I'm not sure why exactly last night's Smash was called "Chemistry," because the only compelling evidence of such a phenomenon that I witnessed was scrawled across the cover of Frank's bedtime reading, and peppered through scenes with Tom and Ivy. You would think that "Chemistry" would want to deal with couples getting together, bonds being made, maybe even demonstrations of synchronicity and likeability when two people interact. Alas, "Chemistry" came short.
I'm wagering that the couple who was supposed to bear the title's standard was Michael and Julia, who capped last week's "Let's Be Bad" with a curbside makeout session that could potentially renew their affair. If you're talking basic sexual chemistry, sure; I guess Michael and Julia fit the bill. But putting Debra Messing in a men's-style pajama shirt and removing Will Chase of his shirt altogether is cheating. (No pun intended.) The reality of the situation is that Michael and Julia are really unlikeable in each other's company, and there's basically only a tiny sliver of opportunity for the audience to want these two to get together in any way.
The fundamental problem is Michael's pushiness. He spent all episode pursuing Julia, browbeating her to agree to meeting him in private. He tells her he can't sleep. He calls her at home. He needs to see her. He even threatens to cause a scene if she doesn't comply. I'm sorry, are we dealing with a grown-up adult, or a two-year-old here? This automatically makes Michael extremely unlikeable, especially when we see how distressed Julia is in her home life. She's having difficulty finishing the lyrics to Marilyn; she's distracted and upset. We are far more likely to understand what's going on with Julia, emotionally, because we're witness to it - and not only that, but this little bud of an affair seems to be destroying her already. She tells Michael no, time and again, and we understand that to be in keeping with her emotions as we've seen them.
But Smash is apparently expecting the audience to tsk tsk at Julia's protests and say, "You don't really mean that." Michael even approaches it that way. Instead of respecting her decision and her privacy, he hounds her until he's got his fingers on her shirt buttons in the middle of an empty rehearsal room. As self-appointed referee on this storyline, I'm throwing a flag. Because the result of this construct is a Michael who doesn't respect Julia's wishes, a Julia can't stick to her decisions because a man is undressing her, and a relationship that is textually terrible for both of them. There is absolutely no reason given to make the audience want to root for these two to be together, and yet the storytelling seems to be nudging its viewers with a wink as if to say, "How hot is this?"
The fact of the matter is that it's not. It's actually a serious detriment to both characters - especially Julia, who is an established main on this show and seemed to be built of different stuff but never had a chance to show it. Boo. And I can't decide if it's better or worse that Smash tried to cover their "Nice Guy" and "Look, She Totally Wanted It All Along" bases by having Michael ask Julia twice if she wanted him to stop. Yeah, you know when that question would have been nice? The entire episode during which you were stalking her. Not when you've got her shirt off and backed onto the couch. Not cool, Smash.
Of course, the other eyeroll-inducing part of this is that Leo, Julia's son, knows that his mom's fooling around. It would have been so much better to give Leo some semblance of POV this episode, because honestly I forgot that he knew. I just thought he was bitching his mom out over burnt pancakes, which frankly didn't seem that inconsistent with what we've been shown with the two-dimensionally bratty teen. It wasn't clear that Leo was pissed about his mom's actions at the end of "Let's Be Bad," and it should've been. If you're going to have Leo witness his mom kissing a man other than his dad, then Leo deserves a stake in the story.
Another couple that didn't have any chemistry in "Chemistry" was Derek and Ivy. I'm not entirely sure what they're going for with Derek and Ivy these days. Derek has been reduced to a paper-thin representation of a moody but "brilliant" (I assume?) director, simply so that Ivy gets caught in the emotional cross-hairs of having your boyfriend yell at you in a professional environment. This alone isn't terrible, but Smash kind of hid the best part of it - the idea that Derek cares first for Ivy's voice and second for her wellbeing, which upsets her. We only got a hint at this when it was time to pay that emotion off, and suddenly I realized, a bit bewilderedly, that that was the point of showing Ivy's interactions with Sam and Tom. Ah! If only that had been more clearly set up - the payoff would have been much stronger, because the idea itself is compelling for Derek and Ivy and their relationship.
And frankly, how great was it to see Ivy dig her heels in and call Derek out on his bullshit at episode's end? I loved that Smash didn't try to play it as a "Diva Moment," and instead let it be Ivy standing up for herself and the way she wanted to be treated. What I didn't love is that this moment was somehow blamed on Ivy being hopped up on steroids. Honestly, everyone on Smash needs to be this expressive, just to jolt a little life into their characters. (I felt the same way about Tom walking out on rehearsal in protest of Derek yelling at Julia over Marilyn's incomplete status. Yay, Tom! Characters who take a stand are inherently more likeable.)
Ivy-on-meds was a strange but intriguing concept to introduce, especially when she hallucinated Karen-as-Marilyn as the voice of her self-doubts. Deeply insecure Ivy is something worth exploring, I think, and if Smash is going to go all Black Swan on our asses, I'm okay with that. But will this continue? I'm unsure they can prolong Ivy's vocal issues long enough to unravel her - but perhaps they'll find another way. They're certainly hammering in the fact that Karen unsettles Ivy, which frankly seems unwarranted. I can't really believe that Ivy would find Karen to be a threat. This is a girl who's getting Ivy's hand-me-down Bar Mitzvah job, twice removed. She's Ivy's cast-off's cast-off. The rivalry feels forced. I would root for Karen so much more if Ivy didn't have any clue that Karen could be competition for her, in whatever way this show is trying to construct that.
Instead, we just watch Karen sing at a Bar Mitzvah for the episode, as she simultaneously gets yanked around by the producers who may or may not need her to perform at Marilyn's first workshop for investors. Not a whole lot going on here, except for the business card Karen earned by the end of the hour. Hopefully this little victory will pay out in success for Karen - something for Karen to do on this show - as opposed to bitchiness from Ivy as Karen lays in wait, although I'm not holding my breath.
In addition to Karen's sojourn to Long Island, there were two pocket-sized storylines in "Chemistry" that didn't amount to much. The first belonged to Tom and John's budding but awkward romance. Tom meets all of John's friends, despite his hesitation about moving too fast, and discovers that John only just came out to his mom a year ago. When he confronts him about it, John replies that he's come out to his mom four different times since he was eight - his mom just has memory problems. I don't understand this. Is John being serious? Or are we supposed to believe that his mom has been in denial of her song being gay, and he just has to keep telling her? Adding that to the pre-established notion that John's mother set him up with Tom via Tom's mother... I don't really understand what's going on here, but I'm willing to watch and see. Truly, though, the best product of Tom and John's storyline was seeing Tom tell Julia and Ivy about his new boyfriend. Julia reacts neutrally and with support, but Ivy reads right into Tom's reservations, and they snark about his minimalist decor. Giggle! More of this, Smash, please.
The second miniature storyline in "Chemistry" went to Eileen, who gadded about town with Ellis and Ellis' Unnamed Real Estate Friend. This made absolutely no sense to me, because I didn't really see what the trajectory of the storyline was supposed to be until the very end. It had a great payoff with very little setup - not unlike Ivy's conflict with Derek over his treatment of her. Eileen's Big Moment came when she got Ralph, the Broadway Investor, to commit to seeing the Marilyn workshop - and she picked up her video game gun and uttered the words, "Watch out, it's my turn." How great is that? For a character who's been so frustratingly under the thumb of her ex-husband, it's fantastic to see her triumph over that and taste a little exhilarating success. But that setup was not in the episode at all. We met Ralph, never got a clear view of his inclinations, and then hung out at Bushwhack and in empty penthouses until Eileen apparently made the deal - offscreen. Why couldn't we witness Eileen working through that obstacle so that her kickass moment with the toy gun could feel earned? It's frustrating. Even if we're meant to understand that Eileen is now at peace with having less money and getting out of the lap of luxury, it's simply stronger to show her competence as a Broadway producer independent of her businessman husband.
The thing that plagued "Chemistry" the most was the fact that scenes rose and fell without any clear indication of their real purpose. Do we need to see Karen pick out her Bar Mitzvah outfit with Dev? What is the point of having Julia and Tom talk about their love lives but not reach any conclusion as to what they're feeling? Do we need to witness Eileen discover the joys of a video game if we're not sure why it's happening? There were so many instances in "Chemistry" that felt untethered from character intention and story direction that it was difficult to be involved, as an audience member. These scenes need to be tighter, with a clear purpose that progresses the story. That's what was wrong with the Michael/Julia storyline. They wanted to end the episode with them having sex, but refused to plot anything interesting leading to that - so we just got repeated scenes where Michael pursued Julia and she said no. Carousel storytelling is not good. There was no new information given in a huge number of last night's scenes, and that's a problem. Every scene should be moving the story forward - or else you're just stuck in neutral. Neutral plot, neutral feelings about the characters, neutral investment about what's going to happen next.
There's still potential. Julia had writer's block all episode, and could have worked through that in conjunction with her romance issues. Eileen had the possibility to triumph in business through convincing Ralph to attend the workshop. We skipped over Leo's POV, Derek's POV, even the interesting part of Ivy's POV - until the very end. There's so much possibility in dealing with these characters and their emotions, especially as the plotted actions get soapier and more complicated - and Smash just isn't hitting the right notes.
The Report Card:
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Ivy
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Ivy