It's innocence vs. experience as Karen and Ivy continue competing for the role of a lifetime. Who will come out on top -- and not just on top of Director Derek?

By Hillary Busis
Updated February 14, 2012 at 07:00 AM EST
Credit: Patrick Harbron/NBC
S1 E2
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Kudos to Smash for resisting the urge to draw out the Battle of the Would-Be Bottle Blondes. By the end of tonight’s episode, we learn who will play Marilyn Monroe in Tom and Julia’s workshop: Broadway baby Ivy Lynn, an enormous talent who’s somehow been laboring just outside the limelight for 10 years. But can the series sustain our interest now that a choice has been made?

Based on “The Callback,” I’d definitely say “yes.” This installment wasn’t as zippy as the premiere — and that adoption plot is still about as exciting as a middle school’s production of Fiddler on the Roof — but it still had plenty of belting, intrigue, and juicy backstage drama. Oh, and scarves. Oodles and oodles of scarves. (At one point, Ivy even compliments Karen on her neck cozy. It’s like they already know what we want to see!)

Just like last week, we begin inside Karen’s head. Frustrated by the creative team’s silence, she’s imagining plaintively singing Blondie’s “Call Me” to Derek, Eileen, and the rest of the gang. Katharine McPhee’s voice sounds great, as always, but overall, her performance is pretty anemic — if you’re going to do Debbie Harry, you should maybe move a little more, right? In any case, a fellow waitress quickly yanks Karen back to reality — oh, there goes gravity! — by reminding her she’s still got tables to serve.

While Karen stews, Tom and company debate the girls who would be Marilyn. Despite how well she fits the role, the composer’s the only one who’s firmly in Ivy’s corner. Derek name-checks Karen’s innocence and freshness (“innocence” and “freshness” here being synonyms for “face” and “butt”), while Julia and Eileen talk up the neophyte’s chops. As they deliberate, Terrible Ellis stands just outside, literally pressing his ear against the door. Who knew he was secretly a refugee from Downton Abbey?

The team’s temporary solution to their quandary? More callbacks! Ivy explains the situation to a pair of chorus pals, Kicky Dennis (the dancer who had a fling with Tom) and a girl we haven’t met yet; I’m going to call her Jessica, since that’s her name. Anyway — both possible Marilyns are going to be brought back to read scenes, while Karen’s also going to do a dance audition. After her friends reassure her that she’ll get the part, Ivy says she sure hopes so: “I really don’t want to put on those feathers anymore. I’m so sick of going out on that stage looking like a demented duck!” It could be worse, Ivy — at least they don’t strap a giant bratwurst to your head every night.

As Dev and Karen meet for a quick lunch and commiseration session, Social Worker Rene tells Frank and Julia what they have to look forward to: an arduous process that’ll probably take two whole years. I can’t wait to follow them every step of the way! Rene empathetically says she knows the waiting is the hardest part. Because we’re watching Smash rather than Glee, the scene thankfully doesn’t segue into a Tom Petty number.

NEXT: Dennis the Menace

Karen’s first dance rehearsal features an adorable, familiar face — Dennis, who’s acting as one of her backup dancers. And as he’s performing, he’s also mentally cataloging every one of Karen’s flaws so that he can report them back to his buddy Ivy. Devious! Mean-spirited! Melodramatic! I love it.

But casting, of course, is just one piece of the puzzle. Now that Julia and Tom have a concept and a handful of catchy tunes, they’re faced with an even bigger challenge: stringing them all together to make a coherent musical. As they face a bulletin board crammed with index cards that represent possible songs and scenes, Julia proposes something radical: using “Let Me Be Your Star” as the show’s opening number. She describes her vision. The curtain rises on pre-Hollywood Norma Jeane getting berated by other wannabe starlets before breaking into her big solo. Julia’s explanations are interspersed with shots of the number as it would appear onstage.

“But which girl plays Marilyn?” Ellis suddenly interjects, Apparating in from out of nowhere. “Well, we don’t know that yet, do we?” Julia responds snippily. Bless her heart — the lyricist doesn’t like Tom’s lackey any more than I do. She really should have insisted that Assistant Boy stay fired. Ellis casually makes a remark about the show being his idea, then pretends to leave for the dry cleaner. But instead of doing errands, Ellis lingers outside Tom and Julia’s door and obeys Beyonce’s orders.

Karen’s dance rehearsal is a hot mess. Every time she falters or looks the tiniest bit unsure, Derek barks at her and saps her confidence even further. Finally, Derek asks his assistant Josh to show her the combination yet again while he heads out to the hallway, where Ivy is waiting.

The blonde’s been passing the time by reading a giant biography of Marilyn Monroe — one of several she’s apparently devoured since making that demo. Ivy’s also watched every one of the screen siren’s films, “even Monkey Business.” (Yes, Marilyn Monroe and Cary Grant made a prototypical Dunston Checks In.) When the dancers finally stream out of the studio, Ivy catches Dennis’s eye; he shakes his head gleefully, indicating that Karen’s totally tanking. To add insult to injury, Derek even slams the door in the brunette’s face when she tries to ask him one last question.

Later, over hot dogs (hot dogs!), Karen complains to Perfect Dev that the director is a psychopath. Her endlessly patient boyfriend listens and sympathizes like a pro before telling her that they’ve been invited to dinner by a deputy mayor. It’s the kind of occasion that could lead to a promotion for Dev… and it happens to be on the same night as Karen’s next rehearsal. I think we can all see where this is going.

Ivy practices her breathy, quasi-cartoonish Marilyn voice in Heaven on Earth‘s dressing room. It’s cute and ridiculous and a thousand times more fun than the next scene, which takes place at Julia and Frank’s place. Julia’s husband reveals that he’s not sure if he wants to do the adoption anymore; son Leo overhears and storms out of the house. The kid and his mom then have an emotional heart-to-heart that might have been touching if Leo were played by a better actor.

NEXT: In which the lady is sort of a tramp

Ivy and Tom subsequently share a moment that really is touching. He visits her dressing room to offer words of support and encouragement, even telling her he wishes he could have just given her the part. I love Ivy and Tom’s relationship, and I’m really excited to see how it’ll change now that she’s finally getting her big break.

Oh, Anjelica, there you are! Eileen goes to meet Derek at a restaurant — characters in Smash are like Brad Pitt in Ocean’s Eleven: always eating, or at least about to eat — and finds herself face to face with soon-to-be-ex-husband Jerry. The two of them clash in a way that makes it clear they’ll be sleeping together within five episodes. She seals the convo with a kiss-off, throwing a Manhattan in Jerry’s face for good measure. There is nothing like a dame!

Back in Brooklyn, Frank drops another bomb on Julia: Since they’re probably not going to get a baby, he wants to go back to being a science teacher. Man, is adopting a baby really so laborious that people can’t hold regular jobs while they do it? I’m asking sincerely.

It’s Wednesday. Karen’s leaving the studio, all dressed up for Dev’s big dinner — but before she can escape, Derek tells her that they have to work on her scene. Instead of saying, “Okay, wait a minute — I just have to send a text,” Karen follows the director back inside. As she distractedly recites her lines, her phone buzzes and buzzes. The big dinner is long over by the time Karen finally limps into the restaurant.

Her boyfriend is understandably upset. “I don’t understand why you couldn’t call or text!” he hisses. Yeah, neither do I. Karen’s response is incredibly lame: “I got confused. There wasn’t the right moment.” I’m not sure if Karen is shocked at how angry Dev is or Katharine McPhee is just failing to emote, but either way, her reaction is weirdly flat. No matter, though; after a brief fit of pique, Dev goes back to being perfect and forgives her.

Now it’s Ivy’s turn to read for Derek. When Karen did it, she wasn’t trying hard enough; when Ivy does it, she’s trying too hard. She even takes a break from acting to psychoanalyze Marilyn and demonstrate once more how much research she’s done. To Megan Hilty’s credit, this doesn’t seem obnoxious: Ivy just really, really wants to get everything right.

Which is why what happens next is so dismaying. As she tries her lines again, becoming more Marylinian with every word, Derek leans forward, clearly interested in more than her reading. He takes the liberty of letting her hair down, making her look sexily vulnerable… and next thing we know, the two of them are doing the nasty in Ivy’s bed. Oh, Ivy! What, what, what are you doing? You could have gotten the part without schtupping to conquer! I’m not angry — I’m just disappointed. (Fine, also I’m a little angry.)

NEXT: Ooo, foxy lady!

Time for Callbacks 2: Love Never Dies. As Dennis and Tom fawn over Ivy, Julia takes pity on poor, lonely Karen and tries to give her a few encouraging words. Then, when they’re left alone in the hallway, Ivy and Karen share a nice moment of amiable nervousness. Wouldn’t it be great if instead of constantly pitting them against each other, the show eventually allowed these two to be friends?

Before Karen starts her audition, Derek turns to the team and says something I suspect we’ll be hearing a lot: “The song was so good we went ahead and staged the whole thing.” Tonight’s major production number, “The 20th Century Fox Mambo,” is a sultry tune that imagines Marilyn getting made over before her first screen test. With her energetic, precise performance, Karen proves that she’s got both rhythm and music — so much for those rehearsal jitters. But because she never pauses to yell out “hot dogs,” I’m going to have to give the number a B+ to “The National Pastime”‘s A.

Of course, one triumphant showing does not a Marilyn make. When the team meets to deliberate some more, Tom again rushes to back Ivy. And this time, Derek echoes him. He says the blonde is intelligent, passionate and beautiful; what’s more, he loved her “reading of the new pages,” which is subtle code for “style of doin’ it.” As they talk — all together now — Ellis is again listening at the door. His sproingy hair is full of secrets.

Finally, they come to a decision and Tom delivers the good news to Ivy. Hugs all around! Meanwhile, in the producer’s office, Derek tells Eileen they need to discuss something. Is he going to confess to sleeping with their new leading lady? No — he just wants to let her know that although Jerry tried to poach him for that My Fair Lady revival, which is on after all, he elected to stay with Marilyn and Eileen instead. Aww, the man has a heart!

Speaking of heart: We follow Julia to a support group for prospective adoptive parents. They’ve each been tasked with writing a letter to their hypothetical baby’s birth mother. Julia’s the only person there without a spouse. But as she’s reading her missive, Frank shows up and grabs a chair after all. So the adoption is back on? Eh, whatever. Wake me up when they actually bring Annie back from China.

Ivy celebrates by going out to drinks with Tom and the chorus line. But because she’s a Broadway star now — and because there haven’t been many musical numbers tonight — she ends up serenading the crowd with an unfortunately sedate version of Carrie Underwood’s “Crazy Dreams.”

As she croons, we’re treated to an old-school, OC-style montage of characters looking either sad (Karen) or deep in thought (Eileen). There are also a few random clips of Karen practicing her dance combination and Eileen talking to Derek, because sure, why not. Though Ivy’s voice is lovely, this cover sort of sucks the air out of the episode. If only they could just end every week with “Let Me Be Your Star.”

NEXT: The Sparkly Scarf of Triumph

Time for Footlights!

– Like her namesake plant, Ivy will do whatever it takes to climb to the top. I only hope this doesn’t mean her character stops being sympathetic.

– In her episode-opening daydream, Karen’s wearing a truly bizarre tank top with an attached bow tie. Happily, she still has it on when we switch out of fantasy mode. Is this some sort of weird callback to The Playboy Club?

– Among Ivy’s pre-Marilyn credits: a stint in Wicked. Ha!

– Julia wants to write a number in which Joe DiMaggio, JFK and Arthur Miller sing about what they look for in a woman. I can’t decide if that sounds like fun or a train wreck.

– While Eileen’s insulting Jerry, Derek’s talking to Jordan Roth, a real-life Broadway power player. Apparently, in Smash‘s universe, he’s friends with a guy who’s writing a vampire musical.

– Later, Eileen calls someone named Bernie. Could that be a reference to this Bernie? Update: As a commenter points out, it’s more likely that this was a nod to Bernard Telsey, casting director extraordinaire. (He even cast Smash.)

– We don’t know much about Marilyn‘s book yet. But based on the few scene snippets we saw tonight, I’m going to go ahead and say that Julia’s a much better lyricist than playwright.

– So glad that YouLenz made another appearance at the end of the episode.

– Please note that as Ivy sings her final song, her neck is swathed in the Sparkly Scarf of Triumph. Karen’s own scarflessness, meanwhile, indicates deep despair.

Did you think Smash‘s second episode lived up to the premiere? Are you still humming “20th Century Fox Mambo”? And finally, did the team picked the right Marilyn?

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