Summary: The luster dims a bit from the premiere during a second episode which features some unpleasant character turns but still continues to compel.
** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**
The quick skinny on the episode.
Synopsis: A second callback is required to make a decision between Karen and Ivy for the lead role.
Full Recap: Nearly a week following their callbacks for the role of Marilyn Monroe, actresses Karen and Ivy still await a decision by the production staff of the musical. Stuck at a deadlock between Ivy’s obvious experience and the fresh quality of Karen, director and choreographer Derek convinces the others that they need to hold an additional callback to gather more information to make their decision.
Karen meets with her boyfriend Dev, who tells her that he’s in likely consideration to become a deputy mayor. Meanwhile, Ivy talks with some of her chorus friends about the callback experience. One of the friends manages to get himself brought in as a backup dancer during Karen’s callback rehearsals to spy for Ivy. During the rehearsals it becomes evident that Karen needs a lot of work, much to Derek’s chagrin. In talking with the more than capable Ivy, who writer Tom is campaigning for, Derek gets the feeling that she is trying to hard for the part and wonders if that might be a detriment in the end.
Tom and writing partner Julia continue to struggle with the structure of the show as she battles the stress of the adoption process for a Chinese baby at home. Facing the very long waiting period, Julia’s husband Frank announces second thoughts and that he wants to go back to work. At the instance of her son, Julia pours her focus into a letter hypothetically addressed to the mother of the child they could adopt.
Derek works hard with Karen to get her to crack into the person who was Marilyn rather than just a surface presentation. Held for a late rehearsal, Karen misses a business dinner for Dev, angering him and causing her to momentarily question if she’s going to be able to help represent a stable home life for him in politics. During scene work, Ivy and Derek flirt and eventually end up in bed together.
Julia reads her letter to an adoption support group and is surprised by Frank, who tells the group that he’s back on-board. Karen has an impressive callback performance but, in the end, the production team casts Ivy in the lead.
The in-depth review.
One of the topics of discussion that seemed to be most prevalent about the show coming out of the first week of Smash was the incessant need in modern pop culture to classify yourself as part of a certain “team”. In this case, the question was whether you were Team Karen or Team Ivy for the lead role in the show’s production of Marilyn. As mentioned in my review of the pilot, Smash did a bold thing in presenting both women as real characters, people you could get behind, and both deserving of the role based on their talents and stage presence.
It was surprising then – but, at the same time, not – that people were making such definitive declarations of their allegiance to either. In particular, most seemed to be pulling for Ivy, many siting actress Megan Hilty’s clear Broadway experience over Katharine McPhee’s pop influence as the swaying factor for them. The fresh-faced, neophyte character of Karen Cartwright didn’t appear to be winning over many and it seemed to be because we, as the audience, were expected to root for her and her underdog story. It was a bit saddening that there was already such strong division, especially as I came out of the pilot balancing both. It was more saddening that the show in its second outing decidedly pushed for the division.
The second hour of the series was still a strong delight, even if it didn’t quite soar in the same fashion as its opening episode did. There were a lot of small character moments sprinkled throughout that keep one engaged and invested in each (or most) as people, particularly Debra Messing’s Julia and her family dynamics surrounding the attempted adoption of a baby from China. It seems to be pretty telling that the writer in the show is the most fully realized and fleshed out of the characters, considering series creator Theresa Rebeck wrote both of the first two episodes. Despite some disappointing broad strokes earlier in the episode, Julia’s struggle with wanting to keep pursuing the baby despite the long wait-time and her husband’s (Brian d’Arcy James) about-face on the matter was very touching. One can’t help but love the relationship between these two – and son Leo – and also their level of communication. It’s not hard to see why they’ve been married for 18 years and, though the adoption storyline is still a bit dull, it’s a joy (and a surprise) to see such a lovely connection as theirs.
The one thing I still haven’t bought into is Julia’s bristling against Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Tom’s overly enthusiastic assistant, though certainly understand the amount of ego that goes into the whole creative process. It rings a bit false and it’s not clear if that’s because of Messing’s performance or because of the writing. Adding a snotty quality to the otherwise pleasant Julia seems a bit random, but it also seemed to be a modus operandi of this episode. Julia, Karen’s politico boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey), and especially Ivy were all layered with some distasteful qualities in order to add color and drama, to varied effect.
There was an expectation to set Ivy up as the villain of the piece from the beginning, an adversary for young Karen who was battle-scarred and vindictive from 10 years in the Broadway trenches. Thankfully, they steered clear of such a cliched character journey in the first episode. Unfortunately, they stumbled right back to it here and one can’t help but feel it’s a bit of a disservice to the character.
Introducing Ivy’s catty friends helped less to humanize her than to start reducing her to that ugly, petty space we’ve seen too often in acting stories like this. Yes, that stuff exists within the community and any actor would be lying if they say they’ve never had moments like this throughout their careers, particularly when they are younger. It puts an unfortunate wedge between Ivy and the audience, though, and forces us to judge her rather than experience her journey like we are with Karen. Immersing herself in the life of Marilyn was a lovely demonstration of Ivy’s commitment as an actress, but to have her flaunt it in everyone’s face was bristling. Gratefully, director Derek made mention of just how she is trying “too hard”. Of course, he proceeds to bed her, and while I’m no prude, it both underscores the unpleasant aspects of his character and serves to cheapen hers more.
In the end, Ivy is given the lead role and it feels less deserved with the events that occured during this episode. Ivy is talented and definitely should have been in the running like she was. Despite any charming songs about dreams coming true to close out the episode, Ivy’s victory felt hollow and it’s disappointing that the show felt the need to paint her in such a way to set up the continued rivalry between her and Karen.
By contrast, they played up the inexperience of Karen and, while it was a tad thick, it was a nice way to show why there would be concern in putting an entire production on her shoulders. Those hoping for a bit more of a peek into the work that goes into auditions, callbacks and putting on a show are given a larger taste. It’s an interesting choice to focus so much on Karen putting in the work during the episode and then eventually casting Ivy in the part and very effective. This gives her a strong base for a visual and narrative arc throughout the season and the series as she will no doubt grow. It was also nice to see her nail the “20th Century Foxtrot” number after struggling with it throughout the hour, culminating in a nice transformation to Marilyn by McPhee. She’s capable and, being likely relegated to the chorus and a potential understudy role, the competition between our two leads is far from over. It’s now a matter of seeing what shakes out during the workshop process.
The lights were a shade dimmer on this episode but the excellent pacing does move us right along into the actual construction of a show, which given the knowing approach of the series so far should prove a fruitful expedition.