I REFUSE TO FALL THREE WEEKS BEHIND ON SMASH REVIEWS. THAT IS JUST PREPOSTEROUS. So here's hoping I can bang out the two I'm lacking and then I'll be as caught up as I can ever be with this show. In terms of punctuality, I'm worse than Rebecca Duvall!
(Writing two reviews apparently means my transitions will be very forced and weak.)
With "Publicity," we're easing into the home stretch of episodes for Smash's first season, and that pesky movie star is still hanging around! I'm torn on Rebecca. On the one hand, I like that she's causing problems in all the dynamics on the show. From a storytelling perspective, she's a bit like a drunken soldier trying to stand amongst the ranks but instead keeps swinging her elbows and knocking normally-composed people off-kilter. It's interesting! But "Publicity" didn't do much to escalate Rebecca's role as irksome catalyst, aside from Derek's growing impatience with her demands and the plea to Eileen to keep things under control. But ultimately I fear Rebecca will become annoying sooner than she will become actually antagonistic, and Derek will just have to smash all the paparazzi's cameras in New York before Rebecca is an actual character. Perhaps if we got something from her own point of view that isn't one-dimensional? Perhaps if we understood more about her as a person, instead of how she affects others? Or perhaps if she didn't just stir up trouble and back away slowly, it might be more engaging to watch her.
For example, this episode found Rebecca threatened by her own understudy, so she's buddying up to Karen in case she has to take drastic action against her. Clearly Rebecca is familiar with Sun Tzu (or at least every piece of pop culture that references his famous quote) and is playing the game of "keep your friends close, and your enemies closer." Of course, Karen is none the wiser that all this friendship is probably disingenuous, or at the very least, fleeting. So she accepts Rebecca's superfluous gifts, and goes drinking and dancing with her, and shrugs off the rumors written up in tabloids about the two ladies. Dev, on the other hand, is perturbed by this new development, and it doesn't help that Rebecca openly warns Karen against having such a committed relationship on her journey to stardom.
What Smash set up for Karen and Dev through Rebecca is an interesting first step - but I wish they had done more. For example, it's never explained why Karen is so adamant on being friends with Rebecca. She's put in a position where she's stuck mediating her long-term partner, and a famous lady she met literally a week ago, and she doesn't really take a firm stand on either side. She tries to have her cake and eat it too, and the question is never asked: what's so special about Rebecca, then? Is it just because she's famous? Or is it because Karen wants to be more like her? Rebecca is certainly more famous than she is respected as an artist, and so what does that say about Karen if she's idolizing her? Does Karen want fame and attention just as much as she wants to be on Broadway specifically? I wish that the show had confronted these questions, simply because it puts a little dust on Karen's squeaky facade, and would afford her some rough edges and narrative interest. But instead, the storyline veered more towards a general disapproval that Karen is losing her own identity in favor of the gloss of fame, and on the whole I'm less interested in anything that paints Karen as a small-town girl swept up by the big city, especially if it's going to be her boyfriend reminding her of where she came from.
As such, I would have liked to see someone else participating in the storyline - someone from Karen's professional world. I understood Dev's concern that Karen's making the wrong decisions when it comes to Rebecca Duvall, but it's clear that the writers are just using the scenario to drive a wedge between the couple. So even though Dev is probably correct, I find it difficult to want to listen to his advice about "showbiz." He's an outsider to the world of Broadway, and I wish the writers made his aspect of the conflict more strictly about the strain that it's putting on their relationship. (As is, it's even more exhausting that it's being dragged out, when we all know what's happening even as Dev and Karen seem to avoid talking about it. There was no resolution for them in "Publicity" at all!) No, I wish a second party had something to say about Karen's chumminess with Rebecca - preferably either Derek, or Ivy. Of course, because I am forever going to be proffering ideas on how to capitalize on the interesting dynamic between the ladies, I would have voted Ivy. Simply because Ivy could snap at Karen that Rebecca's keeping her close to ultimately keep her down, and when Karen asks how she knows, Ivy would reply: "Because I would do the same thing." Great, right?
But unfortunately, Ivy had a tiny part in "Publicity," which was perhaps unwarranted considering her touching performance that capped the hour. "Secondhand White Baby Grand" was the perfect song for Ivy to be singing at this point in the narrative - with the lyrics "something secondhand and broken still can make a pretty sound," and "I still have something beautiful to give" making me reach for the tissues. Hello! Ivy is down and out, having been ousted from her leading position in a musical! This was the moment to bring Ivy back onto the audience's emotional radar so we can root for her, but ultimately Smash chose to sideline her for most of the episode, and give her a devious alliance with Ellis to sneak Karen's solo out from under her. Do they really not want us to root for Ivy? Because even without an Ivy A-plot to support her heartbreaking solo, I'm fairly certain there's a huge number of viewers that find her relatable in her ambition and imperfections - and also deserving of the lead in Bombshell. So in the end, I still choose to sit squarely on Team Ivy. I'm not even fussed that she teamed up with Ellis. On the contrary, I kind of like that Ellis at least shows incontrovertible loyalty to someone, and if these someones are Eileen and Ivy, at least he chose well.
So, the Rebecca-Dev-Karen-Ivy corners of "Publicity" weren't as developed as they could be, but I was happy to see that the Frank-Julia-Leo storyline extended as far as it did. Specifically, I was impressed to see that Smash honored Julia and Tom's partnership, and let Tom be nearly as broken up about Leo's disappearance as his actual parents. It was a great detail that not every show would think to include, and it even had a nice payoff in the slow and seemingly-healthy-so-far progression of Sam and Tom's relationship.
As for Frank and Julia, Leo's running away provided them with the tried-and-true storytelling device of a pair on the outs working together as opposed to against one another, in order to begin rebuilding their relationship. This storyline was worth it mostly to see Debra Messing stalk and then threaten a 17-year-old and successfully make it both funny and sad, but not lose the audience. (If there's one thing Debra Messing perfected on Will & Grace, it's the art of keeping the audience on her side, even if her character's behavior is totally unhinged.) It worked as well to witness a broken family rebuild, even when it's sometimes slow-going, and rocky. And it was nice to see more evidence of Julia's place as matriarch of the family - I loved the continued idea that sometimes Leo and Frank can be reactive with one another, and Julia is more the emotional rock in the family. "Dinner will make us feel better," as a moment, was a great synthesis of all the angles of this storyline that are interesting, and almost enough to make me forgive Smash for writing the affair plotline in the first place. (Almost.)
The simplest moments of the evening came from the pure bewildered joy that the Bollywood number inspired, and how easy Smash is making it for us to hate Jerry's guts. I love both things unabashedly. Sure, the transition to the Bollywood number was a bit rocky, but the whole piece was so delightfully campy - and included Dev! - that I can't complain. And I'm beginning to find Jerry fun to hate. The show makes no effort to redeem him, and I'm glad for it, because it's ridiculously rewarding to see that Jerry has no power over Eileen anymore. I'm madly in love with Eileen's empowerment arc, and would like it to continue forever! (That's doable, right?)
In all, Smash is solidly handling their ensemble, although I wish they had done more than skim the surface of a few of their conflicts in "Publicity." Bombshell is still careening madly towards the curtain rise, this time with Ivy and Karen as "Shadow Marilyns," but of course I'm expecting things to come to a head with Rebecca Duvall, and when it does, I'm not sure I'm going to like where the show takes their renewed Ivy-vs-Karen complication. But for now, I'll keep watching, for Julia's family re-establishment, Tom and Sam's progressing relationship, Eileen's self-discovery and emotional freedom, and whatever measly success Ivy Lynn can get her talented little paws on.
The Report Card:
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Eileen (...again)