By Ken Tucker
Updated March 19, 2012 at 12:00 PM EDT

You gotta hand it to Smash: This series is so willing to portray the making of a Broadway musical so realistically — well, in a heightened, exaggerated form of realism, in which a music mogul thinks he can make a pop star of Katharine McPhee’s Karen and hunky bartenders fall for Anjelica Huston’s Eileen — that the show is willing to present the workshop version of the Broadway musical we and they are supposed be invested in, and make it a very rocky, often mediocre creation. Unlike Glee, in which everyone snaps into place with perfect pitch and nary a false step, Smash offers carefully placed stumbles and lyrics rhymed with intentional poorness. The hell with the ratings a boffo showcase might attract: bravo, Smash!

This week’s hour, sensibly titled “The Workshop,” continued the series’ stubborn effort to try and make nearly every major character unsympathetic. Yes, I know I should disapprove of Julia making out with Michael Swift… just outside the rehearsal hall… where everyone passing by can see them… including her writing partner, Tom. I think the moment captured the idiotic things one does when one is in love, especially with someone one is not supposed to be in love with: You take extravagantly bad risks. And Smash succeeded in making me irritated with Karen’s blithe blow-off of her appointment with Bobby Raskin. After everyone tells her this is a potentially life-altering connection to be made, after she got that recording engineer to profess his love for her merely upon hearing her sing, she still opted to stick around for a glimpse of Bernadette Peters as Ivy’s legendary-star mom, and then just sat around after the workshop when she should have been frantically trying to squeeze in a few minutes with Raskin? Given that Karen needs to be surrounded by characters who tell both her and the TV audience what she should be thinking and feeling and communicating by, you know, acting — I found this both believable and annoying on a couple of levels.

As for Peters’ guest turn: She looked and sounded great, didn’t she? Of course, I didn’t believe for second that not one single soul associated with that entire production knew that Peters’ character, Lee Conroy, was Ivy’s mother — how can any of these people be such devoted theater-hounds and not know? — it was still an impeccably framed guest-star presentation. A subsequent scene, during which Ivy had to be angry and hurt at Mom’s failure to love her sufficiently, seemed like something that was lifted from a kitchen-sink drama in a 1950s TV-anthology series — The Philco Television Playhouse, as written by, oh, say, Reginald Rose, starring Megan Hilty — but I’ll take my pleasure in Peters where I can find it.

The whole air-conditioning-on-the-fritz refrain seemed like one detail too many, or maybe just one that didn’t pay off: The scenes of the potential backers perspiring, loosening their ties, and the having the blast of restored AC serve as the button to the musical scene — it was a bit of a distracting dud. And speaking of duds: That “Lexington and 52nd Street” number, what a fine approximation of a tediously overwrought musical number. I hope I’m being clear: I like the way these songs, and their performances, seem so slight or awkward or unfinished; at a time when too much TV is micro-calibrated (cough–Mad Men!–cough), the occasional rawness of Smash is invigorating. And I’m really enjoying most of the performances, particularly, this week, Debra Messing’s, right down to the horribly cynical, cowardly decision to fire Michael Swift so Julia won’t have to face up to her infidelity. Which I bet she’ll have to yet anyway.

Because one thing about Smash: This show likes its reprises, its encores.

What did you think of this week’s episode?

Twitter: @kentucker

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