Recap and review of Smash – Season Premiere – Episodes 1/2 – On Broadway/The Fallout:
Whether you’re a hate-watcher or an avid fan, Smash inspires a divisive array of responses, leaving little room for middle ground. I’m from the latter category, as I love this show without irony, but it’s easy to see, from how uneven much of season one was, how people could find fault with it. Tonight’s season premiere was a huge double-episode split into two halves, “On Broadway” and “The Fallout”, and while the episodes are recognizably Smash, there are significant changes to its methodology, making the show infinitely smoother than in season one. That’s thanks, in large part, to new showrunner Josh Safran (Gossip Girl), who assumed control of the show once creator Theresa Rebeck was fired from her position. The show feels a lot more streamlined than it was, discarding many of the plotlines and actors from season one in a single swoop: Ivy (Megan Hilty) tosses away the pills she was threatening to swallow; the tension between Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy remain, but Dev is no longer a part of the cast, nor is Ellis, or Julia’s son Leo, or her husband Frank (well, at least not until after hour one of tonight’s two-parter, as he and Julia separate after she accuses him of having an affair). This is the result of the exigencies of writing off a slew of actors from the show, but it doesn’t feel like a contrivance, as it’s only natural that Michael Swift would want out, and that Julia (Debra Messing) would be all too happy to oblige the request. And why would Dev still be around after Karen dumps him, especially if he planned on leaving for Washington anyway? And Leo is off visiting colleges, so that’s easily written out. And you don’t even need to give me a reason to write out Ellis. That dude was the WORST.
But the decision is made doubly effective by the addition of the new cast members: though she’s only briefly features in the first half of the premiere, Jennifer Hudson is great as Veronica “Ronnie” Moore, the two-time Tony award-winning star of a show about a 1950s soul singer weighted down by her overbearing stage mother. And Jeremy Jordan knocks it out of the ballpark as Jimmy Collins, the angsty songwriter whose songs Karen becomes infatuated with. Andy Mientus is also solid as Jimmy’s best friend and writing partner, Kyle Bishop. It’s a handful of solid additions to the cast that leave me feeling really optimistic about the direction this season is headed. But first, the premiere…
Bombshell‘s Boston previews were a resounding success, if you ignore all the personal drama weighing it down. Julia moves in with Tom (Christian Borle) after her marriage to Frank falls apart, while Karen wants Ivy let go from the cast due to all the drama between them at the end of last season. Ivy apologizes to Karen for the things she did and said, and tells her that she’s completely justified in her hatred, and it’s a sincere, honest admission from Ivy, and I can only assume there’s no ulterior motive other than peace since Derek (Jack Davenport) already fired her to placate Karen. Either way, Ivy can at least take solace in still being a better Marilyn than Karen, if not a better character altogether. Derek, meanwhile, is being raked over the coals in the press due to Rebecca Duvall’s allegations of sexual harassment, which inspires several other dancers to come forward with claims of their own. This leads Derek to question whether women want him for him, or if they’re only using him for his power as a director, a story arc that leads to an ill-advised musical sequence in which Derek dreams of Ivy and Karen leading a cavalcade of dancers in black dresses and pink pumps in an abusive rendition of the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie To You”. All this, and I haven’t even gotten to the Federal investigation being opened upon the discovery that Eileen’s (Anjelica Houston) bartender boyfriend helped her finance the show with dirty money. Now the show’s march towards Broadway is frozen indefinitely, unless they can find other financiers. There’s also the matter of Kyle trying to make it to Broadway by showing Karen the songs for the show he and Jimmy are writing, though both Karen and Kyle frequently run up against Jimmy’s boastful attitude, as the angsty songwriter insists that he doesn’t need anyone’s help to make it.
Over the course of two hours, these plots are resolved in ways that illustrate the second season’s more streamlined approach to storytelling. Eileen, Derek, Tom and Julia crash an American Theater Wing gala, looking to improve their shoddy public perception and gain financiers by having Ivy perform a number from Bombshell (since Karen can’t be reached). The number is among the best sequences I’ve seen in a TV musical, and Megan Hilty deserves the credit, as she communicates the fire and the emotion of the song, “Moving the Line”, with nothing but her facial expressions and body language. It’s to the point where I couldn’t possibly conceive of how Karen would have done that number anywhere near as well. The applause suggests that Ivy might not only have saved her career, but also the show.
Yet the speedy resolutions don’t end there, as Jimmy apologizes for how he acted earlier (ordering Karen and her friends to leave after she performed one of his own songs at his party), and gives her a flash drive containing all the songs he’s written so far. He admits that he’s only doing it out of loyalty to Kyle, but it wouldn’t surprise me if the fame bug bit him too, especially considering how talented he is (and what a great, great song “Broadway, Here I Come” is). In addition to this wrap-up, Tom and Julia resolve their episode-long standoff when Julia admits that she’s been letting the troubles in her personal life prevent her from being the partner Tom needs. She recommits to helping the show in any way she can, and apologizes to Tom for letting him down, as he was forced to contemplate getting another writing partner, something he didn’t want to have to do, if Julia didn’t straighten up her act. There’s also a brief denoument on the Derek storyline, as he and Ivy have a heart-to-heart before the ATW gala in which he encourages Ivy not to give up on her dream, describing her as “a singular talent”. Ivy offers up some friendly observations of her own, telling Derek that he’s not a monster, and that his troubles will pass, in time. However, out of all of these stories in play, it’s the Jimmy Collins plot that I’m most excited about going forward, as this show is at its best when it details the struggles and creative processes of mounting a Broadway show. I don’t know how I feel about the obviously blossoming romance between he and Karen, but the real meat of the show is in the behind-the-scenes look at the theater world, so I can live with it.
“On Broadway” and “The Fallout” are a hell of a combination to set up the new season. Depending on who you ask, season one of Smash isn’t a very high bar to clear, yet even if it were, I find that season two is off to a strong enough start that we’d be in for a season that’s better than its first, no matter what.
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