Monday, April 2, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x08 - The Coup

Okay, when I said I'd be delayed in recapping "The Coup," I wasn't joking around.  But better late than never, right?  And "The Coup" was certainly not an episode to miss - or was it?  It was high on drama and catharsis and "WTF" moments, but it also presented a series of storylines that were either lacking in relevance or that circled back on themselves completely.  Still, it was an entertaining hour, and I will say that even though the plot elements reset themselves, the characters affected by them progressed interestingly.

The eponymous "coup" mainly belonged to Derek, who, with Eileen's support, wanted to test a redirection for Marilyn after doing the workshop.  They cut off communication with Tom, Julia, and Ivy, and turned to Karen to helm a contemporary-style song and dance (it was more writhing than anything, but whatever) - and kept everything under their lids.  But, naturally, we have Ellis snaking through everyone's personal lives, and so word got out - most importantly, to Ivy, who was trying to keep a brave face in the silent aftermath of the workshop.  When Derek, Eileen, and Karen presented their new idea to Tom and Julia (and Ivy and Ellis, unknowingly), everyone was hurt and angry and offended.  And it took a brand-new, one-off character to swoop in and knock some sense into everyone.

I can't decide if I love Katie Rand for kicking the door down and putting a stop to all the tomfoolery in Eileen's personal and professional life - made even better by her face-to-face call-out of Ellis' eavesdropping nonsense - or if I'm just irked that Smash brought in a previously-unheard-of character to save the day and make all the conflicts a lot less bothersome.  Mahatma Katie, indeed.  But hey, I can't complain about the character herself, as she was pretty awesome, and it's not like the Gummer sisters don't have a standing invitation to my television programs.  But mostly, I enjoyed what Katie did for Eileen's story.  Of all the character story arcs Smash has endeavored thus far, I've been on board with Eileen's the most.  The idea that this is a woman divorced from not only her husband but her business partner, who is trying to keep her dignity, independence, and competence in both areas of her life is rather compelling.  How can you not root for Eileen in this scenario?  But even though this "coup" is a mess, I love as well that it indicates that Eileen's tenacity has led to some mistakes - that she's willing to admit.  And it's all wrapped up in a nice externalization with Katie decorating her once-stark office with homey touches.  The whole thing is a nifty arc for the character both in-episode and as a multi-episode arc, and basically launches Eileen to the front of the line for the treatment of Smash's female characters. 

Speaking of which, let's talk about 'em.  First up: Julia!  Finally, we got closure on this Michael business, as he relented his obsessive pursuing ways and agreed he should leave the show.  Points for maturity from all parties!  We also saw Julia in her family life - in a cute scene where Frank serenades her with Rock Band, and going all Mama Bear on a judge for insinuating that Leo should be grateful.  Of course, we got a somewhat heavy-handed extension of this construct so that Julia could meaningfully tell her boys how grateful she is for their family on the courthouse steps.  Yeah, it was cheesy, but it's honestly just nice to see Julia more or less back to the character we knew before the Michael Swift Fiasco.  Better relish it while we can - the next episode looks like hell for Julia, with her secret apparently coming to light.

But in "The Coup," it was Ivy's turn for hell, as she got the rug slipped out from underneath her by her sometimes-boyfriend and employers, and lost the lead in Marilyn.  Even though Eileen rejected the experimental update, she still deemed that the musical needed a star - which Ivy is not.  How heartbreaking was Ivy in this installment?  Goofy and unnecessary bowling number aside, Ivy learned of the sneaking around, witnessed it, and then was told she was no longer needed for the show.  And I'm tired of Derek coming around to tell her how wonderful she is when no one else is listening, after the fact.  His actions have rarely shown that he appreciates her, and it leaves Ivy incredibly unempowered in their relationship.  Boo!  I don't know why this show insists on portraying Ivy as anything less than an incredible performer and consummate professional, because honestly the character seemed to be constructed entirely on these tenets, based on the original presentation and Megan Hilty's knockout performances.  And yet Smash seems to be telling us that Ivy is unstable, emotional, desperate, insecure, and potentially destined for the chorus.  When will they throw this character a bone?  The writing keeps her rotating between antagonist and pity party, and I for one would like a little happiness for this Brave Little Toaster.

Of course, Karen got a chance to shine in "The Coup," with an opportunity to be the accidental face of change and betrayal for Marilyn the Musical.  I still want more dimension to Karen's portrayal as wide-eyed Midwest innocent trying to navigate the bitch waters of Broadway.  What if Karen refused to participate?  What if she told Ivy before she gave an answer to Derek?  Either of those choices would have spruced up her character, given her a backbone, and even a potential alliance with Ivy - things which are all sorely needed for Ms. Cartwright.  I just miss the days (okay, day) when she sang "Redneck Woman" with sass and panache in a karaoke bar!  Where is Karen's gumption?  Give this girl a little pluck!  She was great poking fun of Derek getting schooled by the dude from One Republic.  (That was the dude from One Republic, right?)  More of that, please.

It doesn't help matters that Karen is dating the only person in this ensemble getting a non-show-biz storyline.  Why on earth is Dev getting a plot arc?  I don't mind the character at all, but I find it impossible to pay attention to his political career on a show about Broadway.  Smash pointedly introduces the idea that Karen and Dev's "people" are similar in their immorality, but it's only referenced in dialogue.  If that's your link, then that needs to be front-and-center in the episode: right at the start, give Karen and Dev a mini-conflict where they both think the other has it easier in terms of how to deal with their co-workers.  That could be the lynchpin of the whole episode, eliminating this Karen-Dev-RJ nonsense conflict, and landing squarely on the idea that there are bitches on Broadway and in Congress.  Or wherever the hell Dev works.  (See?  I really don't pay attention.)

Another thing I wish Smash had done differently, now that I've gotten a better picture of where it's going, is their handling of Ellis.  Ellis was the crucial center of this whole episode, because he's the one who had all the information - and leaked it.  Not only that, but he's maneuvered himself right into Eileen's office like a little weasel.  I didn't hate Ellis as much in this episode, I think because I finally understood what his goal was: to be a producer.  He betrayed Tom, stuck his nose in a whole bunch of business that wasn't his, and then stepped out of the shadows into the fracas to give his expert opinion.  (Okay, I gagged a bit at that last one.)  But giving Ellis an objective made his character so much easier to get behind - although the comeuppance by Katie, and Julia's priceless face of disgust helped as well.  So I wish that we had seen Ellis systematically attempt to get into every other character's good graces, over a number of episodes, so that he could gain information to help him move ahead in the producing world - that should have been clear from the beginning.  The pay-off in "The Coup" would have been much stronger, because Ellis-as-villain does not work as a goon lurking outside closed doors and earnestly smiling through little white lies.  Ellis-as-villain is much better if we see that he has a plan and is not just a pest.

Finally, we need to talk about the coup itself.  Because rather than writing off Derek's new ideas as silly talk and backstabbing betrayal, I tried to see his point and look at the performance he was offering.  But when you combine that with his conversation with Tom, I still remain firmly in Camp Tom and Julia, creatively speaking.  "Touch Me" was a Marilyn imagined as Derek described her: a sexual icon, a darker and more dangerous figure writhing around in a white bedsheet, caged by faceless men who confine her to her bed.  Derek's explanation to Karen made it even more literal: there was purity, but underneath it, there was sex.  Frankly, if Derek is trying to sell this is a more deeply-imagined Marilyn, he's missing the point.  It's Marilyn imagined rather one-dimensionally, denying her point of view and representing her more by her appeal to men - the virgin/whore construct in a sexualized setting. 

It's doubly-troubling considering the inclusion of Derek's homophobic diatribes against Tom and his "gay male fantasy" version of Marilyn, which isn't edgy enough for Derek's taste.  He even specifically said Tom doesn't "have the balls" to make Marilyn how she needs to be.  Ouch.  How's that for some misogyny and homophobia, all wrapped up?  I'm all for updating Marilyn, or creating a unique style for the show, but Derek's version, combined with his voiced direction and invective, is actually startingly distateful.  Honestly, the most interesting part of this exploration was the reveal about Tom and Derek's past, with the added insinuation about Derek's internalized homophobia on account of his father supposedly sleeping with a Broadway critic.  But Derek and Tom used to be friends, until Derek threw Tom under the bus to the press, and rubbed Tom's face in a bad review.  Phew!  This is a loaded relationship, and I'm curious to see how these two will continue to interact now that this is in the air and they're not quitting the show.

In all, the coup was kind of a messy plotline that erased its steps by episode's end, but the character revelations with Eileen, Tom and Derek, and Ellis helped pad out an arc that could have been incredibly pointless, and made it a touch more interesting.  I'm curious to see what will happen next week, with both Julia and Ivy falling down on their luck as the former faces the possibility of her affair destroying her marriage, and the latter returning to an ensemble and, well, falling down.  Oof.  Let's get these ladies in the win column, please!  I'm less curious about Dev, admittedly.  But what to do with a non-theatre character on a theatre show?

And before I sign off, I have one last observation: has anyone else noticed that the Smash writers like to close all couples' conversation scenes with implied sex?  It's like they can't figure out a way to exit the scene, and so they just have their two characters start to make out.  Hell, half of Dev and Karen's scenes play this way, and last night it happened as well with Derek and Ivy, and Ellis and his girlfriend.  It's a fairly innocent offense, but it still cracks me up.  Surely there's a better way to close out the dialogue - juast ast there's probably a better way to close out this recap right now.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: B
Character: A
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Katie Rand

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