So, after 15 episodes and over a dozen original musical numbers later, television’s most critically beloved pilot (no, not series, or did you not see critics backpedal on their raves only weeks after the rest of the episodes rolled out?) came to a close with… well, basically a series finale that functioned as a mirror to that pilot’s question: “Who’s gonna play Marilyn?” Sadly, much like Dorian’s painting (metaphor change alert!), Smash’s finale only exaggerated the flaws that have become all too evident as the series has grown. Instead of rehearsing the many complaints I have of the series (though trust me, there are things I also enjoy about the show, most of it owing to Shaiman & Witmman’s music) I decided I would sketch out several ways I wish the season would have gone going back to what it offered us in its pilot by looking at Karen “Iowa” Cartwright and Ivy “I’m Marilyn!” Lynn.
Thoroughly Karing Karen
One of the biggest pet-peeves in the world wide web of internet chatter regarding the show has been the way the show has depended on the figure of Karen as the girl-next-door (Iowa, in Smash-speakl). Karen is wholesome. Karen is kind. In the pilot, the turning point arrives when Karen rejects Derek’s ambiguous come-on (and yes, if a director invites you to his apartment to “show me your Marilyn”, there really aren’t many ways you could read that. ‘Euphemism’ was a word expressly designed for such scenes in television. Karen is raw talent. “She has something you don’t” Derek tells Ivy in the finale. What that is has been the question that Smash has refused to answer. Or maybe it thought it did and we just didn’t notice because we were all too fixated with Megan Hilty hitting it out of the park every time we got to see her as Marilyn? Kids danced at bar-mitzvahs, Uma basically genuflected at her sight, music execs were blown away (even the sound guy was left speechless!). The show demanded we see her wow everyone around her. And yet, every one of those moments in the show never quite sold Karen as Marilyn. If nothing else, they showcased McPhee’s talent at making do with pop ballads. As it stands, she’s too much of an ingenue to be ever genuinely ‘Marilyn’ despite the show’s logic telling us that that is what makes her worthy of headlining Bombshell. There was promise in an early episode that the season would follow Karen’s journey from ‘aspiring star’ to ‘talented and professional chorus (ahem i mean ensemble) member.’ Yet, even mid-number (Adele’s Rumor Has It) the show squandered that possibility and gave her a solo in a number meant to show us she could blend it. The show’s grammar believes Karen is a star even when she’s trying not to… and that’s why her getting the Marilyn role feels not earned, but given. Especially when you have a great Marilyn in the wings. Which brings me to..
The pilot presented the choice between these two Marilyns as ‘the experienced gal’ vs ‘the newcomer.’ It’s a conversation we’ve heard time and time again through these 15 episodes (“she’s too green!” “Ivy knows the part!”, rinse and repeat as necessary). What’s hindered these discussions is the way the show’s been characterizing the two women. Karen is seemingly rewarded for her chastity and fidelity in light of Derek’s advances while Ivy seems to have been atoning for her decision to sleep with the director, seemingly earning her the part of Marilyn. While the politics of this are infuriating (girls, should you want to succeed, be sure to stay pure!), the show itself has shown us that Derek and Ivy have a (somewhat bizarrely) working domesticity that suggests Ivy may have gotten the part even without sleeping with Derek. That is, the show’s been clear about not wanting to see that choice to be merely the casting couch in action. But the show has been all too happy about punishing Ivy for her transgression with story lines that have morphed her ambition and drive into selfishness (the last of which almost led to Karen dropping out of the show in time for her to scoop the role from under her). That the show has very clearly made her obsessed with Marilyn is baffling as it is frustrating, especially as it leads her to spew cliches and make horrible decisions. It’s as if, despite Hilty’s performance, the show has decided that it needs to stack the cards against Ivy. In the words of the show, Ivy is too Marilyn while they seem to be searching for a Norma Jean. And McPhee does fit that role a bit better, no? Hilty is definitely a more accomplished stage performer than McPhee and there’s a way in which the season could have sketched out an arc for Ivy that saw her battling her own insecurities and fueling them into her Marilyn performance. Instead she’s been vilified and, if the season finale is any indication, made into a suicidal maniac.
It’ll be interested to see what a Theresa Rebeck-less Smash looks like next season. I hope they go full-meta and open season 2 with reviews for the out-of-town tryout as it singles out the potential Bombshell has but notes how miscast Karen seems in the part, and slash or notice that Ivy is truly the better Marilyn (even if another season of see-sawing between the two may bore me to tears). If nothing else, I do hope the writers figure out a way to build a show that lives up to the frothy and fun music that Shaiman and Wittman provide. Yes, Smash, I really want you to be my star, but you need to look back at this season as your ‘In Tech’/previews season and find a way to polish yourself to be Broadway-worthy. And yes, that means dropping (an anvil on) Ellis, shying away from soap opera antics (I mean, is cheating the only plot point there is to incite drama in musical theater?) and finding a way to use your strengths (Music! Huston!), but most importantly, realize that we’re all #TeamIvy.