Previously, I had high hopes for Smash. The Pilot held a lot of promise, despite some iffy issues in storytelling that I'd hoped they would clear up. "The Callback," the show's second offering, unfortunately doesn't do much to polish up the shortcomings from the Pilot - and combined with the dip in ratings from Week 1 to Week 2, I'm getting nervous for the future of Smash.
The main problems Smash has boil down into writing for their characters, and their conflicts, which, when you add them up, equals most of the storytelling in an hour of television. "The Callback," for example, was intended to finish the casting process for Marilyn, with the final decision about the lead. Would it be Ivy, or Karen? It makes sense, then, to give Ivy and Karen the biggest plotlines in the episode - give them the spotlight! Put them front and center! Make us invest in these ladies and their struggles! But every glimpse into what it was like for Ivy and Karen was fleeting, and one-dimensional. Poor Ivy was saddled with the "sleeps with the director" plotline that Karen side-stepped last week, and Karen was not much better off with the "stood up boyfriend because of rehearsal" trope. It would be one thing if these storylines were well-supported... but they weren't.
A much stronger choice for these characters would have been to look at their characteristics, and manifest story out of those. And frankly, those characteristics are already on the table, thanks to Smash's endless onscreen analysis of what makes each woman right and wrong for the part. Karen is inexperienced and innocent. So, give her a storyline where her innocence gets her into trouble, or where it benefits her. Ivy has experience, but she's trying too hard. So, she should have a storyline where her perfectionism and experience pays off, or is her downfall. Without connecting Karen and Ivy's strengths and weaknesses into the plot, Smash is forcing the conflict to stretch out across too many scenes, and it's not building at all - it's just breaking. We see Ivy reading a Marilyn book. We see her practicing. We see how badly she wants it, but we don't feel it. We see Karen struggle with a scene. We see Karen struggle with dancing. And we all hear, over and over, the exact same thing: Ivy's experienced, but Karen could be a star! We get it. Either use it as a starting point to give us more information that changes our opinion, or wrap it up more quickly.
It's frustrating, because as a result, we're not sure what the writers are trying to do with these characters, and it's easy to check out from caring about them. What are we expecting will happen to Karen, now that the part isn't hers? What are we supposed to think about Ivy sleeping with Derek? (We know nothing about the consequences of that action, or the intentions behind it, frankly.) Should we be worried that Eileen can't handle the business side of producing? Should I wonder if choosing Ivy was the wrong decision? It's not enough for the writers to just lay their plot out in sequence; they have to help the audience engage with the material - which is most easily done by establishing character empathy and character intentions.
For example, part of "The Callback" dealt with Julia's family life. Before I say anything, let me preface: Julia is the character I care about most, given what Smash has presented about her. This is because I know what Julia wants: she wants to write a musical, and she wants to adopt a baby. Boom! Clear objectives, right from the beginning. Julia's husband is not so clearly defined. Last episode, he griped at Julia for working on a musical when they're supposed to be pursuing the adoption process. This episode, he balks at the long timeline, tells Julia he doesn't want to continue with the process, and that he wants to go back to teaching. But then he magically shows up to hear Julia's letter to her daughter's birth mother, and changes his mind. This guy is all over the place, and we're not with him at all. It's even more poorly constructed when their son, whom we hardly know, bursts onto the scene to yell at Julia about how badly he wanted a sibling. As an audience, we had no idea either of these characters were feeling these things until it was time to barf them into a plot point. It's cheap! As an audience, we need to see that set up. Clear intentions make for clearer conflict - and clearer resolution. How hard would it be to see Frank's point of view before he just lurks in the doorway like a creeper and resolves the conflict? It feels false, because we're not with his character at all.
Poor conflict was also found in Dev and Karen's storyline, wherein Karen stood up Dev at an important business dinner. There are several things wobbly about this endeavor, most of which can be chalked up to logic more than anything else. Firstly, this is 2012. I'm not sure why all the wives and girlfriends have to go along on a business dinner like it's a night out with Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce. Secondly, Karen knew what she was doing, and her phone was sticking right out the top of her bag. Really? She's that meek around the director that she won't take a second to fire off a text? I'm not buying it. (And yes, this is technically an area where Karen's "innocence" could be incorporated into plot, but it wasn't. And last week, she was on Derek's lap in just a button-down, so I'm leaning towards the 'Karen can take care of herself' verdict.) Not only that, but I found it ridiculous that Dev couldn't recover from his girlfriend's absence, unless he was worried about her physical safety - in which case, it should have been mentioned. The amount of problems this paper-thin conflict created was, frankly, underwhelming. Not only that, but signs seem to be pointing to Dev and Karen's demise in favor of whatever "sexual tension" she may have with Derek, which... well. Consider me underwhelmed with that development, at least from this place in the narrative so far.
There was one conflict that held promise - but it rose and fell in the course of one scene. Turns out Derek was being pursued to helm the My Fair Lady project, which was obliquely referenced as well in the Pilot. At the end of "The Callback," Derek reveals to Eileen that he was asked to do My Fair Lady, but he turned it down. Mr. Grumpy Director chose to do Marilyn! How great is that? But it wasn't a storyline at all - it was barely mentioned! Truthfully, it should have been the episode's third major plotline. It would've allowed Ivy, Karen, and Derek to take centerstage as the main trio working through callbacks, and given Derek a choice to make, which in turn would let us understand him as a character. This is a guy who hates one of our mains (Tom) and who tried to sleep with both of his leads. Not only that, but he was approaching Marilyn like a business decision. So to see him work on the show all episode, with a decision to make about whether or not he would stick with it, would be a nice little mini-arc for that character. We could see him enjoying himself, and the choice to stay with Marilyn would tell us that Derek does indeed care about the project. It would also cement a relationship between Derek and Ivy and Karen better than any private lesson could.
But unfortunately, Derek is left like most of the other parts of this ensemble: with offscreen objectives, who renders slightly two-dimensional because of the way the writers are choosing to write these characters into their conflicts. It's frustrating, because Smash has the potential to be dazzling, fun, and cathartic - these characters are clearly talented, have the potential for interesting working and personal relationships, and ultimately do have dreams. But they're not being scaled down into scene-to-scene objectives to help us stick with them through their struggles. And I have a feeling that unless Smash can get us engaged with their characters' objectives and demonstrate meatier conflict, it'll be seeing more and more audience members tuning out.
The Report Card:
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Julia