Tuesday, March 6, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x05 - "Let's Be Bad"

I'm guessing that based on the events of this episode, the title "Let's Be Bad" is supposed to be in reference to Karen getting in touch with her feminine wiles, Leo getting kind-of-arrested for kind-of-smoking-pot, and Julia and Michael resuming their illicit affair.  Now, there's an easy joke here about "Let's Be Bad" taking its own advice, but I'm not gonna make it.  The episode wasn't awful; it was on par with what Smash has been giving us: poorly developed conflict, with a few interesting character moments and strong musical numbers.

Let's check in with Marilyn the Musical's status: Julia and Tom are still writing the script, and it's getting down to the wire, making Eileen nervous.  Turns out Julia's the one holding things up, and it's sort of alluded to that she's getting stuck on Joe DiMaggio's part.  This is kind of a duh, considering that Michael Swift is the real-life DiMaggio stand-in for Julia, and obviously she's conflicted about DiMichael-o's role in her life.  Is this her great love story?  There was a great conversation early on where Michael questions Joe's likeability as Julia is currently writing it, and Julia declares that she wants to make this more than a love story - even though Michael disagrees.  The idea that Julia is having writer's block because of her relationship with Michael is rather compelling, and I wish the writers had brought that concept to the forefront to mine the conflict and create a second layer of tension.  Julia would have pressure from Eileen to finish the story, but she's not sure what story she's writing, or how it will end - just like with Michael.  If handled properly, it could be a sophisticated container to frame Julia's real life with her creative work, which is what they're trying to do anyways.  (And not just with Julia.  But more on that later.)

Instead, we got a poorly realized storyline where Julia's son Leo gets caught with marijuana in Central Park, and she's forced to deal with the fallout.  Cover to cover, it was kind of a snoozer, and the only real consequences we felt for it were in the possibility that Leo's actions could jeopardize the family's ability to adopt.  But we didn't know that until after Leo wound up at the police station.  We should've known before Leo's bad decision what kind of consequence said bad decision could reap, so that we had a stake in the scenario.  Otherwise, we just don't care.  And the overarching idea that Julia missed Leo's brush with the law because she was flirting with Michael Swift, as Tom so deftly pointed out, was not really necessary.  We get that this is a family vs. Michael situation.  It's unnecessary to throw this guilt Julia's way - we already know, as Julia does, that getting into a relationship with Michael is bad because they're both married.  Making Julia look like a neglectful parent already is just salt in the wound, and needless.

I'm not sure entirely how Michael went from zero to pursuant in an episode or so - maybe Julia's propensity for stealing his dessert was charming enough to put him in first gear.  (Though I can't say I blame him.  Debra Messing remains enchanting as ever when acting opposite food.  Miss you, Grace Adler.)  But regardless, I was a bit bewildered by how strongly Michael was coming on this episode, and miffed that he and Julia kissed at the end.  It's not necessarily that I don't want these kids to get back together, but I do want it to be told well.  I didn't think the kiss was earned yet, and beyond that, I am frustrated beyond belief that Leo witnessed it.  As soon as the camera started panning up, I groaned, because it was so predictable in its "drama."  They may as well have had Ellis lurking behind a fire hydrant like a devious troll, watching the situation unfurl as he cackled wickedly into his sweater vest about this new piece of blackmail.  Sigh!

Speaking of cartoons, let's talk about Derek.  Monsieur Directeur was so broodingly pissy this week it was difficult to take him seriously.  See, he was frustrated with Ivy's shortcomings, and lashed out at both her and Karen when he was met with questions instead of blind obedience.  Look, I get that the guy's Mr. Dark Artist about his material, but it was too much for me.  Seeing Ivy become a mess of insecurities because she's not getting positive feedback from her boss-slash-boyfriend is not the strongest incarnation of her character, especially when she just falls back into his arms at the end.  (And fondly looks on while he works on the play during the midnight hours.)  Truthfully, the episode's strongest moment for Ivy came when she nearly fell apart in rehearsals, but, with tears in her eyes, she pulled it together and performed her heart out.  That was a great character moment, and I almost wish we didn't have such a blatant cutaway to fantasy, so we could revel in Ivy's triumph a little more.  But, the "Let's Be Bad" fantasy sequence seemed to serve a different purpose: to almost draw a parallel between Ivy and Marilyn herself.  Based on Ivy's fragile psyche and sex appeal, I wonder if the show will really turn Ivy into Marilyn, for all intents and purposes.  It could be interesting, in a Black Swan kind of way.

But frankly, I think there's something more interesting afoot - or at least, more grounded in reality and character-based drama.  Before, I mentioned that Julia is penning this musical - Joe and Marilyn's relationship in particular - while putting herself in Marilyn's shoes and trying to make heads or tails of the love story.  It's incredibly personal, right?  Julia is overidentifying with Marilyn.  There's this potentially fascinating idea that both Julia and Ivy are projecting themselves onto Marilyn's identity and vice-versa, and it allows for the possibility of these two characters having a rather intriguing dynamic.  It's not really there yet, but it could be, if the writers tried it, and I'd honestly rather see a parallel drawn between Julia and Ivy through the nature of their creative work as opposed to the one between Michael and Ivy through their troublesome relationships.

I will say, I enjoyed that "Let's Be Bad" allowed us to witness Ivy and Karen actually interacting, one-on-one.  We got to see face-to-face competition and animosity, instead of just the random cloud of catfight surrounding these two ladies.  It's much better this way, even if Ivy is still bitchily threatening and Karen just trying to be nice.  Smash seems to be toying with the construct that these ladies can learn something from one another - Karen learns to understand "what she brings to the table," and Ivy has to learn a little humility.  I feel like the show could bring something even deeper to Ivy and Karen's dynamic, and I hope they find it.

As for Karen herself, she got in touch with her sexual side, as Marilyn would, and inadvertently gained some important work information for Dev as a result.  I didn't mind this storyline terribly, considering that it played out simply and in the background, but I'm not sure I get the whole "Karen-isn't-sexy" thing.  Haven't we been over this?  Didn't Karen work on that during her audition process, and didn't she sing "Happy Birthday Mr. President" on Derek's lap, and wasn't that referenced in this very episode, reminding us that Karen is sexy?  I do not get it.  It's also not cool to make Karen the conservative Midwesterner who actually says out loud that she looks down on overtly sexual women.  Party foul for slut shaming, Smash!  I don't understand why this show is going to great lengths to make their creative piece about Marilyn Monroe, showing all sides of the real woman, and then only bring the sexuality aspect to Ivy and Karen's foil relationship.  It's unclear, and could really be more three-dimensional and meaningful for both character's relationship to Marilyn Monroe and her identity.  There's potential there!  But unfortunately, Smash just isn't pinpointing it - yet.

Finally, there was Tom.  Tom was the charming scene-stealer of the hour, as he (with his lawyer date) saved Leo's butt, then merrily turned the teenager's woes into Broadway riffs at the piano.  How great is that?  He's firmly ensconced himself, alongside Julia, as the most likeable character in this ensemble (it of course doesn't hurt that their dynamic with one another is delightful as well).  He's even managed to make a trope-filled work-vs-date storyline intriguing.  Trying to date Lawyer John is difficult, because of Tom's schedule and their career differences, but they try to make it work - and gamely admit to each other that the sex is bad.  These two are charming, even though we hardly know Lawyer John, and I hope their motto becomes "try, try again."  They deserve a chance as a couple on this show!

In all, "Let's Be Bad" was marked with some good character work, but still left a lot of stones unturned in what's really interesting about these characters and their interactions.  The conflict is still only engaging about half the time, and Smash continues to create drama in all the wrong places.   

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

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