Summary: An episode that exposes some flaws and frustrations with the series.
** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**
The quick skinny on the episode.
Synopsis: Ivy learns that Karen has been cast in the ensemble and works to assert her alpha female role as star of the show. Meanwhile, a birthday party for a former colleague presents Eileen with a unique solution to her production financial problems.
Full Recap: The first day of rehearsals for the show finds Karen being derided by other members of the ensemble for her lack of experience and the quality of the experience she does have, including winning a Midwest pageant. Ivy arrives and is introduced to the cast by Derek, leaving Karen feeling even more out-of-place. Derek, to his credit or to point out his controlling qualities, makes note that the workshop is a long process and that many things can change as they go along, a pointed remark to both Karen and Ivy. Meanwhile, former illicit lovers Julia and Michael try to start off on a professional foot amidst growing awkwardness.
Sam, an old friend and compatriot of Ivy’s, compliments Karen on her singing, bringing out Ivy’s claws. At lunch with Tom, Ivy asks why she wasn’t told that Karen was going to be cast in the show. Tom reveals that it was at Julia’s insistence. During lunch, Julia meets with Eileen, who has just learned from a lawyer that all but $8000 of her funds have been frozen. The producer has art trained Julia give a quick appraisal of a Degas sketch she received from her husband to see if it would be worth much. Impressed, Julia tells her it would make a pretty penny on the market.
Returning to rehearsals, Ivy sets about implanting the idea in Derek and Tom’s heads that Karen is too loud and inexperienced to be in the ensemble. This gets Karen cut from two numbers. Storming off, Karen runs into one of the other ensemble members in the hall and calls her out for the group making fun of her, insisting that they should be helping her. Having just learned that Ivy and Derek are in an intimate relationship, she mentions how she had a chance to sleep with the director too but chose not to. This sways the ensemble member and together with two others, they set about giving Karen a fashion makeover and lessons in how to be an ensemble member.
Eileen is dispirited to learn she can’t sell her Degas, which could net her $4M at auction and possibly $2M in outright selling, because title of ownership is still in Jerry’s name. Talking with Julia about it, Julia suggests she come to a birthday party Derek is throwing for Lyle West, a former child actor that Tom, Derek, and Eileen all brought into the theatre world at 8 years old. Julia mentions that Lyle is now a big TV star who just signed a huge contract, setting Eileen’s wheels spinning.
Karen and the ensemble root through her closet to Dev’s surprise. They spend the evening eating and training Karen how not to stand out as a background performer. Tom, disgusted with Derek’s boasting that he discovered Lyle when Tom feels he was first to put eyes on him, forgoes the party at Derek’s for a date with a lawyer set up by their mothers. He’s soon called by Eileen who wants her production staff at the party for an announcement. Eileen has spoken to Lyle, offering him the Degas sketch for purchase. Lyle makes a different offer with the sketch as collateral, offering to front her the money she needs in exchange for a percentage of the profits once the show is running. Eileen announces to all that the show has the money it needs to proceed.
At the party, Ivy sees Derek flirting with another woman. Attempting to leave, Ivy is stopped by Derek, who tells her that he flirts with anyone who is potential investor for the shows he’s working on. He calls her on trying to feel safe in an environment where not playing it safe yields rewards. He then takes her to his bedroom for the first time.
Karen and her ensemble friends put on a performance of “Rumour Has It” at a local club, showcasing that Karen has learned how to stand out less.
The in-depth review.
While expediency is expected in reviews, I simply had to sit and stew on this one a few days. This fourth episode of Smash, which had premiered so wonderfully, had me stymied about whether or not I’m truly enjoying the show. There are many things about it that are spot-on and delectable. There are a few that are really detracting from the experience. And then, there is much potential that I can’t wait to see fully explored. In the end, my fascination with Smash seems to be the greater motivation in watching it than what the show is accomplishing.
The biggest problem seems to be the speed and lack of subtlety with which they have turned Megan Hilty’s Ivy Lynn into the “villain” we had expected going into the piece. As mentioned many times previously, one of the treasures of the show starting out was that it gave compelling personalities to both lead actresses and arguments for why each should have been cast in the role of Marilyn Monroe. Within the last two episodes, they’ve effectively painted Ivy into an undeserving diva in an effort to trump up Karen’s rags-to-riches story. It’s not an altogether surprising direction but it’s a rather predictable one.
Some would say that Ivy is just acting out of her insecurities. After all, she put in so much time trying to earn her way into a lead role only to find herself competing with a novice and worried that she got the part only by virtue of having slept with the director. It’s a fair argument and it no doubt colors Hilty’s preparation for the part, but one can’t help but feel she’s being let down by the writing and what they are giving her character to do.
In “The Cost of Art”, Ivy becomes a self-important bitch upon discovering that Karen (Katharine McPhee) has been offered a spot in the ensemble. She routinely and rather nakedly tries to get Karen pushed to the back or thrown out of numbers. While this is certainly common behavior seen within the theatre community – and the show would be remiss in not pursuing this aspect in some fashion – it quickly serves to make Ivy unlikable. TV certainly has had its fair share of unlikable people that audiences still manage to get behind and even root for. The problem here is that they immediately take away a choice on the viewer’s part that was inherently built up in the first two episodes. To say that this is a bit off-putting is an understatement.
Once again, after striving to show us some humanity and fragility on Ivy’s part in last week’s episode, they slingshot us to the opposite pole this week. It’s very tiring. The only saving grace from this would be to show an Ivy, who is so built on outward impression and relying so much on outside opinion of her after years in the business, that finally breaks down into a more humbled person. With the broad strokes they are painting the character with, I’m not sure I trust the show to offer that kind of direction for the character.
One of the other glaring concerns with the show is actually in its structure. While there is a part of me that’s a fan of the brevity in its scenes, I find that they are trying to cram so much into each episode that the effectiveness of the scenes, particularly on characterization, is starting to come up short. This felt most evident in the set-up to Karen’s removals from two numbers. There wasn’t anything particularly glaring in what Karen was doing as part of the ensemble that should’ve caused her to get pulled. Then, when her little ensemble entourage is giving her lessons on how to be a good supporting player, she suddenly is made to look like she’s a 2nd grader trying to steal the show as Dancing Mushroom #2. The way this played out served to have the actors tell us she was doing it badly rather than showing us. And then, to prove the point, they have her near comically over the top so that there is somewhere to go with the “makeover” scenes. In not spending enough time with certain scenes to let things play out naturally and properly, we’re left in a disjointed state that feels more plot-driven than honest. I appreciate the brevity for the sake of pacing but don’t want characterization and environment sacrificed to have it.
The episode did effectively use guest star Nick Jonas in the role of a grown child actor who offers Eileen a way out of her money troubles. The development is a bit too convenient and it serves to undercut some of the drama of Eileen’s divorce and financial situation that was giving Anjelica Huston anything to do. One hopes that the new producing arrangement offers troubles of its own rather than a quick way to gloss over one of the least sensational aspects of getting a show up and running. It just feels like Eileen is such a superfluous character right now and in a show that could probably use some pruning of characters to strengthen focus, I would hope that they can do more with the character.
The two big musical moments of the episode were both engaging, especially the rollicking “Wolf” number put on by Ivy at Lyle’s party at Derek’s. It was fun to see a number of the cast members get in on the action and, having been to a number of parties involved in theatre, it felt tonally right. The only bit that was a tad noggin knocking was having enemies Julia (Debra Messing) and Ellis (Jaime Cepero) chorus-lining together in big smiles as Ivy’s backup. That little slip made the affair seem like a fun moment for the cast of Smash rather than something true to the narrative of the show.
Speaking of slips, Karen’s inauguration into ensemble anonymity while performing Adele’s ‘Rumour Has It’ at a club was subverted by the moment where she took center stage from the crew. It’s terrific to see her bonding with others in the cast as it was feeling far too much like Ivy & Crew vs. bumpkin Karen, but that choice seemed like a conscious effort to keep pushing Karen into the limelight rather than having her naturally emerge.
Those little contrasts are what make the high-potential Smash so frustrating.