Derek schemes to turn Marilyn into a techno-pop nightmare; somehow, this turns out not to be a good idea

By Hillary Busis
March 27, 2012 at 06:04 AM EDT
Craig Blankenhorn/NBC
S1 E8
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Between the frenetic pacing, the gratuitous celebrity cameo — Hi, Ryan Tedder! Bye, Ryan Tedder! — and that cheese-tastic bowling alley number, tonight’s episode of Smash reminded me of Glee. And I don’t mean that in a good way. “The Workshop” was stuffed with drama, Bernadette Peters, and pure Broadway goodness. “The Coup,” by contrast, was just stuffed with…stuff. Including a dull Dev plot that makes Juila’s adoption look as fascinating as Inception by comparison.

Maybe this installment was so jittery and unfocused because Smash‘s characters are feeling jittery and unfocused after their less-than-triumphant workshop. Or maybe it was just an accidental whiff; after all, if you make 15 episodes of something, one of them is bound to be a dud. All I know is that this is the first time I’ve walked away from Smash without having one of its originals stuck in my head — and that isn’t a good sign.

Also not a good sign: Neither Marilyn‘s cast nor its writers have any idea whether Eileen intends to keep propelling their show forward. They’re being kept in the dark because the producer and her director have secretly decided to try taking the musical in a different direction — one that involves a new composer and creepy, bargain-brand Sleep No More masks. Because if there’s one thing Marilyn is missing, it’s Eau de Eyes Wide Shut.

Derek calls Karen to an out-of-the-way restaurant so that he can break the news to her, then drops another revelation: They want Iowa herself to perform the new song they’ve commissioned. Sweet, simple Karen used to live in Africa with all the little birdies and the little monkeys, so she doesn’t really understand that agreeing to this is a big slap in the scarf to Tom and Julia.

Speaking of neck wear: Julia meets with Michael in a playground. She casually asks about his family; he reveals to his lover that his wife and son are frolicking at that very same playground. Ellis, you’re off the hook: Michael, you’re officially the worst. Anyway, DiMaggio intuits that he’s been fired, then tries to save face by claiming that he would have quit anyway: “They’re everything to me,” he says, looking at the wife and kid he has suddenly deigned to care about. Whatever, Swift; go back to oversinging in your experimental Bruno Mars show.

Karen wants to cook some curry for Dev, but he blows her off to get dinner with hot New York Times reporter RJ. The reporter tells Dev that she’s got dirt on his rival for the press secretary job. My eyes glaze over; it’s been minutes and minutes since someone made a Sondheim reference. If I wanted to see cops, lawyers, or political intrigue, I would watch any other television show. Get it together, Smash!

Eileen, meanwhile, is busy spending time with her visiting daughter Katie. Katie is the kind of girl who devotes her life to helping the poor because she’s secretly ashamed of how rich she is. The kid — played by Grace Gummer, offspring of Meryl Streep’s cheekbones — lets her mother know that Jerry has dumped a cool $3 million in her trust fund. He’s being generous specifically to spite Eileen. Wait, why can’t Katie invest in Marilyn? Wouldn’t that solve a lot of problems?

NEXT: My bad — logic has no place on Smash!

Karen has another clandestine meeting with Derek, this time at a waterfront warehouse-cum-stage in Brooklyn. He introduces her to Ryan Tedder of OneRepublic, and the singer and Karen trade awkward, effusive compliments. At least they stop short of calling each other “scrumtrulescent.” Ryan, evidently, is working on Derek and Eileen’s secret show concept.

Remember how Leo, son of Julia, got arrested for loitering in Central Park? In a short scene, Boring Lawyer John manages to get the charges expunged from his record. Cool — put an X next to that one on the Dangling Plot Threads checklist.

Katie — perhaps having utilized a Parent Trap-style plan — gets her dueling progenitors in the same room and tries to act as an ersatz mediator. Predictably, it does not go well, though Jerry does escape with a dry face this time. The great thing: Terrible Ellis gets told off not once, but twice. Katie even slams a door in his face after she catches him listening to Eileen’s meeting. She really is a do-gooder!

Ivy is still a character on this show, though we haven’t seen her much tonight; she’s been busy moping, unsure about her future with Marilyn. Not-Straight Sam and his gang of merry Broadway misfits decide to cheer her up by dragging her to Brooklyn Bowl. Something tells me Ivy is not the sort of person who enjoys wearing rented shoes. In any case, the outing devolves into an utterly gratuitous musical number that doesn’t bother trying to serve a narrative purpose. It might have worked if the show had decided to re-stage Grease 2‘s “Score Tonight;” alas, they go with Sly and the Family Stone’s “Dance to the Music” instead. (I can’t hear this song without thinking of Shrek’s karaoke dance party. Just me?)

Exhausted from the day’s intrigue, Ellis lounges with the human female specimen Smash wants us to call his “girlfriend.” Cyn mildly chastises him for his wicked ways — earlier that day, Ivy caught Ellis spying on her — but Terribilus Rex ignores her, musing that both Tom and Ivy are losers. “Artists get treated like dirt,” he announces. “I’m going to be a producer.” Break a leg, Ellis. Seriously. Hell, break both.

Dev invites Hot RJ and a band of politically minded pranksters over to zzzzz — oops, sorry! They’re planning to smear his City Hall rival’s name by exposing some naked photos the guy sent to the Mayor of D.C.’s 17-year-old daughter. Mercifully, their shenanigans are cut short when Karen comes home. She’s in a bad mood — Bobby just manipulated her into revealing that she’s been secretly working with Derek. Psst, writers: Replace Ellis scenes with Bobby scenes, and I promise I’ll stop making fun of you so much.

NEXT: “Touch Me!” Except not the one from Rocky Horror or Spring Awakening

Eileen and Katie greet Tom and Julia at Derek’s Theater of Secrets. Though the creative duo don’t know it yet, they’re about to see the director’s new concept for the show, which is…a bland electro-pop number? With lyrics like, “Come on turn me on / Come on be my Marlon Brando”? And in it, Karen wears a dress made of a sheet, and writhes around on a bed, and the bed transforms into a cage? Katie will later call the piece “toxic garbage,” and while I wouldn’t go that far, it certainly isn’t much better than the bowling scene. What could possibly have possessed Derek to think this would work in a Broadway show?

Thankfully, Julia and Tom agree with me. When Karen stops singing, they stare at Derek, horrified, as he explains that he thinks Marilyn may work better if it’s more contemporary. So… if it isn’t a musical about Marilyn Monroe, then. The composer and the lyricist are, shall we say, less than thrilled. Tom starts laying into Derek, and Karen apologes profusely. If only she had stayed home, where it’s safe and hot dogs are plentiful.

Katie, meanwhile, drags her mom outside and says that this is the kind of crap that “made me want to flee to Micronesia.” Musicals really can change the world! Eileen’s daughter warns the producer that she’s becoming an unscrupulous, disloyal jerk, just like her ex-husband. It’s enough to shame Eileen into slinking back inside and apologizing to Tom, Julia, and Derek in turn.

Ellis swoops in and tells the still shell-shocked group that what Eileen “means to say” is that they’ll all discuss the show’s future at a meeting the next day. Julia’s so drained that she can barely summon the energy to direct her righteous fury at The Terrible One. Still, she manages eventually to get up — leaving Tom and Derek alone together.

The scene that follows is the episode’s best, even if it also has a few clunky moments. In it, we learn why Tom hates Derek: 11 years ago, the two were pals who worked on a show together. Though a New York Times critic praised Derek’s direction, the show was a failure — and Derek added insult to injury by trashing Tom to anyone who would listen, calling him unstable and overrated. Also, the Brit’s a bit of a homophobe. Maybe he’s so vicious toward gay dudes because — according to Tom, anyway — the Times critic was sleeping with Derek’s father. Ooo, brilliant idea! Can Ian McKellen please, please play Derek’s dad?

NEXT: Guys, guys — just make out already

Derek also thinks that Tom doesn’t have enough edge to do Marilyn justice. The actress wasn’t just sweet: “She was also a drug-addicted, suicidal sexual icon the likes of which the world cannot get enough.” We’ll chalk that “concrete jungle where dreams are made of” grammar up to rage. Regardless, Tom snarls that he isn’t quitting the show, and Derek declares that he isn’t either. Guys, guys — just make out already.

At a short meeting, Eileen tells T&J that Marilyn doesn’t need a new composer — but she does need an established star. Oh, and a title that’s a bit more inventive than Marilyn. As the team leaves, they discover that Ellis has officially jumped ship; now he’s working for Eileen. “I’d say good riddance, but we’re still stuck with him,” Julia notes wearily behind her diva shades. Did she borrow those from Ivy?

Katie tells Eileen that she’s leaving New York to count salmon in Alaska. Also, a whale is in trouble. At least she fills her mom’s enormous, empty apartment with a bunch of imperialism-themed furniture from Anthropologie before she leaves.

When Tom gently tells Ivy that she’s no longer the star of Marilyn, she takes the news surprisingly well. (Guess she’s off that mood-swing-inducing Prednisone.) Once she gets home, though, Ivy is a wreck, mournfully singing “Let Me Be Your Star” to herself as she stares at the mirror. A few more minutes of this, and she might fall into Miss Havisham territory.

But before she can reach that point, Derek arrives at her door and tells Ivy that she was better than good in the workshop. And he couldn’t tell her this during rehearsal because? Derek’s slights are forgotten as Ivy welcomes the director back into her bed. Oy, forget Miss Havisham; these two are more like Bill and Nancy.

Footlights:

– Oh, in case you were wondering: Dev’s plan to destroy his rival didn’t work. Perhaps this means the end of City Hall plots? ( I wouldn’t hold my breath.)

– I know I didn’t fully recap another “The Coup” musical moment. But the less said about Brian d’Arcy James singing Bob Marley while wearing a pork pie hat, the better.

– I do legitimately like Mahatma Katie’s nickname, though.

– One good thing about “Dance to the Music”: It gave us a chance to hear Marilyn‘s other ensemble members sing. Sam, especially, has a nice pair of pipes.

– “Score Tonight” is a thing of beauty. Best part: that random nun in the bowling alley.

– Tonight’s Marilyn psychoanalysis came via Derek, who advises Karen not to be “afraid of the sex.” He then immediately contradicts himself by saying that it’s good that she’s afraid of sex: “It’s what Marilyn had. Purity. And on top of that purity was sex.” Oh, okay, makes perfect sense.

Sigh. I’m going to go watch YouTube videos of Idina Menzel and dream of better episodes. Did you, like me, think “The Coup” was a bust? What should the show do to improve — especially now that it’s been renewed for a second season? And how long do you think it’ll be before Dev sleeps with RJ?

Hillary on Twitter

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