Sunday, April 29, 2012

TV Report Card: Smash 1x11 - "The Movie Star"

Yes, this recap is impossibly late.  But I have to catch up some time, and that time is now!  (And also later, when I recap the other episode I missed.  Sigh.) 

Smash's eleventh episode finally put into action what we'd all been awaiting with a combination of dread and excitement: the arrival of "the movie star" who had been hired to helm Bombshell.  She was a name on everyone's lips for a whole episode, a player in the wings, and she finally made her entrance.  And oh, was she memorable.  Rebecca Duvall stormed the rehearsals with a kind of persistent and backhanded optimism, as she simultaneously shmoozed and insulted the creative choices of the musical.  Not only that, but she's not a strong singer!  So she wants fewer numbers, longer scenes, and more of Marilyn's dark psychology.  Of course, she goes about requesting this in the sneakiest of ways, and her brand of manipulation is weird and impressive.  She shows genuine interest and wants to be involved, but can't manage to suspend reality for a music cue.  She says the writers are being too careful with her feelings, and uses her own seemingly ego-free honesty policy to make her own straightforward requests.  I'm completely dumbfounded by the way she operates.  She is neither villain nor hero, just... a mind-boggling actress with a drunk ex-boyfriend who interrupts rehearsals.

Of course, Team Bombshell has to deal with her across the board, and the braintrust is at odds.  Julia is up in arms about her forcefulness and critique, whereas Tom is simply stuck on the fact that she can't sing.  Derek placates her because he's given up hope that she'll be able to fulfill his vision anyways, and also he keeps having those pesky hallucinations of Karen playing the role.  (Seriously, how ridiculous are these moments?  But, I have to say, I enjoy them, simply because of the way Jack Davenport plays them.  Where he could easily be lascivious and indulgent of these weird-ass fantasies, he is instead completely thunderstruck that they're happening, to the point where his bewildered expression, mouth agape, is almost the highlight of the episodes for me.  Surely this'll cause problems when it's inevitably back to Karen vs. Ivy - Derek's fantasy Marilyn up against his actual girlfriend.) 

Ultimately, though, Rebecca Duvall's insistence on creative change forces Eileen into an interesting position, character-wise.  As the producer, she is tasked with the challenge of keeping everybody happy - from investors to actors to the Julia-Tom-Derek triforce.  So what do you do when your movie star's wishes go against the creative team's?  How much do you let Rebecca Duvall have her way before you draw the line and protect your writers and director?  It's another interesting challenge to give Eileen in her journey as a one-woman producing force, and I was curious to see how she would handle the situation.  She's not perfect, and honestly I wasn't going to be surprised if she sided with Rebecca in all the arguments.  The "star" is the main draw at this point, and Eileen's shown thus far to be open to suggestions about the direction of the musical, if it will ensure their shot at Broadway success.  And while she didn't disagree with the braintrust's opinions, she was far more willing to work with Rebecca to make that success happen.  I thought for sure Eileen was going to let her ambition get the better of her again.  But when push came to shove, she stood by Tom, Julia, and Derek, and it was a lovely choice.  Sure, it could have been played as part of a bigger in-episode arc for Eileen, but it was still a nice decision conceptually. 

Instead of this decision taking up Eileen's screentime, we instead were treated to more development in her love life.  Last episode, she and Nick, her ruggedly handsome bartender, finally kissed.  This episode, Eileen was unsure she wanted to go any further with him, especially when she discovered (through Ellis' detective research) that he has a criminal record.  It raised the question: does she want to get involved with any more unreliable men?  She's clearly referencing her bad relationship with Jerry, and I have to give kudos for the writers allowing Eileen this hesitation.  She is a woman emerging from an emotionally damaging marriage that also dominated her professional life, and for all intents and purposes, she is basically experiencing a rebirth.  We are given the chance to witness Eileen Rand coming into her own, and I appreciate that the writers are bestowing her with some hesitation over getting herself into another relationship - especially when that relationship has already bled into her business life, what with Nick's investment in the musical.  Even though Eileen seems to be moving ahead with Nick, I'm glad that Smash handled the situation realistically and maturely, and in keeping with what we know about Eileen and her arc.

Speaking of love blooming, we also got the initiation of Tom and Sam's relationship.  I didn't think it would be so soon, but I'm glad we're not prolonging their obviously-pending coupling.  I feel much like Julia did: stop flirting already, and just go on a date!  And luckily, she took matters into her own hands and made them a restaurant reservation.  Sam and Tom ended up ditching dinner, instead settling in at Tom's apartment for drinks and conversation - where Tom made a pretty bold first move, and Sam immediately shut him down.  Turns out Sam is an "old-fashioned" kind of guy, who believes in taking relationships slowly and really spending time together before rushing the physical stuff.  Tom looks at Sam like he's an alien until Sam asks him how old he is (37...ish) and how old his longest relationship was (5...months).  This idea also spawned a somewhat unexpected discussion of religion and God, which felt a bit out-of-left-field, but it was only one little piece of the larger picture with this dynamic.  So, with two sweet kisses and a swift departure, Sam reassures Tom that his way is better, and the slow-burn relationship has officially begun.  I'm game! 

But, as Tom and Sam's relationship moves forward, Julia and Leo's is still at a standstill.  They were forced to interact in "The Movie Star" because Leo's grades have taken a turn for the worse, presumably as a result of his parent's split.  And while I tend to groan at any glimpse of Julia's personal life, this episode's sojourn through Houston-ville didn't sour me quite as much as previous incarnations.  What really made this installment so much more tolerable was the role that Julia played in her own story.  In previous storylines, she's been held at the mercy of her husband's, lover's, and son's emotions.  Her ability to choose has been marginalized, and her access to positive reinforcement even more elusive.  But "The Movie Star" showed a Julia who was able to take charge of her own story, and make decisions!  She did not shy away from talking about her mistakes, even sharing it with Leo's guidance counselor, and speaking of it plainly to Leo himself.  Not only that, but she was also allowed a modicum of success.  She was able to talk Leo out of his bad attitude, where Frank only succeeded in yelling at him a lot.  Julia was allowed to be funny, and honest, and bold, and vibrant, even with her mistakes!  She faced her problems head-on, and dealt with them.  Maybe not perfectly or even gracefully, but courageously.  It's the strongest we've seen her, and she's even better with Debra Messing hitting every self-deprecating and brutally honest moment with clipped comedic mastery.

Other rocky relationships include Karen and Dev, as more things happened with Dev that no one cares about, and somehow it's splintering his dynamic with Karen.  It's clear I'm paying close attention, right?  Whoops.  I just... have so little invested in Dev at this point.  I like the guy well enough, but I still just don't understand how he figures into a show about Broadway.  To make matters worse, I'm not into this "work flirtation" nonsense with RJ that Karen conveniently seems to be witnessing at the dumbest moments.  Meh.  It's a cheap way to make me try and care, and it's not even working.  Especially when the reveal that Dev was having drinks with RJ comes right before a commercial, as though the writers thought they were ending it on a really intense cliffhanger moment.  I'm not nearly invested enough in this RJ-Dev storyline to warrant any sort of reaction the writers seem to be wanting me to have.

Truthfully, I'm far more interested in Karen's relationship with Ivy.  I find these ladies fascinating in that they're basically on the same team now - a team of scorned Marilyns - and have reached this place of truce.  I love that they have a tendency to end up drinking together and Ivy likes to bitch about things and Karen doesn't really want to be mean and Ivy tries to get her to loosen up.  It's a delightful dynamic that's a strong one for the show to build, and honestly speaking, when I say they're on the same team now, I almost wish that extended to their sexualities.  Smash has a strong representation for gay men; where are the queer ladies at?  Somehow I feel like Karen and Ivy could solve a lot of their problems if they just loosened up and made out a little bit.  Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty are not lacking in chemistry, is all I'm saying.

But, I'm not picky, and as long as Karen and Ivy's interactions continue to be layered with conflict yet respect and a budding friendship, I'm good.  And, because I've totally cornered the market on female relationships that blossom from animosity, let me tell you what I would like to happen with Ivy and Karen from here on out.  Now, I'm not really sure where they're headed with Ivy's pill addiction, so I'm going to leave that out.  Regardless, it'd be nice to see the two of them have one more awkward bonding experience, perhaps where a really personal thing is kind of let out in the other's presence that wouldn't ordinarily be shared freely.  Karen, Ivy, it doesn't matter.  While Karen has been privy to Ivy's drunkenness and the inside of her apartment, I'm wont to say it's Ivy's turn to accidentally get a glimpse into Karen's world.  It should be something meaningful, a way for them to see the other's true self.  Then, they're in this weird personal space with one another and neither of them really want that and so when the competition reignites (assuming Rebecca Duvall is indeed fated for departure) they are are all too happy to avoid one another completely to focus on themselves and their re-auditions.  And then, eventually, one of them gets the part and feels an unexpected twinge of guilt at their own success, and it's all because their stupid competition got under their skin. 

Of course, that's just how I would handle it.  At this stage in the game I can't gauge if Smash would endeavor to do something similar, or if I'm going to be saddled with one-dimensional Karen-Ivy competition scenes again.  In any case, I find this dynamic fascinating and hope it pays off to the strength of its full potential.  For now, though, Rebecca Duvall is at the helm and both Karen and Ivy are relegated to the ensemble.

Finally, the most magical thing happened in "The Movie Star."  Ellis got his ass handed to him!  Or at the very least, got called out on his bullshit, which was the most delightful thing.  Randall, Rebecca Duvall's agent, wised up to the fact that Ellis has been pretending to like him simply to foster the Duvall-Bombshell union, and confronted Ellis about using him.  Praise be!  Go figure that the one character other than Eileen to put Ellis in his place is a random guy we barely know.  But how could you not feel badly for him?  I'm curious, though, if Randall's discovery will perhaps cause him to be less encouraging of Rebecca Duvall's participation in the Marilyn project.  In other words, if Duvall walks, will Ellis be partly to blame?  Although, given her rocky standing with the creative team, I doubt Ellis' actions will directly affect any departure from Bombshell's leading star.

So for now, Rebecca Duvall is here to stay, and she's causing change in almost all the pre-existing characters and their relationships.  It's possible that Ivy and Karen could be channeled into "shadow" Marilyns representing other parts of Ms. Monroe's personality, but it's more likely at this point that things will come to a boil with the movie star and one of the two ladies will have to step up.  But hey, is Derek still looking for fresh interpretations?  Because at this point Bombshell still needs a Joe DiMaggio, and if they need someone to fill his shoes, they're going to have a leftover stage actor from the Ivy/Karen conflict... what's more fresh and unique than an all-female interpretation of Marilyn's life?  Just a thought.

The Report Card:
Dialogue: B
Plot: B+
Character: A
Musical Numbers: B
Episode MVP: Julia!  Finally.

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