It aims to be a semi-realistic look behind the scenes of the business that is show, but also to be out there in the audience happily basking in a heightened song-and-dance number. And it tries to offer two different ideas about stardom, about whether stars are born or made, via Karen and Ivy and via Marilyn Monroe, the subject of "Bombshell," the musical that they and the other characters of "Smash" are hoping to make into a hit.
The series hasn't balanced any of these elements well post-pilot, but it's the last aspect that's been its major setback and, unintentionally, its most profound meta-commentary about contemporary celebrity. Stardom is comprised of raw talent and/or beauty, training, luck and, and "Smash" is wont to remind us, something else, something ineffable, a quality that you recognize even if it can't be quantified. And over its season, "Smash" has insisted, again and again, that Karen, the doe-eyed ingenue from Iowa, embodies that quality despite her inexperience -- that's she's destined to become a star.
Ivy and Hilty are simply more interesting, more complicated and more vital, an issue the show tried to tackle by having Ivy act ever more irrational and evil as events progressed, ending with what was either an act of genuine despair or even more impressive one of attention-seeking passive aggression. By always assuming that your sympathies are with Karen, and that fate is on her side, "Smash" is filled with a strange sense of resignation -- why try? There's no way to earn your way into the spotlight -- some people are just born with it, baby, or as Derek tells Ivy with the brutality that only a creative egomaniac can summon for his sort-of girlfriend, "She just has something that you don't."
There's no denying that some people have that essence that just makes them watchable -- Monroe, maybe more than any other actress, had it, was luminous on screen for reasons beyond just looks. But in trying to tell a story about that "it" factor, "Smash" actually ends up being about another aspect of stardom entirely, one that's about the people dictating it rather than about who's on screen. McPhee conveniently came into the spotlight thanks to "American Idol," a show that owes its success not as much to the talent it has showcased as to its voting process, which allows the audience to be the one in charge, invited them to invest in the competitors and also making them the unspoken stars of the show -- the audience is allowed to insist that someone is deserving of fame, even if that time in the spotlight is brief.
It's no coincidence that Uma Thurman's guest arc as movie star Rebecca Duvall, the singing talent-free but famous A-lister brought in to give "Bombshell" some oomph, gave "Smash" a brief jolt of life. She represented what even the show was willing to allow an injustice -- that someone without any particular gift for the stage could waltz in to the most covetable role based on her preexisting celebrity and draw. She didn't deserve it, but (until her inevitable exit) she was going to get the part anyway, because that's the way the pragmatic, calculating way the showbiz world can and often does work. For once "Smash" felt like it was being honest. Well, until it circled back where it started and tried to have us once again rooting for Karen to pick herself up off the floor and take to the stage like she apparently deserved.
Here's hoping in the next season "reboot" mentioned by star Christian Borle, who plays Tom, in his interview with the LA Times, "Smash" can let both Karen and Ivy be more than just saint and villain, and can stop trying to force our affection for a character who's yet to really earn it.