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“Smash” – Episode 5

March 6, 2012

Episode 5, “Let’s Be Bad,” sets up some personal conflicts and expands on some already set up and developing. However, I don’t want to get into the soap-opera aspects of the show: I would rather discuss a little something that irritates me. Since I like so very, very much about this show, the annoyances loom larger than they would probably seem otherwise.

Here’s the thing: Character Derek Wills, the show’s director, has repeatedly shown himself to be an obnoxious and egotistical, yet talented, artist. Tom, the composer, calls him “a horrible human being.” His talents are supposed to be so unbelievably great that people tend to cut him a lot of slack in both his professional and personal relationships. Okay, I’ve known some artistic types like that. Most of the time they weren’t nearly as talented as they thought themselves to be.

Let’s say, just for the sake of argument, that Derek really is that good. Does that excuse the fact that he is having an affair with (or, to be more accurate, just sleeping with) the show’s star – and he has been since before she was selected for the role of Marilyn? Is this common practice in the world of today’s Broadway shows? I hope not. Perhaps it’s just a plot device, like in any other show, designed to increase the conflict between the characters.

Okay, I’ll concede that it might just be dramatic license. But his behavior in rehearsal – a professional environment – is another thing altogether. Lots of shows about musicians, actors and other entertainers have featured the stereotypical obnoxious, demanding boss: sometimes it’s done for drama, sometimes for comedic effect.

One of my pet peeves in the “Law and Order” franchises is their treatment of artists of all types. (They also consistently hate rich people – all rich people. But that’s for another day.) Temperamental, overbearing painters, orchestra conductors, architects,even novelists have usually been portrayed pretty much one-dimensional. Even murderers generally got treated better!

But I digress. In this episode, Derek not only embarrasses Ivy in front of the ensemble – repeatedly – he even forces Karen to demonstrate how he wants Ivy to sing a passage, in what I thought to be a very uncomfortable scene. (At least it was uncomfortable for me.) This is made worse by the fact that he asks her to sing “Happy Birthday, Mister President,” which Karen had sung for him the night he tried to seduce her. He even says, “I’ve heard you do it, go ahead,” or words to that effect, implying to everyone in the room that something personal had taken place between them in the past. Why does he not think this would undermine the ensemble’s respect for him?

The writers make sure we know that there are union-mandated breaks in rehearsals by creating a character who is basically just  there for that purpose. Do they really expect us to believe that Actors’ Equity is concerned about the timing of rehearsal breaks but not about harassment – in particular, pretty obvious sexual harassment?

I’ve worked with many, many musicians, students and adults, amateur and professional. It doesn’t matter what group you work with. All artists deserve to be treated with respect. Derek’s behavior would get him fired in most of the situations I’ve been in, no matter how talented he might be.

This is why I couldn’t write tv drama. I couldn’t force my own suspension of disbelief enough to set up the dramatic tension in this way. I’ll keep watching, not expecting it to be real life. The musical performances are just too much fun for me to abandon the show now. In fact, I haven’t heard a musical number in the show yet that I haven’t thoroughly enjoyed. But…I can hope for a little reality thrown in, though, can’t I?

Maybe not. I realize that since this a “musical about the making of a musical,” there’s not much more chance that the plot line will be realistic than that the intercuts from the rehearsals to full performances of the musical numbers really happen that way…

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