Remember when I lamented how the Alcatraz pilot started off by following Jeffrey Pierce because to start a show, let alone a series, that way indicates it's that person's story, and in the cast of Alcatraz, that was a false declaration? Well, after the first two episodes of Smash have started on Karen (Katharine McPhee), I think it's safe to say this series is really about her journey, even though thus far she has been running right alongside Ivy (Megan Hilty) for the role in the Marilyn musical. And though everyone behind-the-scenes at this musical seems to want Ivy to take home the title, so to speak, they're not simply casting Karen aside. Instead, they are bringing her into the workshop, into the ensemble, and basically giving her a crash course in how to be a Broadway star. It's a confidante environment that only lends itself to my belief that though everyone is treating Ivy like Marilyn is her role to lose, the journey of the first season truly will be about Ivy losing the role...to Karen.
There's a saying in Hollywood that the first episode of a television series after the pilot has to stand up on its own, as if you didn't just see the pilot a week earlier. It has to draw you into the world and make you fall in love with the characters all on its own. For some shows, it's the only true indicator of the tone of the series, as a lot can change from pilot to full-on production. So the gentle nod Smash made to this rule of thumb by reworking their own structure in the Marilyn musical-- to move "Let Me Be Your Star" from act break to show opener, and the show itself by proxy, made me smile at the savviness of the writers and producers. It is such a strong number, you need to hook the audience with it from the beginning, not use it to wake them up if they've checked out for a minute. Though episode two of Smash, "The Callback" didn't open with it, utilizing it again, though staged on a much more grand, stage-indicating scale, was a stroke of genius. For many new fans, it was what hooked them to the show in the first place, after simply hearing the iTunes download long before the pilot ever aired. There are no amateurs at play here.
"The Callback" finally brought Karen and Ivy face-to-face for real. Sure, at the end of the pilot, they stared each other down as walking into the building for their auditions, but that was brief, and also a moment done for dramatic effect in the song. Now that they are going head-to-head for the role, they are literally dancing alongside each other, sizing each other up, and finding their own flaws fixed, as well as their own talents reflected, in each other. Ivy has a deep love of the character she may be asked to play, but I feel that will come back to bite her, as she begins to rationalize and justify behavior that may be explored or exploited in a contradicting way within the musical. Additionally, studying the actual woman can only get you so far because you have to put your own spin on her in order to make her pop in a new way. Knowing that she doesn't actually move both lips when she speaks? That is a detail better suited for a movie about Marilyn (hopefully Michelle Williams took just as copious notes) than a stage play. Her over-analysis is one thing, but in many ways, the way she dissected the use of the word "crazy" most notably, she runs the risk of becoming the tragic figure Marilyn was-- in the most method sense of the word. NBC probably won't go pill-addiction dark, but focusing so much on selling sex is detrimental in its own ways.
What makes Ivy so much more ready right now to be Marilyn is that she is able to throw one hundred percent of her focus and passion into the role. She wants it more than anything, but she doesn't let her desire turn into a crippling, desperate need (yet). She commits one hundred and ten percent to the emotion of every moment she is in rehearsal. This is all Ivy's got. Karen, on the other hand, is distracted and tugged back to reality by the tethers of her boyfriend. I know just last week I said he was too good to be true, and to be honest, usually when you say that, it's because they are. Dev (Raza Jaffrey) doesn't understand the world Karen is immersing herself in, and as she gives more and more of herself, let alone her time, over to it, he's bound to become more and more scared of losing her and therefore more and more controlling and irrationally angry when she doesn't pay him the special attention she pays Marilyn. He wasn't wrong in saying she should have called or texted when she was ultimately going to stand him up, but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Entertainment is a cruel mistress; it sucks more and more of a person's energy, time, and passion the longer said person is involved in the industry. Dev may say he wants his pretty girlfriend to be a star, but he doesn't truly understand what that entails. And when he realizes it, I don't doubt he won't like it anymore. If Karen's not careful, by the end of her journey, she may walk away with a Broadway role, but it may be all she's got. And are crazy dreams enough?
Yet, simply and especially because of what's already been pointed out: each of them represents a very special and distinct side to Marilyn. Rather than pit them against each other, it would behoove the producers (of the show within the show) to utilize that as their biggest strength and hire both girls-- but to portray Marilyn at the two parts of her life. Karen is early Marilyn, innocent, sweet, an ingenue, while Ivy is Hollywood Marilyn, selling a much more sensationalized image, perhaps a bit jaded. Both exhibiting the same level of raw talent.
Julia (Debra Messing), too, is being pulled in various directions, but she has been in this business long enough to understand and expect that, and most importantly, thrive on it. An artist's life in between the work is supposed to be filled with complications-- you are supposed to live your life to the fullest-- in order to then use the experiences to make the work even richer when you do return. Julia's complications are just bleeding over into the timeline of her new work because timing is also key, and when the good idea bell rang, she knew she had to seize on it. I sincerely hope-- and I feel like Smash is smart enough to show-- this continuing. I don't want it to be Julia forced to choose professional happiness over personal happiness. I want to see her on both journeys: crafting a new musical while attempting to cultivate a new addition to her family. Maybe I still just desperately need to see someone having it all-- even when it isn't easy-- but I think so do Karen and Ivy. Julia is the top of their chain of command-- she sets the tone-- and their behavior, and belief in success, will trickle down from her.