Summary: An overly full episode with some curious character choices.
** Note: Review contains spoilers if you have not seen the episode.**
The quick skinny on the episode.
Synopsis: Ivy’s doubts and insecurities begin to take their toll as Karen is confronted with facing the reserved nature that is holding her back. Julia and Michael grow dangerously closer.
Full Recap: Breathe…
Eileen discovers unceremoniously that her assistant has defected to Jerry, underlining his displeasure that she was able to find financing for the Marilyn workshop oh her own without him. As dancers warm up for rehearsal, Derek asks Karen to help him work through a dance. She stumbles through the steps and he needles her about holding back. Ivy walks in on the two dancing and wonders what is going on.
Michael asks Julia if they can meet after rehearsal to discuss a scene, which she reluctantly agrees to. While the ex-lovers sit at a diner over apple pie and ice cream, Michael’s contention that the perception of DiMaggio in the show as a negative person in Marilyn’s life feels to Julia like a loaded conversation about their situation. She ends up ignoring a call from an unknown number. Tom, on another date with the lawyer who he’s not sure if he’s interested in, is next to receive a call: it’s Julia’s son Leo, arrested for being with a friend who was attempting to smoke marijuana in Central Park. Tom and the lawyer, who impresses Tom with his surehanded dealing of the situation, go to get Leo released.
Karen meets up with Dev at City Hall after rehearsal where he is talking with a reporter he’s mentioned on numerous occasions. She’s surprised to find out that “R.J.” is a young Iranian woman and not a dowdy old white guy. Not necessarily jealous, she’s suspicious of R.J.’s intentions with Dev. Across town, Julia comes home mad and sends Leo off to his room, grounded. Tom asks where she was and she admits to meeting with Michael. Tom tells her that Leo’s arrest is just the kick she needed to stay away from Michael.
The next day at rehearsal, Ivy’s friend Sam tries chatting with Tom about sports, a way to flirt. Tom is not only not into sports but he’s got thoughts of the lawyer on his mind. (They find themselves in bed together later.) As rehearsal kicks off, Derek becomes frustrated with the way Ivy is singing the song and insists that Karen demonstrate how to sing as Marilyn with the proper vibrato. Karen reluctantly sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”, impressing the others in the show. Ivy is thoroughly unhappy. Derek demands that Karen and Ivy meet later so that she can coach Ivy on how to do the trill properly. When they do meet for a session, Karen attempts to be pleasant and cordial but Ivy throws it in her face.
Eileen, still anxiously waiting on pages, tells Julia that she needs them done now. Julia, meanwhile, gets a return call from the adoption agency to find out if Leo’s arrest will negatively affect their process. The news isn’t good and when Michael tries to offer a shoulder, she walks away. Rehearsing the “Let’s Be Bad” number, Ivy finishes to concerned faces and quiet discussions amongst the production staff. When she asks if she should do something different, Derek dismisses her and says they are moving on.
Rehearsal the next day, Julia takes the day at home to spend time with Leo. She asks her son if he was smoking the pot with his friend. He insists he wasn’t and reveals that he has before. Julia impresses upon Leo that doing anything stupid will ruin their chances for the adoption. At rehearsal, Michael asks Tom where Julia is and Tom defiantly declares she is with her family. Attempting to start the number again, Ivy finds herself tripping up when she is about to sing. She tries again to the same result, with nary a sympathetic gesture from Derek. She composes herself and goes again, nailing it. Everyone in the room erupts in applause. Derek leaves the room, devastating Ivy. As Karen tries to give Ivy some praise, she’s shot down by the diva once more.
That night, Dev tries to hurry Karen to get ready for an event they need to attend to help him get his promotion at work. He’s learned from R.J. that they are bringing in someone from Washington D.C. who is likely to get the job. Karen complains about both Derek and Ivy and likens everything to how Marilyn must have felt when she was always expected to be sexy. Dev, not paying attention, insists Karen wear a sexy dress for the evening to impress everyone. She sends Dev on ahead while she gets ready. She makes the decision to play up her sexuality. At the event, Karen arrives to find out that Dev is sitting at a table with R.J. but she’s be relegated to another table. At that table, she meets a gentleman who tries picking up on her because of the dress she’s wearing. Unaware of who Karen is, he reveals that he is the guy from D.C. in line for Dev’s promotion. She leaves with Dev and in the car ride back gives him the guy’s name. To prove she’s not reserved, she begins to seduce him in the back of the car.
Meanwhile, Ivy, Sam and Michael are out at the bar after rehearsal. Ivy drinks quite a bit and complains about how Derek is treating. The discussion ends with the decision the Ivy should address it with Derek. She arrives at the director’s place and pounds on the door. When he answers, she lays into him about the way he’s acting. He tells her that when he’s dealing with the show, the show is the only thing for him and that she’s well aware of that. He softens and asks if she is staying the night with him. After sleeping together, Ivy awakes in the middle of the night to find Derek not in bed. She steps downstairs and sees him buried in work.
Michael shows up at Julia’s to talk. When Leo sees him, he invites Michael to stay for dinner, against Julia’s wishes. The three have a good evening and Julia finally sends Leo off to his room. She quickly calls a cab for Michael. They wait outside for the cab and Michael insists on talking about them. Julia mentions that they are both happily married now and they can’t be. He proceeds to sing to her to drop her guard. The cab arrives and she sends him on his way. Just as he is about to leave, he rushes back to her and kisses her. Leo watches the whole thing from his bedroom window.
The in-depth review.
As seen from the recap above, this episode is a stuffed affair and the show is settling into a groove where they present a lot each episode and yet little progresses. Now, I am a champion of taking time with a story to tell it thoroughly and full-bodied. Investing things with small details and glimpses into the ordinary everyday can help build an investment on the audience’s part … if done right. Too often, especially given the standard 22-episode season so common in American television, this slow pacing can wear thin and frequently comes across as dreaded “filler” to pad out the running time of the stretched narrative. (Yes, I am fully in favor of reducing seasons to 13-16 episodes to tighten and strengthen the writing in series.) In the case of Smash, we have so many characters to give service to that everything is becoming sketches.
Unfortunately, with “Let’s Be Bad”, we get a further case of the worst of each character. With someone like director-choreographer Derek (Jack Davenport), worst is what we expect of the character and more and more of what we want to see. The short-straw of this, though, is they don’t give Davenport any time to make him a believable ugly – though creative – person. What we get are broad strokes that serve the plot but don’t allow any depth to really be affected by him. I, for one, want to feel his creative power and get a true sense of the artistry that allows him to be such a raging egomaniac. His exasperation during each rehearsal, specifically the moment when he walked out amidst every clapping for Ivy (Megan Hilty), rang false because it wasn’t rooted in anything other than we were told he’s a “difficult director”. The one moment that it starts to get interesting – when Ivy wakes after they’ve slept together and sees him downstairs alone and buried in notes and script pages – they give the moment to a crestfallen Ivy and don’t let us share in his process.
As for Ivy, we’re once more whipped in the other direction to give her some humanity and depth. We see her beginning to crack and flay in her position, becoming uprooted by her insecurities, and yet again it’s very surface. Hilty is working the direction very well, providing some wonderful color during her non-verbal reactions to both Derek and Karen. The writing has all of this coming on too suddenly, though. Ivy’s supposed to be the more experienced of the two lead actresses and, while even the strongest of us can suffer from self-doubt no matter how confident and secure we are, her every response since she’s been cast in the lead shows little signs of someone who has been around theatre for a little while let alone 10 years. There is an interesting angle to be played – as they are – with mirroring Ivy’s journey with Marilyn’s but it’s being handled in very non-subtle ways.
I guess one could say that since we’re dealing with a show about a Broadway musical the near-caricature way that they are approaching the material sort of fits. But this is still a TV show and the pilot episode set up a stronger, more “realistic” standard to live up to that seems to be going by the wayside. It’s that moment when a drama (or melodrama) starts transitioning into a sensationalized soap opera. Leo’s arrest – and the fact that the guy Tom’s starting-to-date-but-is-unsure-if-he-wants-to is a sly lawyer given a set-piece moment to dazzle his courtee – reeked of soap opera. (And the dastardly promos at the end of each episode paint with as bubbly a brush.)
Things like the production-run performance of “Let’s Be Bad” remind us that we’re in a TV show, putting us right in the middle of a number that would otherwise be a total mess onstage if blocked and choreoed in such a fashion. It’s actually one of the more effective parts of the episode and, though the message is kind of baldly in our faces, it does well to illustrate the state Ivy finds herself at the moment.
Her viciousness against Karen (Katharine McPhee) continues, though, and it continues to be off-putting. Like Derek, there just isn’t an appropriate counterpoint with Ivy to give her diva routine the proper snap it’s begging for. The only time we see her outside of the rehearsal environment – until she goes to Derek’s – is when she’s getting sloppy drunk with Sam and Michael and complaining about Derek. There is nothing to offset the snarl to allow us back into Ivy’s story, even with allowing us a more emotional person this week.
Karen isn’t spared the unpleasant treatment either, both on-camera by Ivy and a needling Derek and behind-the-scenes with a rather distasteful character switch late in the episode. Feeling Ivy’s wrath and Derek’s castigation of the more staid and reserved qualities of her personality, Karen airs her frustrations to a not-present Dev (Raza Jaffrey). He’s more concerned with making an impression at a public event in order to pull sway in his direction for the promotion he’s up for. As Karen makes a “revelation” about the expectations placed on Marilyn Monroe and what both she and Ivy are going through, Dev tries to get her to dress provocatively to help sell him as the ideal candidate for this job. She eventually encourages him to leave without her so that he’ll be on-time while she gets ready. You get the sense it’s an in-character choice in dealing with someone not listening to her. But then, she turns right around and decides that she needs to give in to her sexuality to play the game. We get a rather odd dressing session set to, of all things, “It’s a Man’s World”.
While I’m all for Karen opening herself up to experiences, especially if it helps her become a better and more complete performer, the whole thing makes no sense with the character. It’s a moment thoroughly driven by the plot and comes off unnatural. This is an aspect of her personality and stage persona worth pursuing, particularly in regard to Marilyn, but not in such an uncouth way. To top it off, we get more soap opera as the guy she’s relegated to sit next to at the event turns out to be the guy rumored to be favored for Dev’s promotion and Karen uses her “sexuality” to get information on him for Dev.
The relatively most enjoyable storyline in the episode was the unfolding prelude to adultery on the parts of Julia (Debra Messing) and Michael (Will Chase). There is a nice connection between the two and, as Julia is arguably the most fleshed out of the characters on the show, it sets up an interesting dynamic upon which to play. Of course, in some really contradictory plotting, they’ve decided to cram all of the set-up into this one episode. Messing and Chase have an easy rapport, which makes a scene like the one in the diner over pie play well and charged on-screen. The one thing that’s a bit disconcerting is that Michael seems thoroughly unconcerned with his family, given that they set up such a supporting wife and his loving worrying about his child. It’s understandable that he’s wrapped up in his attraction to Julia and that they are working together so much it heightens the immediacy of their feelings, but there was not a single moment of pause on his part anywhere in the episode. Not to champion adultery in any fashion, it would just have been nice to see these moments play out in an extended timeframe to really enjoy the interplay.
That brings us back to the primary concern: so much packed into short space. The show would do well to take a cue from other series that have worked with so many cast members and characters. Take a show like ER which did this relatively well over its 15 seasons. Choosing to focus on two or three characters in a given episode was not unheard of and actually worked wonders toward giving everyone something to do and letting us viewers into their lives better. Imagine if moments like Tom’s little improvised song to Leo or the funny little exchange between he and his lawyer paramour post-coitus were allowed to breathe more freely. That would be much more preferable to the cartoons we’re getting now.