Tuesday, March 20, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x07 - "The Workshop"

Finally, "The Workshop!"  Or, I guess I should say: finally, the workshop!  The time has come to see the first run-through of Marilyn the Musical, for family and friends and - more importantly - potential investors and financial backers.  Talk about pressure!  Of course, the workshop couldn't go off without a hitch, and naturally, there were personal problems abound - with the pesky addition of a heating problem to make everything super uncomfortable.  

The main event in "The Workshop" was Bernadette Peters - er, Ivy's Tony-Award-Winning mother - showing up and overshadowing everyone in sight, Ivy included.  Turns out part of Ivy's insecurity comes with the fact that she feels she'll never live up to her mother, who is not only extremely successful in the same field but also incredibly overbearing and slow to compliment.  She tells Ivy she won her Tony without the help of medication, which only spurred Ivy to down a sleeping pill to chase her Prednizone.  Combining that with the blow-out argument in which Ivy compared their relationship to that of Marilyn's with her mother, and we're clearing carving out an "Ivy-becomes-Marilyn" construct here.  Which, I will say, is not necessarily bad, it's just... not terribly interesting?  To me, personally.  There's worse things that the writing could be doing with Ivy at the moment, and honestly my reigning sentiment towards this character is sheer pity.  I'm still invested enough in Ivy as a character to go along with a "Marilynization" and see where it takes us.

It was good to see the support that Ivy does have in "The Workshop," because I can't believe how unencouraged she is sometimes as the shoulders this show is resting on.  You'd think the minds behind Marilyn would want to invest a little more in their lead, considering she's, well, their lead, and it's here where I can't blame Ivy for being paranoid as all get out about Karen Cartwright, even if it defies logic.  Derek was an unequivocal [insert your favorite synonym for jerk] again this episode, and I'm starting to wonder if Smash is simply intent on portraying him as an insensitive [another synonym] when it comes to the way he relates to creative colleagues.  Only Eileen seems to earn any respect from Director Grumpy-Scruff, and therefore those are the only interactions where Derek is the most wholly likeable.  Even when he gives Ivy any kind of encouragement, it's usually as an afterthought to his original message, which is usually some form of "you're not at your best" or "you can do better."  (Note to writers: this could all be fixed if we got a glimpse into Derek's POV, or at least with an introduction of some stakes to remind us why Derek is so hellbent on perfection.)

But luckily, Ivy had a good emotional moment with her mother by episode's end, where Ms. Peters - er, Conroy - reiterated that she believes her daughter is a star, and that her day will come.  There's also Tom, whose relationship with Ivy has quickly skyrocketed to favorite status.  Tom not only encouraged Ivy as a boss, but also as a friend - and was quick to defend her against Derek and his questionable directing techniques.  Go, Tom!  I'm still not sure what's really going on with his lukewarm-but-cute relationship with John, but I'm rooting for them.  Although I would root for a relationship with Sam too, if that Big Hint dropped last night is anything to go by.  But don't Michael-and-Julia us, Smash!  If you're gonna put Tom with Sam, then please, break him up with John first.  Especially when John is sweet enough to applaud Tom loudly in absolute silence.  He's a darling, supportive, and proud boyfriend, so either make it work or be nice about its end.  Please and thank you!

Of course, if Michael and Julia are indeed the paradigm for relationships on this show, then I would like to invoke a vow of platonic interactions over EVERYONE.  Because goodness, Michael and Julia are being written with maximum awful.  Smash tries to show us that they're happy, with those first glimpses and smiles and tangled fingers, but when Julia literally looks two seconds from emotional breakdown every time she's confronted with reality, it's hard to believe that this situation could ever be good.  Especially when her teenaged, pot-smoking (I KNEW IT) son knows about the affair and treats her like dirt because of it.  No amount of "hot" making out in empty rehearsal spaces (nice try with the extra-sexy leg lift, but I'm not buying) can change that.  Especially when (ooh, another one!) Michael and Julia are so not on the same page about this.

It was clever, though, to substitute Julia and Michael into Marilyn and Joe's story and let them air their grievances under the guise of running dialogue.  That was a nice touch.  This show is strongest when it's exploring the intersection between these people's real lives and their professional lives, but I realized that Smash only utilizes one aspect of this.  They've really only drawn comparisons from the characters to the text itself - showing Ivy spiral similarly to Marilyn, putting Michael and Julia in Joe and Marilyn's shoes.  This works, but truthfully, I'd like to see the characters interact with the process of creating the text just as much as with the text itself.  Of course, I'm basically a broken record with this request now, so I'm not sure it'll happen.  But I still wish we could've seen Tom and Julia pen more of the songs and the lyrics, and more of Derek sorting through his ideas for direction, and maybe even more of Ivy's process in mastering the lead.  We've had so many episodes where Julia's writing capability is paralyzed by the events of her personal life, and we didn't see her work through that at all.  This oversight only lends itself to the idea that Julia started out a capable, self-confident woman framed equally in her personal life and her working life, and has now become a woman fraught with personal mistakes, harangued by her lover and shamed by her son, with no exploration of her professional responsibilities and how she manages them.  It's tanked Julia in terms of her representation of a female character on this show.  I had hope that with Julia's seeming awareness of Ivy's discomfort and embarrassment over her mother performing that we would get the Julia/Ivy dynamic I've been wanting, but alas, Julia is stuck in Distraught Lover/Mother/Wife mode.

Anyways, this hopefully will all go away with Michael Swift getting the boot by episode's end.  I can't say I'm sad to see Michael and Julia's "relationship" splinter apart, but I can say I don't think the firing is entirely fair to Michael as a performer.  This show has no issue mixing up the character's professional and personal lives, but doesn't do anything to delineate the idea that any of them knows the line between them.  Firing Michael over a personal transgression is really rough, and I can't help but think that the production will suffer from it.  I would much rather see Julia pull herself up by her bootstraps and put Michael in his place, emotionally - not professionally.  But, I tend to like "stiff upper lip" characters a little more anyways, so perhaps it's just my personal preference.  I do think it would be more rewarding to see the problem through, though, and let Julia work it out competently and with credence given to her objectives and emotional agency.  Where's Eileen to stomp a little professionalism into this troupe?

Speaking of Eileen, I must thank her for giving me my first positive emotions towards Ellis since the show began.  I swear I wanted him to spontaneously burst into flames upon seeing him eavesdrop on Michael and Julia's totally inappropriate at-work makeout - and once again when he ran to his new friend-in-high-places Eileen and dropped the bomb a little too eagerly.  But Eileen shut him down, and I could have leapt through the television to kiss Anjelica Huston's face.  I loved that someone finally (and effectively!) put Ellis in his place, and suddenly I'm totally okay with Eileen and Ellis hanging out all the time.  They have a strange mentor/mentee relationship that I can get on board with, if it means that Eileen has someone to talk to and Ellis has someone to explain to him how not to be a little weasel.  I still don't love Ellis completely, but hey - I'll take this dynamic, for sure.

I also confess to going a little Regina George in this episode, right about the time when Karen imagined herself in Ivy's place during the workshop - in fantasy sequence, no less!  Yes, I admit to yelling out loud at the television, "Stop trying to make Karen happen; it's never going to happen!"  And then I felt a little bad, because channeling Regina George is not necessarily something to be proud of.  I don't even dislike Karen!  I want her to have another opportunity, like a recording contract with Raskin or Reskin or Ruskin, or whatever his name is!  I'm just frustrated that this show in insistent on finding paper-thin excuses to keep Karen as a member of Marilyn in some way for the purposes of what's supposed to be drama, but really is, in fact, boring.  Ivy has no real reason to hate Karen, and Karen has no real reason to keep loyalty to a Marilyn workshop over a potential opportunity for personal success.  Why is Smash trying to make me think otherwise?  It's just forcibly prolonging the Ivy vs. Karen debate, which is silly and sexist and tiresome.

I will say that the highlight of "The Workshop" was, well, the workshop, in all its glory.  I still don't understand why the writers can't figure out that half the fun of this show is seeing the process of putting on a Broadway show, from all angles.  So again, I plead: why can't we see more of this?  All of the comparisons between Ivy and Marilyn and Joe and Michael are great and all, but I still have more vested interest in the combined product of these people's hard work and creativity than I do in poorly-written crappy relationships.  (Sorry, Derek-and-Ivy and Michael-and-Julia.)  Plus, with damn catchy songs and great performance value from Megan Hilty & Co., it's hard not to want to focus on that talent and what can be narratively constructed around it.

In all, though, "The Workshop" was one of Smash's stronger fares, with several well-done (if average) storylines threading through.  And I must say that the promo for next week piqued my interest more than this show has done in awhile.  Factions?  Sneaking around and professional betrayal?  Derek and Karen vs. Ivy and Tom and Julia?  Bring it, please.  I almost think this show is more entertaining when Marilyn is portrayed to be doomed instead of destined for Broadway glory.  Throw in some earned character interactions, with focus each person's professional talents, and Smash would be a stronger show all around.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: B
Character: B
Musical Numbers: A+
Episode MVP: Eileen

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