his public image if it gets out that he was fired for trying to take Ronnie Moore in an uncomfortably sexual direction with her image. Tom (Christian Borle) is disappointed in Derek for giving in though, as Derek puts it, he simply “came around.” However, all the nagging in the world won’t change the fact that Ronnie still doesn’t have a setlist finalized for the show, which is in less than 24 hours. This complication allows the art-as-self-centered theme to continue through our two new, young songwriters.
When Karen (Katharine McPhee) gets Kyle (Andy Mientus) and Jimmy an opportunity to have one of their songs performed at the concert by Ronnie, Jimmy is faced with the conflict of having to write for someone else, as none of his existing songs will work for Ronnie’s voice. For a guy as self-absorbed as Jimmy, this is akin to scaling Mt. Everest, a matter made worse by time being of the essence. This episode doesn’t do much to further endear us to Jimmy, as he seems to feel as though a big break is owed to him. He chews out Tom for needing to get back to rehearsal for Ronnie’s concert, and then nearly gets into a fight with Derek when he rejects Jimmy’s song. Strangely, it’s Karen who gives him the advice he needs to write the song by encouraging not to write for anyone but himself. Unfortunately, Derek’s rejection of the song results in Jimmy going on a drug bender, in one of the series’ more ham-fisted attempts at making Jimmy a tortured artist. When Karen happens upon him the next day outside the theater, he worries that he blew it for himself and Kyle, and he fears he’s let everyone down once again. Karen reassures him though and, though he’s high as a kite, she allows Jimmy to kiss her. Not exactly the electric moment the show was probably hoping for, but I still feel like Katharine McPhee has exponentially greater chemistry with Jeremy Jordan than she had with Raza Jaffrey last season.
Ultimately, Tom convinces Derek that Jimmy is the real deal, and gets him to give Jimmy’s song to Ronnie, who then performs it as the show-closing number of her internationally-televised concert. Ronnie brings Kyle and Jimmy onstage for the curtain call, and it feels like we’ve finally got everything in place to get moving with Hit List as a potential Broadway show. However, I hope that they have some better songs up their sleeve than “I Can’t Let Go”, which was a perfectly acceptable song, but not strong enough to be THE song that the episode was built around. It sounded like a deep cut off of a Celine Dion album from 1995, and I was pretty disappointed since the brief snippets we get of the song during Jimmy’s wonderful little songwriting session with Karen (I love watching the process of creating art) suggested a much better song than the one we got. “Broadway, Here I Come,” it was not. That said, there is something immediate and rewarding about watching someone work their way up from the bottom. Even if much of their big break relied on luck and other people constantly going to bat for them, it feels satisfying to see Jimmy and Kyle en route to realizing their Broadway dreams (now if only Kyle would actually finish writing the damn thing).
The other major development of the episode was Julia recognizing that Peter (Daniel Sujata) is right about Bombshell’s book, particularly after he calls her out on shooting down anyone who tries to give her advice (as we see in an uncomfortable sequence where Julia has Bombshell performed to her by student actors, who then give their thoughts on the work). Though he’s only ever written one terrible play in his life, Julia takes Peter at his word that he’s a much better teacher of storytelling than he is an actual writer, and so she gives him a shot. Together, they come up with the solution to the problem: Bombshell needs to be told from the perspective of the men in Marilyn’s life, with each segment being told by a different man. Now, correct me if I’m wrong, but isn’t that what they’ve been telling us is the biggest problem with Bombshell? I thought the whole point of the story was to depict Marilyn as a woman who was deeper than she appeared, and tortured by the dual excesses of fame and an ascended, goddess-like reputation she couldn’t possibly live up to? Yet Julia’s solution is to strip Marilyn’s story of all agency, putting it instead in the hands of the men who’ve defined her all her life, and whose conceptions of her only reinforced how she’s been defined for over fifty years now. It just seems like this doesn’t actually address any of the supposed problems with Bombshell, though I suppose we’ll see if this is actually the right approach to take once we see it staged.
And we will see at least some of it staged over the coming weeks, as we learn from Eileen (Anjelica Houston) that Bombshell is back on for a Broadway premiere, thanks to the efforts of ex-husband Jerry, and the return of Eileen’s boyfriend, bartender Nick, whose ill-gotten money put them in this position in the first place. Though she tearfully pleads with him not to turn himself in to the police, she isn’t able to stop it, and Jerry’s political manueverings secures him the spot as Bombshell’s sole producer once he gets the stipulation added that Bombshell can only be staged if Eileen steps down. It sucks to see all of Eileen’s work, and her attempts at being taken seriously as a producer, stripped away from her, yet I’m not sure if we’ve been invested enough in Eileen for this to be as much of a gut-punch as it should be. However, Jerry takes the cake in the Gut-Punch Department, as a secretive late night phone call reveals that the person who sent him the files that he used as leverage over Eileen was none other than…God help us…ELLIS. Though I initially feared he was being brought back to the series, the close of the scene, in which Jerry tells Ellis his check is in the mail and that he never wants to hear from him again, thankfully reveals that it’s merely a way of writing off Ellis’ character for good. If nothing else, that should bump this episode up a full letter grade.
“The Song” is a solid episode, due in large part to being involved with the process of creativity, and the selfishness that art sometimes requires. It’s telling that the cap to the art-as-self-absorption narrative comes full circle with Julia and Eileen, of all people. Julia sets aside her ego to improve Bombshell’s book (which earns her a thinly-veiled proposition from Peter, who suggests they runaway to his house in the Berkshires to “get this thing done”) while Eileen selflessly steps down as producer to get Bombshell to Broadway. These are both arcs I can appreciate, even if the apotheosis of these character arcs don’t center around the people we spend the lion’s share of our time with. That said, the character development in evidence here will hopefully trickle up to our leads, so that we might actually care about Jimmy beyond simply appreciating his “genius.” I’m still firmly in Smash’s corner, even though this is almost assuredly its final season. I hope, at the very least, the series can finish strong. “The Song” is as strong a start as any towards that endgame.