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Smash Recap: Dramaturgenev

SMASH -- "The Dramaturg" Episode 203 -- Pictured: (l-r) Debra Messing as Julia Houston, Christian Borle as Tom Levitt

Hello! Nice to see you. As you and approximately 4.5 million other Americans — more than the entire population of the Los Angeles metropolitan area, but fewer than the number of those who chose to watch Betty White tell twinkly jokes about her nonagenarian pussy as the soul of Bea Arthur let out a guttural cry from the fiery depths of Hell — may have noticed, there was no Smash last week. No, the Second Most Important Television Programme of Our Time was preempted by the State of the Union address, in which so-called President #Nobama again failed to address any of the real issues facing our country today, such as the absence of Evita from the Latin-American Studies curriculum, or the draconian Equity showcase rules that make it impossible for tens — literally, tens! — of young playwrights to produce their work to its best advantage, or the fact that to this day — and can you believe we’re still discussing this in 2013???? — Funny Girl has never had a full-scale Broadway revival.

But on to the show!

We open on the unforgettable image of Katherine McPhee’s taut little yoga popsicle of a belly-button crowd-surfing over a mosh pit of suspiciously art-directed “hipsters,” which lends to the depressing general sense that we may never escape from the bleak hellscape of Karen Cartwright’s mind (although if you squeeze your eyes tight and really believe, you can just make out the shape of Bea Arthur rehearsing “Bosom Buddies” with a hideous imp in a singed loincloth standing in for Angela Lansbury — until she arrives, if you know what I mean. Also, before we go any further, I should probably let you now that I have spent all day listening to the original cast recording of Mame, mostly in preparation for a Lincoln-themed Oscar parody I was thinking of writing: “You gave your name to a classic toy, ABE/ You put the illin’ in Illinois … ABE!”)

What is really happening, however in the real world of television, is that Karen is playing some of Jimmy the Jerk’s songs for Derek Wills, in the hope that he’ll take on the thankless task of molding an entitled ball of toxic rage into something recognizably human, and oh, maybe put on a musical-theater play. And I don’t know if I’m a little ADD or just bitter because Karen still has dreams while God decided to take all of mine and make them come true for Keira Knightley, but for some reason all I could focus on in this scene was the crematoria-like ovens in Derek’s kitchen. You could fit a lot of Mrs. Lovett in there, is all I’m saying.

Anyway, Derek agrees to meet with Jimmy and his loyal woodland steward, Kyle Goblinweed, to talk about their musical, as he needs something to do since he’s been deemed too pervy to direct The Wiz, a show in which Michael Jackson played a man who was literally made out of garbage. Although Jennifer Hudson — whose rendition of “Home” is every bit as perfect as you knew it would be — is very anxious to wear a slutty Halloween costume now that she lost all that weight, so that all could change. Who knows? It’s show biz!

Speaking of garbage people, Ivy has managed to pull herself together in the squalid coffin houseboat she is currently sharing with her roommate, the tubercular corpse of Fantine, who she’s using as a very tragic coat rack until she can haul her over to Fleet Street to sell for her meat, enough to sing the last note of “Glitter and Be Gay” for Bernie Telsey. Hi, Bernie! Remember how I sent you my headshot in 2003 and your assistant promised you were going to call me in for a meeting as soon as you got back from London and then you didn’t? Neither do I!

Ivy is auditioning for “Liaisons,” which is a musical version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses and a wonderful idea for a show, if not quite as wonderful as the idea of a prequel of A Little Night Music starring Celia Keenan-Bolger as a young and unformed Madame Armfeldt. Ivy wants to play Cecile, a part that Madeleine Kahn (hold your gasps until the end of the paragraph) allegedly played in our alleged universe. She’d be good! And then, with some encouragement from Tom — who really would be a good director! — she actually gets the part! Hurray for not-so-Blue Ivy! You’re so good.

But, oh, someone else is-a notsa good. Let me give you a hint: Her name starts with a c, ends with an e, and in the middle is Ousindebbi. She and Tom have been summoned into Anjelica Huston’s inner sanctum so that Anjelica can tell her, in the kind of frank, measured tones that say “Look, honey, I have spent an eternity wandering the Earth, so don’t give me any of your lip, because it’s nothing I ain’t seen before,” that the book to Bombshell is an enormous pile of shit, and we get our first glimpse this season of Cousin Debbie’s patented diamond Precious Moment tears that touchingly threaten, but never quite seem to fall. “We need a fresh eye,” Anjelica Huston says, but since all she had in her potions cupboard was an old pickled one that used to belong to Jerry Orbach, she’s hired some NYU adjunct professor named Peter Gilman to act as a dramaturg. Dramaturg! When was the last time you heard that word on network television? “It’s a very common practice nowadays,” Anjelica Huston assures them, “like a gluten-free eating plan or sodomy.”

Cousin Debbie, predictably, is unconvinced and acts all paranoid and defensive and clings to her terrible ideas and basically performs an interpretive dance to that BuzzFeed article we all read about how Theresa Rebeck is a monster who is single-handedly responsible for the war in Afghanistan, the melting of the polar ice caps, and, most unforgivably, a Chinese adoption plotline so dramatically dead on arrival that little Jeremy Lin–Manuel Miranda is still languishing in overcrowded orphanage somewhere in Hunan Province, while her teenage son Carpet weeps linty tears of woe on the floor of someone else’s dorm room at Bowdoin.

But Peter pushes his point anyway. “Marilyn was about sex,” he says, dismissing some article from wrinkled clipping form The Atlantic about rich ladies and their work-life balance that Cousin Debbie is waving frantically in his face. “You don’t understand heat.” Debbie is all like, Ex-squeeze me? Baking powder? She threw away my perfectly adequate sexless marriage that was based on a lie to fuck a mostly unemployed actor on a germ-infested Equity cot, so don’t tell her about heat! Debbie’s so hot Karen Walker thought she was a hot flash! Debbie’s so fiery, Chita Rivera stopped being Latina! Debbie’s so sexy, Carol Channing lost her virginity!

Anyway, maybe it’s Peter’s incredible apartment, which even by the inflated standards of television is pretty irrational — I mean there’s your NYU professor whose made some pretty good money working on a few Broadway shows, and then there’s having what looks like a fucking Georges Braque on the wall of your 4,000-square-foot Soho loft — or maybe it’s just that he happens to be played by Daniel Sunjata and she remembers the shower scene from Take Me Out every bit as vividly as the rest of us. But something about him gets under her skin, and she responds by writing a new scene where JFK (played, I think, by the real Dick Whitman) date-rapes Marilyn Monroe, which generates enough sexual trauma for everyone to agree that Julia Houston is back on form, although it doesn’t help Derek any convincing The Wiz producers that he’s an appropriately neutered friend of Dorothy, and not in the euphemistic sense. Do you think Derek’s safe word is Fosse? And have you also noticed that Jack Davenport sounds more and more like Michael Caine in every scene he’s in?

And while we’re dipping our toes into the lagoon of Meta-Meta Land, I just want to say that given what we know about the backstage drama on this backstage drama, I’m finding the whole “a handsome, rich, brilliant dramaturg showing up to tell the crazy lady exactly what is wrong with her stupid play” subplot both fascinating and repellent. But mostly fascinating. Let’s put it this way: It’s the most purely Brechtian thing we may ever see on network television, except for every reality show ever. (If I ever meet Eric Bentley, in this world or the next, I have some ideas I’d like to discuss with him about the dialectical imperatives of the opening credits of the Real Housewives. Eric, call me!)

But now we have to deal with Jimmy the Jerk and his whole deal. Well, Kyle Goblinweed — his faithful forest squire who left his darling (and perhaps ailing!) mama back in the village of Acorntown to seek his fortune in the big, bold city — is all in a furry little tizzy about their big meeting with critically acclaimed sexual predator Derek Wills and scurrying breathlessly around the hollowed-out log in which they currently make their camp, sharpening his master’s rose-thorn dagger and polishing his master’s walnut-shell armour. Jimmy, for his part, helps by shouting out encouragement to Kyle’s frantic labors. “Hey, dick-munch, do you know how stupid and worthless everyone thinks you are? No one would eve talk to you if it wasn’t for me. Now why don’t you come over here and suck my cock, you queer little shit-eating faggot.” You know, very helpful and supportive things!

But none of it does any good, because the one thing that they needed, a crumpled sheet on notebook paper on which was written the Answer to Everything, was hidden away on the Place to Which They Cannot Return. “No! Don’t go back there!” Kyle Goblinweed cried, shivering so violently even his warmest lichen cloak could not keep out the terrible chill. “You’ll never come out alive!” But Jimmy bravely sets off anyway. A giant punches him in the face for reasons unknown and never explained (although considering how often I find myself wishing I could punch Jimmy, perhaps no explanation is necessary), but nevertheless he gets the thing that makes it worth the journeying.

Except it doesn’t matter, because Derek has to postpone their dinner meeting (which means no bread rolls! None of the complimentary bread rolls that little Kyle Goblinweed was eying so longingly, calculating out many crumbs he could fit into his maple-leaf rucksack for later feasting!) because his rehearsal is going late, so obviously Jimmy has no choice but to force his way into the studio and let us know how he’s feeling by mowing down an entire reinking (“reinking” being the plural word for these things) of Nameless Muscular Chorus with a Bushmaster AR-15 assault rifle. “What are you doing?” Karen screams, sliding in her heeled-jazz shoes across the gore-covered floor. “Fuck you, bitch,” Jimmy sneers, and throws a cup of sulfuric acid in her face.

“FOSSE!” Derek bellows, holding his hands up in the air. “You’ve passed the test!”

Indeed! By killing and maiming tens of innocent bystanders, he has finally proved he cares, so now he deserves a chance to pitch his musical to Derek, even if it means Derek making a surprise visit to his log squat! See, you just have to want it bad enough! His musical is all about a kid who had been horribly abused and forced to live on the street doing drugs and selling his body to survive (we hope) until he falls in obsessive love with a rich, beautiful girl that he can’t have and probably eventually has to kill because he loves her so much, and we are meant to assume that Jimmy is really explaining some dark and horrible past that explains why he is the way he is. Anyway, Derek likes it, and Karen is so proud and happy, deferentially serving ale to the menfolk even as the acid eats her cheek down to the bone, but, whatever, it’s nothing 34 or so skin graft surgeries won’t fix enough that she can walk down the street without children screaming at her in fear. After all, the important thing is that Jimmy’s dreams come true.

And it’s in this moment that I realized the true dramaturgical coup of this episode: For many, myself included, the essential problem with Smash was that it asked us to simultaneously identify with and adore a character who was evidently, almost ludicrously unexceptional — a newbie with little respect for experience; an ingénue with no lovable idiosyncrasies, depth of feeling, or even the kind of naked drive that would make you grudgingly root for her; an adequate singer and dancer who was nonetheless wrong for the role in which she had been cast. Her only consistent character trait was an astounding run of luck, and this, we were told, should be enough to make us love her, was proof of her qualities as an actress and a human being.

But seeing her now, throwing herself wholeheartedly into a relationship that is clearly going to check every box on any pamphlet about domestic abuse a school guidance counselor ever limply handed a pregnant 15-year-old with a fresh black eye, craving the approval and respect of a deeply damaged man who obviously has none to give, I found myself actually concerned for her. The impossible has happened: My name is Rachel Shukert, and I am emotionally involved with Karen Cartwright. Nicely played, Safran. Nicely played. You deserve that $700 coffee decanter, even though I prefer Diet Coke. (You don’t even know how much of it I’ve already had tonight.)

One final thought: On Twitter, many of you have asked for my thoughts on Jeremy Jordan’s sideburns. Here they are: You know how in high school you read Henry V out loud and maybe the cutest guy in your English class plays him and you’re like, Wow, I bet Prince Hal was a babe? And then you go home and look up his picture on the National Portrait Gallery website and it looks like this? That’s what I think about that haircut.

Until next week, friends! Good night, and remember to tip your dramaturgs.

Photo: Will Hart/NBC