Tuesday, February 28, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x04 - "The Cost of Art"

It's arguable that with four episodes under Smash's belt, we need to be seeing some sign that this show is beginning to find its groove.  Alas, I don't think we're there yet.  Where is the groove?  Give me the groove!  This show is set in the land of musical theatre, and I refuse to believe that Smash could be anything less than a glitzy, high-stakes, feel-everything-to-the-rafters drama.  But unfortunately, we're still stuck in neutral.

As such, "The Cost of Art" wasn't bad, per sé... it was just blah.  The characters seem to just trudge through their conflicts, and even if they overcome them, there's little sense of triumph devoted to the win.  It's almost like Smash is scared of injecting the same vigor into their emotional storylines as they do into their musical numbers, and I say boo to that.  Emotional depth and vibrancy are the key to getting us to invest in these characters, and if we're not feeling every little thing they're feeling to maximum effect, we're just going to tune out.

Speaking of investment, "The Cost of Art" continued to delineate how Eileen's divorce is interfering with her ability to conduct business, as Jerry froze most of her money and therefore jeopardized the financial backing of Marilyn.  Eileen had to get resourceful, and attempted to sell her original Dégas sketch, only to discover that it's technically in Jerry's name and she can't make the sale without his written consent.  Curse you, Jerry!  Jerry's turning out to be more of a diabolical villain than Ellis!  I hope they're sitting in a dark cave somewhere together, working on their evil laughs and giving each other tips on nefarious mustache-twirling.

In the end, Eileen has to grovel to Nick Jonas' millionaire TV star to invest in the show, and after some hardball negotiating, he agrees.  This storyline is a good example of how Smash misses a lot of emotional beats.  I like the idea that Eileen wants to get rid of the Dégas because it represents her past happiness, but that idea wasn't really communicated in a  powerful way.  She also should have been encouraged by Julia or Tom or Derek to ask Lyle for money earlier in the hour, so that she could refuse, in order for her to ultimate choice to be less like groveling and more like shelving her pride - it's a stronger decision for her character.

Humor me for a moment while I ponder what could be even stronger yet: what if Eileen didn't want to sell the Dégas because that was the only happy thing she had to remember her marriage by?  Her choice would therefore be: she could sell the Dégas and let go of any happiness to remember her marriage by, or ask a twenty-year-old for a large sum of money - all of this because her husband froze her funds and made her feel helpless.  It'd be a conflict of nostalgia vs. pride, both strong emotions to contend for a hard decision.  In the end, she could stubbornly choose to hold onto that damn painting, and opt instead to shelve her pride and work at nourishing a new happiness.  Yes, Eileen "letting go" of her marriage goes hand-in-hand with "letting go" of the painting, but we never really saw how much that painting meant to Eileen, and the emotion is not only basic, but also dulled.  And even if Eileen held onto the painting, she could still move on with her "new happiness" in Marilyn, and we would all understand her emotions clearly and strongly.  Plus, how great are mixed emotions?  Isn't that a more interesting representation of a breakup?  Just because Eileen hates Jerry now doesn't mean she always did, and mixing those feelings makes for compelling drama.

What doesn't make for compelling drama, for me, is the Ivy vs. Karen rehash.  Ivy got pissy that no one told her that Karen was invited to be in the ensemble, and felt like Karen was coming on too strong to be a backup performer.  What I did like about this storyline was the idea that Karen was doing too much, and just needed to be trained a bit.  It was less about Karen breathing down Ivy's neck, and more about getting the number right.  But even so, we still got Ivy bitchily having Karen removed from the chorus, and Karen bitchily complaining that she could've slept with the director too, y'know.  I did like that Karen reached a breaking point and had a blow-up - give me strong emotions, Smash!  But then, that was simply channeled into a weak plotline where she got back-up lessons from the Peanut Gallery, with Dev along as a game companion.  Far too many scenes were devoted to this same note: cheeky friends teach Karen how it's done!  And then they capped the hour with a choreographed version of "Rumour Has It" that didn't impact quite as much as Smash was probably hoping for.

The thing is, Ivy vs. Karen is pretty contrived.  There's no reason for Ivy to be threatened by Karen at all, now that she's in the ensemble.  And Karen's rags-to-riches arc is a little too blatant for my taste.  I'm beginning to think that if Smash really wanted to hash out an Ivy vs. Karen scenario, they should've given the part to Karen, only to have Ivy scheme against her in a display of magnificent bitchiness and force Karen's claws to come out.  Ivy deserves that role more than Karen based on years of experience, and the audience would understand that and root for Ivy to get her due, but feel conflicted that Karen would find herself in such a mess of a scenario on her first big lead.  I mean, I don't want a "catfight" out of this scenario at all, but if you're going to pit two women against each other in the first place, at least have it make sense and keep it interesting.  And then once they establish that Ivy and Karen are "enemies," find a way to make them tacitly allied on some level, to dimensionalize the dynamic and work them towards being friends.

I wish that Karen could maybe be given something else on Marilyn other than the supporting role and the chance to snatch the role back (judging by next week) even while she's being portrayed with a doe-eyed, Midwest innocence.  Yawn.  If only Karen stumbled onto costuming, or stage direction, or something to make her relevant in this universe as something other than an Iowa girl who's supposed to be a doormat and our underdog.  She could discover she loves directing, and begin an internship of sorts with Derek.  Or she could discover she loves writing, and work with Julia, or Tom.  Something to get this girl out of hapless territory and into interesting dynamics with other characters.  

That's the other thing I don't get about Smash - they have so many randoms who just show up and gab with our main characters, and they don't mean a single thing.  It's absurd how many times in an hour I wonder, "Who the hell is that?"  Rather than bloating out their universe with meaningless walk-ons, Smash should be building these confidantes amongst their core cast.  The most effortless scenes are the ones with Julia and Tom, or Tom and Ivy, because they have a standing dynamic we understand.  If they can build those across multiple characters, introducing conflict becomes more meaningful because there's emotional conflict in the relationships, and we can understand those feelings .

I will say that I'm intrigued by how the show has chosen to portray Ivy.  She's a driven woman who probably feared every day before Marilyn that she missed her chance, and will never get the dream she's worked so hard for.  And I liked that "The Cost of Art" introduced the idea that Ivy's insecurities mean that sometimes she wants the safety of the background instead of the glaring attention of the spotlight.  That's setting up an arc for her: she has to grow into a leading role after years in the background.  (And frankly, that's a "main character" arc right there - more so than Karen's "learning the ropes" arc.  Remind me again why the roles aren't reversed between these two?)  But regardless, that concept wasn't embedded into Ivy's development in the episode; it was just half-heartedly tacked onto a conversation with Derek that served primarily to dissolve the piss-poor jealousy angle and segue them back into a semi-stable relationship.  But the idea that Ivy isn't really a diva or an attention-grabber is what makes her compelling and relatable, and ultimately, an interesting character who will be going on a journey.

Truthfully, the strongest portion of the hour was in Tom's mini-arc with his blind date, which felt like it merited the kind of restraint Smash exercises - especially when it was constructed on some charming and understated dialogue.  "Yay, mom" was the adorable call of the evening, as both Tom and his date took a chance and were rewarded by it.  Points as well for Tom getting a chance to show off his talent to Mr. Lawyer, and for showing that Mr. Lawyer was duly impressed.  More with these two, please!  (Is it bad I also want more snarky bitching between Tom and Derek?  The cross-hallway party invitation was hilarious, from both sides.)

As for the rest of "The Cost of Art," it just exemplified how Smash needs to amp up the volume and really put the power of emotion behind their characters in order to hit their stride and keep the audience.  After all, as the mellifluous Deee-Lite taught us, the groove is in the heart.  And the heart is in the characters. 

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: C
Character: B
Musical Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Tom

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