Smash – “The Callback”

“The Callback”

February 13th, 2012

As is evidenced by the limited output here at Cultural Learnings, I don’t have a lot of free time right now, which is why I’ve been prioritizing watching television (an exercise that I find particularly useful in teaching contemporary television) over writing about television (which, while still something I enjoy, often ends up taking up time that I simply don’t have). As a result, I didn’t review the pilot of NBC’s Smash beyond my initial thoughts after watching the episode on iTunes ahead of its airdate.

However, as Noel Murray has quite rightfully pointed out in his review of tonight’s second episode, “The Callback,” I wasn’t exactly quiet about the show last week. I’m not sure what exactly had me so punch on Monday evening as I watched the pilot for the second time, but I think Noel is right to suggest that I was being “provocative” in my attempts to boil down Smash to its most basic qualities. One of my Twitter followers actually called me on being evaluative so early on, but I did clarify that I didn’t see my tweets as evaluative: the show is still finding itself, which means I’m willing to give it time to grow.

That being said, there is something about the Smash pilot that seemed markedly prescriptive, clearly delineating how we were to feel about the onscreen action despite the inherently subjective nature of musical theatre (and performance in general). While I agree with Noel that parts of “The Callback improved on the exclusivity of the pilot’s narrative, grounding the dueling narratives of Ivy and Karen in more concrete performance styles, the show is still operating with a baseline: while it might be open to your opinion on which of the two performers is better, you need to accept that both of them are world class talents. It’s a notion that I’m still struggling with, and a notion that reflects the problems of narrowly defining and serializing a circumstance that would be considerably more complex (if less immediately marketable) in reality.

I hate to use that word, “reality,” but this show is clearly set in a close fascimile to contemporary New York City (as made clear in its use of real NYC locations, which feature real Broadway signage in addition to the fake signage for Heaven on Earth). As I suggested in my initial post, my concern is that we’re being told a lot of things that would be considerably more up for grabs, whether it’s that Ivy’s YouTube performance was brilliant (as communicated through a disembodied, unseen critic defined as harsh through evocations of Napoleon) or that Karen is this sterling talent (which we’ve yet to really see convincing evidence of). As some pointed out at the time, Glee has the exact same problem: New Directions has been legitimated within the context of the show through awards, emotional outbursts, and various other factors, even when some at home might feel those are unjustified.

Now, I am willing to look past all of this. I’m not sitting in my living room scoffing at the notion of McPhee as a great performer: while I’m not jumping up and down, I thought her performances tonight were fine, even if Hilty remains objectively the stronger performer. Indeed, what I liked about tonight’s episode (as Noel captures well) was how the series worked to ground last week’s “Experience vs. Engenue” narrative in real performance terms. While Karen captures the spirit of Marilyn, making something out of nothing through a magnetism rather than through practice, Ivy is perfecting the mannerisms and becoming Marilyn with the help of research materials and the power of osmosis. It’s the practical manifestation of the theoretical types laid out in the premiere, but more grounded in some semblance of reality. We’re not just hearing about how different they are by a dramatic reading of their CVs; we’re seeing their different strengths and weaknesses play out within a competitive process, a simplistic but dramatically effective narrative tool.

The problem is that it’s the only narrative tool they have. The decision to rush through casting to the point of having only two contenders makes sense in terms of hooking in the viewer and simplifying the show’s narratives. Indeed, the show even introduced a diegetic justification for the expedited production timing, with Eileen’s divorce being paired with her belief that musicals spend too much time retooling, so they’re doing their due diligence in that area. However, in the absence of any other contenders for the parts (or any other roles to fill, or really any other point of narrative interest related to the musical), they’ve already played most of the notes we could expect from these characters in two episodes. Characters were introduced, characters faced struggle, and then a decision was made – we even got a hokey retrospective montage set to Ivy’s final performance, complete with oddly positioned flashbacks to earlier events.

What’s problematic, though, was that it never actually felt like a climax. Not only are we conditioned to be skeptical of “definitive” events taking place in the second episode of the season, savvy TV viewers we are, but nothing was actually resolved. Indeed, nothing could be resolved given that the rivalry is what the entire show is predicated on, and removing Karen from the Marilyn picture completely would ask this week’s tired cliche of a boyfriend storyline to stand on its own for even a single week, a task I would argue it’s not remotely prepared to take on. Equally, the other storylines were all so tired here (in particular the adoption storyline, which Noel sufficiently dismantled) that I find it difficult to imagine a situation where they’re not simply doubling down on the Karen/Ivy dynamic: where once Karen was the plucky upstart who just needs to be given a chance, now she’s the plucky upstarts who just needs to be given a second chance. It’s like the exact same storyline, but this time in lights!

Admittedly, Ivy’s storyline now becomes more interesting, and I was pleased to see the character gain a bit more of a “world” of her own with her dancer friends. Of course, the character’s immediate future seems more likely to dovetail around sleeping with the director, so I once again must express my doubts regarding the show escaping a slightly adjusted retread of the storyline that already feels overdone to me.

Smash has, to this point, been executing fairly well (outside of the terrible new actor hired to play Julia’s son, although he was saddled with some truly ridiculous dialogue as well). The songs get stuck in my head (I do a mean “Let Me Be Your Star,” let me tell you), the performances are solid, and I find the show visually interesting. However, the stories at this point feel like they’re poorly tuned – if you’ll excuse the pun – to the kind of serialized drama they’re trying to make. While I understand the desire for speed and simplicity, it’s robbed the show of any of the complexity of real Broadway productions, making those moments that could evolve into more complex storylines (like Julia and Tom working on the structure of the musical) seem all that tantalizing and, ultimately, deflating.

It’s a show about Broadway filled with snippets of other, better shows about Broadway, left without the tools to fix itself based on the narrow narrative structure built by its pilot.

Cultural Observations

  • If my opinion on the show dramatically changes in the weeks ahead, I might drop in with a few more thoughts, but I think this exorcises my basic reactions for the time being. I don’t think anyone wants to read this every week.
  • There’s been a lot of complaints about Ellis, a problematic character in the contrast between his current earnest demeanor and his obvious future as a mustache twirling litigator as it relates to the writing credits on the musical. We desperately need to see something more about who he is, where he comes from, and what motivates him, before the show starts dropping hints about how he thinks he owns this piece of work.
  • I know some critics have seen up to Episode Four, and they suggest that next week’s episode is actually a low point, so…yay?
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