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Last night’s TV: Smash

SMASH -- Season:1 -- Pictured: (l-r) Brian d'Arcy James as Frank Houston, Jaime Cepero as Ellis, Anjelica Huston as Eileen Rand, Jack Davenport as Derek Wills, Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn, Debra Messing as Julia Houston, Christian Borle as Tom Levitt, Raza Jaffrey as Dev Sundaram -- Photo by: Mark Seliger/NBC

From: Wesley Morris

Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 9:22 AM

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To: Joanna Weiss, Sarah Rodman, Don Aucoin

Subject: Do we still hate this show?

Joanna, we’re two people who should be eating lunch together, but here we are instead, with Sarah Rodman and Don Aucoin, emailing each other about “Smash,” NBC’s backstage musical drama about a Marilyn Monroe show that airs Monday nights at 10. From what I can tell, the Nielsen numbers are shrinking. I don’t know what people were expecting or what’s turning them off, but I like the ridiculousness of this show. There’s a lot of over-the-top craziness on network TV right now. There’s a show based on “Good Christian Bitches,” which might be what happened if Pedro Almódovar had GOP dreams. In that spirit, I like “Smash.”

It’s a cartoon about Broadway that lets Anjelica Huston (Eileen, the producer) sling martinis in people’s faces, encourages Jack Davenport (Derek, the mean British director) to bed and flirt with the female talent, and puts Debra Messing (the lyricist) in so much expensive-looking extra fabric that I don’t know whether to watch her or sleep under her. I like that the show is attempting to give us a variety pack of gay men, some of whom have sex with each other – but only at 10:54 p.m. and only if they can tell us after that it was terrible (episode 5).

But “Smash,” at its legitimate best, is really an interesting instructional about stardom. There’s no way that Katharine McPhee’s Karen, an Iowa girl in the Big City (I know, I know) is more talented than Megan Hilty’s Ivy. Ivy’s been cast as Marilyn. She has a big, supple voice and the kind of charisma not even my TV can contain (and my TV’s pretty big). Karen is thin and pretty with a pleasingly generic voice. She’s not a star. But she’s the standard the entertainment industry prefers to promote. The best way to view an argument in favor of her is cynically: She’ll star in the musical only if Ivy loses her voice, is hit by a truck, or gets pushed down a flight of stairs. Joanna, you said, she’s a not a stage star. She’s doing karaoke. It’s true! But it’s better than, say, the karaoke on “Glee.” Plus, I like watching any musical written by Will and Grace – I mean, Tom and Julia, whom Christian Borle and Messing play.

I know you’re all are over the whole thing – so much so that you plan to stage a coup in a few weeks to talk about “Mad Men.” I tell you I won’t allow it! Last night’s episode (the sixth) was the best yet -- and by “best,” I mean rife with more laugh-out-loud silliness than I could handle. Julia’s having an affair with Michael (Will Chase), the sex bomb -- and possible nutcase -- who plays Joe DiMaggio in the show. We now know that when she gets stressed, she burns pancakes and gets that dab of flour on the forehead that really says, “I’m a careerist who can’t make breakfast without making a mess!” And when Ivy, feeling the side-effects of prednisone, peers into the mirror and sees Karen-as-Marilyn staring back at her, it was surreal. For one thing, in the blonde wig and costume, it’s as if Karen passed through Renée Zellweger’s skeletal showgirl in “Chicago” to get to Monroe. Definitely a nightmare. Which bring me to the other thing: Wasn’t the nightmare straight out of “Black Swan”? If so, just let Hilty play both rolls.

By the way, not only was episode six was called “Chemistry,” it also featured a conversation about the periodic table; a suspensefully hoarse Ivy staring, Monroe-ly, at a shelf full of pills; Tom suggesting that he might have a better connection with Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.) the black, gay jock/chorus boy than with the stiff, white lawyer he’s been dating; and a book called -- are you sitting down? -- “Chemistry.” I love this show! What’s wrong with you three?

From: Sarah Rodman

Sent: Tuesday, March 13, 2012 10:08 AM

To: Joanna Weiss, Wesley Morris, Don Aucoin

Subject: Re: Do we still hate this show?

I’d like to start by saying how jealous I am that Don Aucoin can’t be with us today because he was in New York City last night celebrating a true Broadway legend-- Patti Lupone.

Now to the matter at hand.

I actually enjoyed the episode last night. I might just be surrendering to the ridiculousness and utter camp of it all. I mean Angelica Huston reveling in a “downtown” martini and playing “Big Buck Hunter”? What’s not to love? And every time they show a shot of Ellis, just out of the main action, intently listening cracks me up. Really? Nobody notices his furtive stares? He should be rubbing his hands together and twirling his mustache for goodness’ sake.

Or my surrender might just be because I can listen to Jack Davenport drawl “the Cartwright girl” and “it’s just a side effect from the steroids” over and over in that silky purr... sorry lost my place.

But if I never hear them say “you’re from Iowa” again to Karen as if it’s some kind of built-in insult it will be too soon. It’s the worst kind of stereotypical coastal snobbery that I have trouble believing really exists. Like there have never been huge talents from Iowa?

Overall, it felt very much like a moving-pieces-into-place-on-the-board kind of episode, as Julia surrendered to her attraction to the now seemingly unstable Michael, Karen knowing that she has a shot at the blond wig, and Ivy unleashing on Derek.

Plus, I loved that closing number “History is Made At Night,” very sexy and sweet and nicely harmonized. I’ve fluctuated in my appreciation but, who am I kidding, I’m all in.

From: Joanna Weiss

Sent: Wednesday, March 13, 2012 10:41 AM

To: Wesley Morris, Sarah Rodman, Don Aucoin

Subject: Re: Do we still hate this show?

OK, OK, I’m starting to surrender, too. I think the trick is expectations. For a few weeks, I wanted to watch “Smash” the way it had been billed: as a behind-the-scenes look at the mysterious workings of a legitimate Broadway musical, Brought To You By The Unstoppable Steven Spielberg. That’s the show the pilot promised to be, and I loved the way that episode declined to make Ivy the enemy, and instead suggested that we were seeing two legitimate possibilities of stardom: the in-the-trenches Broadway chorus vet who finally gets her big break, and the newcomer with that amazing...oh, you know, X factor.

As time went on - as in, 10 or 15 seconds into episode two - it became abundantly clear that Ivy was both of those things, and Karen was neither, and instead, as Sarah notes, we had to keep hearing about how she was from Iowa. The Broadway people even called her “Iowa,” and her friends in Iowa called her “Broadway,” as if there had never been any cross-pollination before. The only things that kept me going were Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport’s drawl. I’m with you, Sarah. In the words of some guy on “American Idol,” he could drawl the phone book, and I’d be satisfied.

But after this week, I relent. I’m viewing this show, not as a parable of Broadway, but as a parody of itself, which is keeping my blood pressure way down. So I’m not going to get all huffy about the talent differential anymore (except to agree that Karen-as-Marilyn-in-Ivy’s-dream was, indeed, a horror-show moment.) I’m not going to complain about Julia’s clothes or Michael’s about-face into predatory caddishness. Instead, I will make these simple observations:

1) Anjelica Huston remains awesome.

2) I’ve got an idea: How about, from here on out, Ivy stars in musicals, and Karen stars in bar mitzvahs?

3) Don’t worry, Middle America: Not only do gay men in New York have bad sex late at night, they also throw really boring parties!

4) Why is it that, for all the songs they threw at me, the one that’s stuck in my head is “Hava Negilah”?

5) “Marilyn: The Werewolf” would make a really terrific Broadway show.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @wesley_morris.
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