Out of all of the shows to fangirl over, I seem to have selected the one actually intended for mature audiences. Oh well, at least it's one worthy of praise!
For me, the genius of Smash starts at the top, watching bright-eyed Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) sing her little heart out in an audition room-- although we see her on-stage, as she sees herself, transforming to her dream job in her mind in order to fully immerse in a role that she has yet to obtain. That moment not only sets up the exact struggle for these artists who are just trying to be heard and given a chance over all of the New York City noise and Broadway industry bullshit, but visually, it also utilizes one of the show's greatest motif strengths in diving into the grander production value that everyone is working towards. You had me at distracted casting agent, Smash, because I not only know that woman, but I've been that woman. And yet I've always been the Karen Cartwright, too-- not in an audition room or performance stage-- but on display nonetheless. Maybe a little green but certainly determined, with big dreams and a hopeful heart.
So while Smash had me on the hook, it then sold me with the commentary on new creativity versus remakes and revivals. The language in Smash may be all about the theater, a world in which I am quite far removed if I ever was in, but the themes fit almost any industry, and certainly any facet of the entertainment industry. There is something to be said for how Karen comes out of nowhere-- a story that little girls lap up, hoping, they, too, can be plucked from obscurity and made famous (see: American Idol, a statement made even stronger and more ironic considering McPhee actually did get her start there)-- and provides a refreshing take on an age-old tale. Is it because she is truly gifted or simply fresh and innocent enough to be different and intriguing? Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) is a seasoned professional in every sense of the word; she can hit all of the notes and all of the steps, and she knows how to work the room, but she hasn't quite hit in the role that will take her from familiar face to known name.
Karen is certainly the underdog-- um, hello, Tom (Christian Borle) is prepping music with Ivy; they are giving her extra time before auditions when an unknown would just get skipped over; hell, she prepped the baseball number with the director! Favoritism is the new nepotism in this industry, and both can lead to decisions made with blinders. Karen needs this break to justify pursuing this career at a time in her life her friends and family are probably wondering why she hasn't just settled in a real job yet, Ivy is at her last chance's end-- it's break-out now or be a chorus girl forever. And for anyone with ambition, it is almost better to dive into a completely different industry than be relegated to the background of the one in which you feel you should be shining. Though both women walked in and commanded the room, it should be interesting to see how Ivy will stand out (especially when alongside Karen), after years of being trained to blend into the ensemble. Already it is obvious that vocally she carries more power, but with a little extra confidence, Karen should be able to match that volume in no time.
I don't care what anyone says, though: no matter where you're at in your career-- first job or last chance-- when you're on the cusp, and you want it so bad-- let alone feel like you deserve it and it's your shot-- it's bone-crushing to not get it. It's so hard to not root for both women, therefore.
Smash is about so much more than "just" the dueling Marilyns, as we in the media have taken to calling Karen and Ivy, but at this juncture they are what will draw the audience in, especially for their powerhouse vocals (I have seen nothing more chill-inducing than their "Let Me Be Your Star" duet. I literally yelled "You can't end like that!" when the screen faded to black. For an audience watching at home, waiting a week to see where the show picks up from such a knock-out performance may be like torture. Everything any other character on any other television show says within that week is bound to sound like nails on a chalkboard, grating at you because you're not hearing what you're waiting not-so-patiently to hear). But Smash also delivers on the human angle for these two women with very extraordinary talents.
Dev (Raza Jaffrey) as Karen's doting, cheerleading, but somewhat simple boyfriend is a nice layer to add to a character whose life is about to take off in more complicated ways than she perhaps ever could have imagined. While at dinner with her parents, he said all of the right things-- about her being an actress, not a waitress and about knowing she'll be a star one day-- but he seemed a bit like a kid with a dream himself. He knows nothing of the world of arts and entertainment and clearly wants her to be happy chasing her dream, probably figuring if nothing ever comes of it, he'll just provide for her. It's a nice sentiment, but it's a bit out of sync. And I imagine as she gets closer and closer to achieving what she really wants, she's going to see that-- and him-- as actually clashing with her dreams.
I won't lie, though intellectually I know Ivy throwing up in the bathroom before her big audition was a way of showing just how nervous she was-- how much she had riding on the audition and how, even after all of these years, she is still human enough to care so deeply it physically makes her ill-- a little part of me thought the show might have been setting up a much soapier arc where she learns she is with child and has a completely different career-changing choice to make. Look, I'm not saying I don't read into things more than a normal person [should]... We know next to nothing about her home life, but what little we do know is that she seeks parental approval and does not get it. That screams monologues about her need for validation in her line of work, and I'm sure in her personal relationships, as well.
Those two girls are a big part of the show, of course, as well as the show within the show, but let's face it, there might not be a show within the show. There certainly won't be if Julia (Debra Messing) gets too distracted by her own personal life-- impending adoption (which I love, by the way. NBC now has two shows embracing the adoption process, something I have championed to see more of in mainstream media for a long, long time) and seemingly strained relationship with her husband-- nor if Eileen (Anjelica Huston) can't find a way to raise the money. And then there's Derek (Jack Davenport), who is a loose cannon if there ever was one simply for his cliche casting couch mentality and gruff way to run his room. It sounds belittling to call them supporting players, when really, this story is just as much their journey. They all have a lot riding on this musical. For Julia, it's a passion project; for Tom, a way to get his excitement flowing again about the industry; for Eileen, a way to save face in the press while going through a messy divorce and stay on top of a shared industry; for Derek, well, Derek thus far just sees a paycheck, his eye on a different show and no interest in auditioning for a gig with a guy he hasn't worked well within the past. And sure, some casual sex with pretty, young girls as a bonus. But sometimes you don't choose the project; it chooses you. And sometimes you don't know what you'll connect with until the connection happens to your surprise.
Never have I liked Messing more than in this role. Maybe it's the nature of not being front and center in a broad, overly lit arena, but she seems to have mellowed considerably. Hiding behind those Theresa Rebeck glasses, I actually see a lot of myself in her portrayal of Julia. She is a woman trying to have it all-- on the cusp of having it all-- but still self-sabotaging in some ways that are only bound to increase as time goes on. And she is so nurturing of the arts; she sees something in a young talent and is taken with it/her, perhaps remembering her own younger days and the big dreams she once had. She made them happen and now it's her turn to give back and allow them to happen for someone else. To me, Marilyn may be the role Ivy was born to play-- yes, she looks like Marilyn, as the very refusing-to-look-outside-the-box casting team points out, but she also puts in the work to sound like her and truly embody her physicality-- but Karen is the type who inspires you to create something new and original-- something specific just for her. I know it would be a totally different show if Julia were to see that, too, but I'd be remiss not to point out the muse Karen could be.
Personally, I'm interested to learn exactly what the beef is between Tom and Derek-- they both make snide remarks at each other, but their talent, though in different sides of the industry, is equally matched. They should make an unstoppable team, and yet they may not be men enough to put their personal differences or somewhat surprising sexual tension aside. They may be the true divas here.
Oh, and then there is Ellis (Jaime Cepero), who may actually be the worst and yet still nowhere near as bad as the real cutthroats in the arts-- you know, the ones who poison each other, or at least the ideas of each other in the minds of those hiring, to get ahead. He's young; he's creative; he's tech-savvy; and he's opportunistic. But he has an ego that makes me think he isn't willing to put in the work that Julia and Tom so clearly have all of these years. He wants to catapult to fame overnight, perhaps not unlike how he sees Karen may be. But the difference is: he doesn't have a gift to make him worthy of stardom, nor does he put in the hard work now either. He simply wants to take others' ideas and work and profit from them. Julia's firing should have stuck. I don't know why it didn't stick. It really pisses me off that it didn't stick. But he did make Tom mac and cheese, so I guess I, too, would put up with a little extra snooping for some homemade comfort food... I just hope Tom's little "it was your idea" nicety doesn't come back to bite him. I wouldn't put it past Ellis to have recorded it and to use it in a court of law.