Here in the winter of our discontent, as we gather around our communal hearths in our shabby overcoats, warming our chilblain-stricken fingertips over the last sputtering embers of the Golden Age of Television, there is one program that stands alone. A program that shows us the creative process in all its glory, heartbreak, and disillusionment; that fearlessly lays bare the hypocrisy of our gilded, media-driven age; a show that so fiercely interrogates the contradictions of human nature that it seems to turn its gimlet gaze on the unsolvable puzzle of our own personalities, on the mystery of existence itself.
But Mad Men is on Sunday nights. Snap! Girl, this is Smash! Ah aaaah! (To be sung to the tune of “Flash’s Theme” from Flash Gordon. Flash Gordon, starring Topol.)
Our story begins in the carnage-strewn Gotterdammerung that is the aftermath of every exploratory Equity showcase. Einsatzgruppen units of zombies and Death Eaters roam the animate nightmare of midtown Manhattan, killing and burning everything in their path. Like Tom Hanks in Saving Private Ryan, we watch in stunned, helpless silence as theatergoers are ripped from their seats and torn limb from limb in the hellscape that is now 42nd Street. A visiting church group, their once-bright faces a bloody pulp, lie in a pile outside Bubba Gump, where a pair of Orcs methodically strip their corpses of their matching orange T-shirts. Ivy and Token cower in terror, their mouths open wide in an anguished, voiceless scream, as the shattered Lion King marquee rains glass upon them. Nearby, in a puddle of human bile, something is glinting; it’s the disembodied hand of a Statue of Liberty souvenir, the kind that used to be everywhere in the Old Days B.M. (Before Marilyn), still clutching a miniature torch, once a symbol of hope, of what nearly was ours.
And then, across the water, in the little shtetl of Brownstone Brooklyn, which unlike Times Square is as yet untouched by the czar’s edict, Cousin Debbie, ever considerate to the feelings of others, lets out a howl of psychic pain as her Unfrozen Caveman Husband bangs on the hurdy-gurdy with a crudely fashioned stone tool. “ME NO UNDERSTAND YOUR MODERN TECHNOLOGY!” bellows Unfrozen Caveman Husband, an accredited teacher of science. “ME WANT TO SING FOR WOMAN! WOMAAAAANNNNNN!!!” And wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles, the hurdy-gurdy suddenly wheezes to life. Unfrozen Caveman Husband dons the fedora his first wife, Urg, wove for him from the supple green reeds she got from the River Clan in exchange for three saber teeth and the pelt of a dire wolf, while in the next room, Carpet grins in anticipation of the imminent parental reconciliation sex he is about to listen to through the wall.
Here is Anjelica Huston secreted inside her all-white Fortress of Purity to which she retires to ritually regrow her hymen every 200 years. In scampers Ellis Dappledawn, bearing a CD that is four times his body weight and an obsequious smile. Begone with you, varmint! Darken not this womancave again! And then! The Angel Gabriel blows his horn! A heavenly host raises its voice in song, as a dazzling ray of divine light streams through the windows! Ellis falls to the ground, temporarily blinded, for the Messiah at last has come.
And who is she, this golden-haired deity who stands before us? Why, it’s Katie, Anjelica Huston’s adopted daughter, left 26 years ago on the steps of the Temple by a struggling actress who feared she might never win an Oscar again. The father? There are those who will tell you it was God himself (although Anjelica had privately worried at first it might have been Jack, as they were doing Heartburn together at the time), but “from the moment I lifted you out of that basket of bulrushes and held you in my arms, I knew you were a Gummer.” And what has compelled St. Gummer to leave off healing the lame and anointing the lesions of dying lepers in the Indian slumlands to fly to her adopted immortal mother’s side? (By the way, I too read Behind the Beautiful Forevers, and even if I did sing “Camp Annawadi, we hold you in our hearts” to the tune of the theme song from Salute Your Shorts the whole time, that still makes me a compassionate person, if not quite as holy as St. Gummer. I’m more of a Peter than Judas, is what I’m saying. The rock upon which she will build her first major award nomination.) Well, it’s Jerry, you see, who has unceremoniously and unexpectedly hidden — I mean, deposited — 3 million interest-free bucks in St. Gummer’s trust fund, while Anjelica Huston can’t even afford furniture! St. Gummer lays her glowing hands over Anjelica Huston’s heart. She’s seen the slums of the subcontinent. She’s seen what poverty can do to a person, how precipitous the fall can be. It’s a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension. It’s a very short road from the $6,000-a-month loft on the Lower East Side to selling yourself to a bunch of AIDS-riddled long-distance truck drivers beside a lake of raw sewage in rural Uttar Pradesh. St. Gummer knows. She knows.
Meanwhile, Cousin Deb meets Michael Swift to tell him once and for all that he is fired, from her show and from her vagina. But wait, she can’t fire him, because he quits! He’s been thinking about his Wife of Convenience and his archaically monikered BrooklynChild, and they mean everything to him now that the workshop went badly and the show probably isn’t going anywhere. “Wait, why are we at a playground?” Cousin Debbie wonders suddenly. “Aren’t unaccompanied adults not allowed, lest they turn out to be sexual predators?” “Yeah,” says Michael Swift, “but I brought my wife and kid along to the scene where I break up with my illicit mistress. Who’s the pedophile now, bitch?” Then he prances off to make out with his wife, right in front of Cousin Debbie. This little reindeer is really one sick fuck. Between Michael and Ellis, who spends his other scene this episode tucked up in his mating warren with Holly Hedgehog, desperately trying to fake some sort of passable erection by talking about how Tom’s a loser and Ivy’s a loser and artists are losers, you can’t even score them on the sociopath test. It’s like trying to figure out Einstein’s IQ. They break the scale.
More heartwarming family togetherness at Carpet’s court date! Remember Carpet, arrested for smoking pot to deal with the pain of being the only piece of carpet in a prestigious New York City public school whose mother was secretly screwing a sociopath? Oh wait, that’s everybody? Never mind. Thanks to the tender ministrations of Jo(h)n, New York City’s only homosexual attorney (which is why he must continue to date Tom, New York’s only homosexual theater professional, and a man with whom he has few shared interests, nothing in common, and little to no sexual chemistry), the charge has been massaged from grass-smoking to the electrifying, stakes-raising accusation of … walking on the grass. In Central Park. And IT COULD GO ON HIS PERMANENT RECORD AND OH MY GOD BARD MIGHT NOT TAKE HIM FOR REASONS OF CRUELTY TO SOD.
And you know what? I can’t. I can’t even bring myself to make a joke about how Harry T. Stone isn’t there, and so he gets a hangin’ judge, and how if he had been a black kid he could have been legally murdered for that under the “Defend Our Soil” law. I just can’t. I expend a lot of energy writing these recaps, I try really hard to make them informative and entertaining, and I just … whatever. Go get some soup dumplings, like every other fucking person does after fucking traffic court.
You know what else I’m not bothering with? Beloved Dev and his non-promotion. I’m sorry. You want me to recap something City Hall related? You give me Richard Kind. Otherwise, you’re not hearing a peep out of me. Sorry.
But where there is Beloved Dev, there must also be (sigh) Karen. Derek, who has broken out the floor-length, Matrix-style duster from Dance of the Vampires in anticipation of the coming apocalypse, has lured her out onto a windswept pier in order to feast on her supple flesh before dumping her into the East River/get her to secretly rehearse a new song by a different composer that could take Marilyn “in a new direction” — not necessarily in that order. Don’t tell Tom and Cousin Debbie, though, as they might be a little bit pissed that their work is essentially being stolen out from under them by a person who is apparently recognizable as someone from something called OneRepublic, which I think is that Vietnamese place in Santa Monica I like, so good for him for getting a break? Karen is excited by this opportunity, and if memory of that ginger-mango-chicken serves, I can see why. Well, I mean, it’s Katharine McPhee, so I can’t actually see that she’s excited from her face, or hear it in her voice, but I’ll take her word for it.
Poor forgotten Ivy, on the other hand, is reduced to going all D.J. Tanner on a lonely exercise bike in the sky, and coerced into taking part, along with Token, Tokenetta, Eyelid, Gore Vidal, and Muscular Chorus Gay, in an incorrectly scored bowling number. The words are: “We’re gonna rock / we’re gonna roll / We’re gonna bop / we’re gonna bowl / We’re gonna score, score, score, score, score tonight.” Lorna Luft may lack the sibilant star power of her sister, but she is still one of the very few people left on Earth bearing Judy Garland’s genetic signature, and as such, is one of our most precious natural resources. In the words of a playwright who has been strangely ignored considering the subject matter of our musical-within-a-musical (probably because of anti-Semitism, like everything else in the world): Attention must be paid.
On to to Derek’s big surprise! Which according to Gore Vidal is not such a surprise at all, since he heard it from his boyfriend’s best friend’s trick’s ex-boyfriend’s fuckbuddy’s hag who heard it from this twink who’s going out with this bear who’s the accompanist for this tranny who heard Derek talking about it in the coke-line at the Duplex last night. I’m bringing this up only because I think Karen’s reaction to this is incredibly telling: She’s not really upset about going behind the backs of people who have been kind to her and believed in her, but she’s very, very upset that people know she’s doing it. It’s not that she’s so invested in being a good person, it’s that she’s very, very invested in having people think she is, and therefore she allows herself to believe she’s somehow better than everyone else who is up front about their ambition. Yes, ladies and gentleman, it’s time for our weekly chant: I say fuck you, you say Karen! Fuck you! Karen! Fuck you! Karen!
Anyway, it’s time. They’re all assembled in Derek’s magical mystery warehouse. Tom and Anjelica Huston. St. Gummer and Cousin Debbie, wearing a full-length black-leather prairie skirt, like if the sister wives started a biker gang. And then it begins, this “new direction” song by someone who is clearly not Marc Shaiman or Scott Wittman.
And, as President Obama would say, look: I spent a lot of time living abroad, and one of the horrible things it did to me besides occasionally slip affected British words like posh and naff into my everyday American vocabulary is make me kind of a sucker for a European-style club mix. Part of why I like Lady Gaga is because all of her songs sound like that one that was playing in that weird club in Prague that time in 1996 when those two Bulgarian guys tried to roofie you and you wound up spending the night with that Danish guy with the weird scar on his dick and then in the morning you saw a plaque on the wall of the hostel saying that the building was used as a forced breeding center by the Nazis during the war and you thought how weird it would be if it turned out you got pregnant because that weird Uzbeki condom broke.
But this is not a musical. This is not Broadway. This is clearly not Shaiman and Wittman. There is a strobe light. Kat McPhee is writhing in a bed sheet. Faceless men in masks brandish oven racks in the air, waving them frantically back and forth as though they are in a Richard Foreman play, then they encircle Karen so she’s suddenly in a cage, as though awaiting human experimentation. “Ladies and gentlemen,” cries Derek, his face suddenly painted red, like a satanic mime: “I give you Mengele, the Musical!”
Cousin Debbie is horrified!!! Karen is horrified and apologetic! The guy from the Vietnamese restaurant is horrified! St. Gummer is so horrified she is compelled to compare show business unfavorably to Micronesia! So Anjelica Huston takes it all back. They’ll keep Tom and Julia, they just have to find a star, a real star. Ivy and Karen are both fired, and St. Gummer the Messiah, as a divine reward, spends hundreds of thousands of dollars of her surprise $3 million not on the poor children of India but to secretly redecorate the Fortress of Purity at Anthropologie, where her money is immediately pumped back into the campaign of Rick Santorum, which is a perfect metaphor for what right-wing Christianity has become. And I think I have now mentioned Rick Santorum in these recaps almost as many times as Into the Woods, Meryl Streep, and the Nazis. Sing it with me: Meryl and Sondheim and Richard Santorum / Bettelheim’s witches and Whoopi in Forum / Adolf who prances and Patti who sings / These are a few of my favorite things!!
And Tom is enraged. The only reason Derek even wanted to do Marilyn in the first place was to ruin Tom’s career, just like he tried to do eleven years ago, when he blamed a flop the two of them worked on totally on Tom and walked away unscathed because Derek had the critic in his pocket! But Tom doesn’t get it, Derek sneers. He never did. Tom’s not up to the darkness of Marilyn. He’s got no nerve. Insight. Edge. Balls. Cicero. He’s just a flouncy little gay man whose life is hearts and flowers and sparkles and Liza. What does a gay man know about a fabulous woman in pain? How could a gay man possibly understand what it means to be demeaned and regarded as unequal by society even as they fetishize everything you give them?
And then Tom drops the bombshell of the century: “The only reason that critic gave you a good review is because he was sleeping with your FATHER! Who was really Ted Dinard, who was sleeping with Steven Carrington until Blake Carrington killed him accidentally-on-purpose with a fireplace poker and that’s why you hate gay people, Derek! You hate them so much you had to become a Broadway choreographer, the most heterosexual profession on the planet!”
Derek grabs Tom, looking into the homosexual’s defiant eyes with terrible rage. “Hit me,” says Tom. “Go on, hit me. You know you want to.” Derek raises his fist, ready to smash the smirk right off of the composer’s smooth, girlish face … and then, he brings his mouth to the other man’s with crushing force, shoving his tongue down his throat, choking him, practically strangling him with the strength of his lust. They tear at each other’s clothes as they fall to the floor in an inflamed tangle, skin against burning skin, desperate, furious, probing. Our ears fill with the sound of human panting and ripping cloth as Derek spits on his hand, ready to mount …
… as Ivy sits sadly in her apartment, staring into the mirror as she brokenly sings “Let Me Be Your Star.” Well, they didn’t. They won’t. There is a knock on the door.
“Derek!” Ivy exclaims, not even bothering to hide her astonishment as her erstwhile lover falls into her arms, his face streaked with tears, his lips smelling strongly of … salt? Chicken soup? Ammonia? “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Please, Ivy,” Derek croaks brokenly. “Please. Prove to me I’m not gay. Forever.”
“Oh, Derek,” says Ivy, enveloping him in her fragrant arms as they fall back onto her bed, wincing only a little as the sequin-studded throw pillow cuts into her flesh. “I’ve waited a lifetime to hear you say those words.”