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Smash Recap: It Gets Better

SMASH -- "The Fallout" Episode 202 -- Pictured: (l-r) Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Jeremy Jordan as Jimmy Collins -- (Photo by: Will Hart/NBC)

Two hours.

So many things are shorter than two hours. Most mainstream movie comedies. Many stage plays. The cumulative amount of time some of us (I don’t care to name names) have spent exercising and/or having sex in the past six months. (Okay, eight.)

But two hours is the time the powers that be have allotted for the premiere of Smash, a return we have both feared and desired no less than seeing the Messiah at the Eastern Gate or Patti LuPone in a Broadway revival of Sunset Boulevard (note: it’s entirely possible that these two events may be simultaneous, or even synonymous). Perhaps the powers that be believe such lengthy measures are the only way to steer this ship safely back on course; perhaps new NBC president Kenneth Parcell has plans to rerelease it as an IMAX film; perhaps they have mistakenly assumed that, like Charles Dickens or Carrie Bradshaw, I am paid by the word.

Whatever the reason, we have our work cut out for us! To the barricades, descamisados! The hills are alive with the Sound of Music of the Night of the Iguana. (Which isn’t a musical! Yet!) Meryl Streep is playing the Witch in the movie of Into the Woods and I am finding this information very distracting in all facets of my life!

But the show must go on!  So we open with a Les Mis–tight close-up of Katharine McPhee, who it seems has spent the off-season copying all the mouth plastiques from My Week With Marilyn, which no one has had the heart to tell her isn’t a real Marilyn Monroe movie. (P.S.: If you’re not already — in which case, why are you reading this? — please start referencing Les Miserables in a sex way, i.e., “Baby, you are so tight. Like, Tom Hooper tight. Like Anne Hathaway–getting-her-tooth-ripped-out-with-pliers tight.")

She is singing a new Bombshell song that uses the phrase moving on about 4 million times, which (a) lets us know that we are indeed moving on, from the fetid, paranoiac miasma of Rebeck’s Inferno to the glossy, glittering mallscape of Safranland; (b) nowhere near rid of Karen Cartwright, the human equivalent of one of those grocery store peaches that looks like a Cezanne but tastes like the inside of a mattress, and (c) provides a backdrop to a montage of what all our favorite sad-sacks, smirkers, and sorceresses are doing now. The answer? Riding in chauffeured town cars, mostly, except, of course, for poor Ivy, who must return to her lonely hovel by ordinary yellow cab, like a common prostitute. On a more positive note, though, she’s getting rid of all her various legally obtained prescription medications, probably because she heard that same story on NPR that my mother did about that lady who took too many antibiotics and had to have her husband romantically poop inside of her in order to save her life, like a scat movie made by Miranda July, minus the talking kitten and the brilliant outsider found-object artist who turns out to be an animatronic skunk. 

And speaking of freeze-dried fecal implantations, here’s Karen again, returning to a brand-new apartment with a brand-new sassy roommate named Midriff, who I can just tell is going to encourage her to do brand-new sassy things like drink beer and go on unchaperoned buggy rides with young gentlemen who may not be marriage minded! Also, just to put the the “ex” in exposition, there is a letter from Beloved Dev, whose handwriting you last saw on a coffee mug saying “World’s Best Grandma.” Crumple that shit, girl! And then go Miranda Priestly yourself all up in that elevator even though Ivy pushed the button first in what was one of the strangest shots in television history. Although, I have to say, even if Josh Safran’s only contribution to this show is to harness Kat McPhee’s natural unlikeabilty to its logical Eve Harrington end, somebody start knitting that man an Emmy.

Anyway! At long last, Bombshell is going to Broadway, just as soon as Jordan Roth can secure the St. James Theater, which he will, having signed his soul over to Anjelica Huston for a billion years in return for having his name mentioned twice before the opening credits are over.

Of course, as Anjelica is a loving and benevolent deity, it’s her deepest intention to pick up everyone’s contract, but that’s all dependent on whatever the creative team decides, which could be anything at this point, because apparently there is no book. My Cousin Debbie, resplendent in a taupe frock coat and conspicuously bare clavicle (hmmmm … ), has forgotten to write one, because she’s working on her marriage, which means dropping everything every time her Unfrozen Caveman Husband product takes a break from angrily julienning bell peppers to passive-aggressively page her (I may be showing my age here, but when I hear a beep like that, that’s still what I think of), which just goes to show he is obviously doomed, because everyone knows if you really want to put the spice back in a marriage you use a boatsman’s whistle like Captain von Trapp. There’s a reason Christopher Plummer was so hot in that movie, and only part of it was because he was obviously so drunk he could barely stand.

But wait, won’t this be a little embarrassing when the reviews come out? No problem, says Cousin Debbie, she doesn’t read reviews! Tom’s face tells her everything she needs to know, and since Tom’s face mostly says, “Please, promise not to subsume me in your cavernous Pedro Almodóvar vagina and I will do anything you want,” it’s win-win for everyone! And everyone means Cousin Debbie, because Cousin Debbie lives in a world where everyone has the head of Cousin Debbie, all shouting conflicting information about the inherent personal worth of Cousin Debbie! Malkovich Malkovich Malkovich!

Oh, except Karen. Karen has the head of Karen, and right now that head is bigger than Audra McDonald’s Tony shelf because Derek, as in the Derek of the Croydon Dereks, is taking her to see Jennifer Hudson as Veronica Moore as Rosa Parks in Rosa Parks: Werewolf Killer: The Musical. J.V.-HudMoore is a big star, and afterwards, she graciously receives Karen and Derek in her dressing room while wearing her at-home wig and is tactful enough not to point out that only one American Idol contestant in history has ever won an Oscar and it isn’t the one smugly playing with her sleeves in the corner over there. Instead, she tells us it’s all about “the work.” “The work” will be our salvation, and we must protect “the work” by always according it its own definite article, otherwise “the work” will be angered and curse you and not even a Tom Hooper close-up on Kat McPhee’s boobs singing “On Broadway” in real, live Auto-Tune will be able to save you!

But Karen, stupid, stupid, curdled little Dannon yogurt person Karen, mistakenly assumes that this means getting Ivy fired, and she might as well have said “Macbeth” out loud in a theater that Satan owns because oh boy, does all hell break loose.

Rebecca Duvall, she of the death by peanut and of being Uma Thurman, is pissed that Derek told Michael Riedel (who is the identity that mischief-maker Puck, a.k.a. Robin Goodfellow, has chosen to assume for his current earthly guise) that she bit it hard as Marilyn, so she’s telling everyone Derek sexually harassed her. Derek’s like “sexed her ass? Why, yes, I did!” but no, Derek, it’s “sexually harassed” and we take it so seriously in this country you’ll have to be asked at least three questions about your pornography preferences before we’ll let you on the Supreme Court.

Meanwhile, Jerry (hello, Jerry!), his rodentlike sense of smell enhanced by his season-one stint as an actual rodent, has stalked Anjelica Huston to a restaurant and tells her he wants in on Bombshell. She tells him no, and even manages to pour her martini where it belongs (into her liver), but Jerry is furious enough to text someone I can only assume is Abu Nazir to tell him to “go ahead” with “the plan,” and now all the financing is frozen and the show cannot go on!

And! Tom and Token saw Unfrozen Caveman Husband helping a shapely modern woman into a taxicab and now Cousin Debbie’s marriage is officially over and Unfrozen Caveman Husband is free to run into Linda the Stage Manager’s waiting arms. And boy, were they waiting. Ann Harada’s little scene with Brian D’Arcy James had more sexual subtext than a whole universe of GIFs of Debra Messing with that peanut-butter-covered banana.

I’m sorry to rush through this all with nary a mention of the National Arts Club or Kat McPhee’s healing crystal or the Orchids of Dramatic Irony, but two hours, man. Two fucking hours.

Well, the show’s off and we’re all back to where we started. Anjelica Huston is broke. Cousin Debbie is on Tom’s couch, starring in Will & Grace 2: Perimenopause the Musical. And Karen is once again the least attentive waitress at Café Orlin, begging Derek to tell her that she’s still his “muse” and don’t they still have irresistible sexual tension, just like Noel Coward and Gertrude Lawrence; Carol Channing and Jerry Herman; Tim Burton and Johnny Depp? Derek has the decency to seem embarrassed by this (and I have found that I react to the word muse much in the way Lord Grantham does to the word cervix), and besides, he’s got bigger fish to fry: six dancers, four ushers, seven Rockettes, and fully half of Manhattan Theater Club’s subscriber base (and not just the half that can still walk) have stepped forward to accuse him of sexual harassment, and his agent is looking at her watch before he even sits down, which in the BDSM community (which is the talent agent/client relationship’s closest corollary) is like someone bellowing their safe word before you even get in the room. Karen had better find herself something else to d o…

… and oh, but she has! In the person of Brooklyn Jimmy the Bartender, he of the phantom sideburns and summa cum laude from the Neil Strauss Academy of Being a Total Fucking Asshole. Karen’s like, hi, and he’s like, is that your face, or is that a pile of dog shit on the sidewalk talking to me? She’s like, my name’s Karen, and he’s like did you submit a written application to talk to me, or are you just a fucking whore? Seriously, everything that comes out of this guy’s mouth is so transparent a neg you’d have to be as wet as Elaine Stritch’s diaper not to call him on it, but that’s Karen.

But Brooklyn Jimmy the Jerk is a songwriter for musicals and because his stuff is written by Joe Iconis (who. in addition to being a lovely person, has to have the most subliminally brilliant name in show business, like Yoda is his agent: “Joe? Icon is”), he’s actually a really, really good one. There’s only one problem — he doesn’t need any help from anyone, see? He’s gonna do it all on his own, see, and he doesn’t need no help from no Broadway princesses, ya got me, doll? (It’s possible that Brooklyn Jimmy may continue to speak like James Cagney throughout these recaps. I haven’t made up my mind yet.)

But hark! What is this that squeaks and scuttles his bashful way from out beneath the bar? Why, it’s Kyle Goblinweed, creature of Woodland Green, scampering into Karen’s outstretched palm with a grass blade for a necktie and a dandelion for a beret! He was sent to the City to make his fortune by his dear mama (for those of you reading out loud, the accent is on the second syllable) who sent him off with a kernel of corn wrapped in a buttercup petal, and said: “If cursed Ellis, scion of hated Dappledawn to whom against our will we were sworn as bannermen, can make it there, then so can you, my son, so can you.”

But when good Kyle of Goblinweed, arrived, Ellis Dappledawn was nowhere to be found. Instead, he spent a few months on the street (not counting his time in a Chinatown poultry warehouse, which honestly he’d quite rather forget) until he was lucky enough to be chosen as squire to Brooklyn Jimmy, who kicks and beats in his fits of temper but sings like an angel and is soooo handsome in his flannel shirt that Kyle would do anything to make his dreams come true. “Here,” he tells Karen, gathering up Jimmy’s dictated notation that he has scribbled as best he can on bits of tree bark and cowrie shells. “Find someone with a cobweb harp or a feather fief to play these for you. And then see if you can get them to Oskar Eustis.”

Well, Karen can do one worse than that. She can show up at a party in Greenpoint — on the G train, which no one ever takes unless motivated by the kind of insanity that can only be sexual — and lap dance Jimmy’s song to him. Jimmy, a classic emotional abuser who greets her by ridiculing a piece of trash she has stuck to her shoe, is angry, because there’s nothing that doesn’t make him angry, but he shows up at her house and gives her a thumb drive anyway, because the longer they are embroiled the more toxically codependent their relationship can become! Fun!

Meanwhile, Tom has discovered the only way to get Cousin Debbie — who as I mentioned before, has regressed into full Grace Adler Pieta — off the couch and out of his apartment, is to start a rumor that Harvey Fierstein will tell Cheyenne Jackson who will tell Jackie Hoffman who will tell Mary Testa that she and Tom are giving a speech at the American Theater Wing. This would be the perfect opportunity to treat us to a novelty lyric version of “The Telephone Hour” from Bye Bye Birdie featuring those exact people, but there’s no time for that because we have to allot time for Derek to drunkenly masturbate over the thought of doing a Robert Palmer jukebox musical, and the less said about that the better, except that I too now feel I have been sexually harassed by Derek Wills.  

The main thing is that the entire creative team crashes the American Theater Wing gala, even though Miriam Abramson (whose very name lets us know that the new sheriff in town is not going to allow any more Bar Mitzvah scenes where no one knows the words to “Hava Nagila”) and Ivy — who shows up in full be-caped cocktailwear when Karen is unreachable on account of she’s busy humiliating herself in front of a room of hipsters who probably hate musical theater, as doing so is the last sanctioned form of urban homophobia — saves the day with a show-stopping number called “(They Just Keep) Moving the Line,” which many of you will have the misfortune of hearing me attempt at karaoke for years to come.

And that’s it! We made it! And yet, one burning question remains about this season, one that has lingered uncomfortably almost since season two was announced: Will it be better? Is it better?

Well, I’ll say this. It’s certainly more professional. It's lit properly, the songs are more carefully chosen, the pacing works, the story lines zip along. It seems like it’s an actual show made for actual television, as opposed to a repetitive saga you act out with your Barbies when the babysitter is ignoring you (although, if anyone wants to make that a TV show, you know where to reach me; but I’m warning you, we’ll have to pitch it to cable because there will be a lot of nudity). Smash, like the classics of musical theater it both apes and pleads ignorance of, has always dealt in character archetypes: the wide-eyed ingénue, the slutty second lead, the wolfish authority figure, the devious climber. Under Safran’s direction, these tropes feel more knowing, more skillfully deployed. Some of them even make jokes that are supposed to be funny. Might these professionally rendered caricatures someday soon take on the layered complexity of the ebullient, miserable, self-aggrandizing, self-loathing, cynical, passionate, needy, detached, empathic, narcissistic souls who willingly choose to take on the ridiculously thankless and thankfully ridiculous task of a life in theater? Only time will tell, but look, I’m only a cock-eyed optimist, and I can’t Smash it out of my heart. Not this heart.

And now, ladies and gentlemen, it’s time to retire the scarves.

Photo: Will Hart/NBC