Thursday, April 26, 2012

THAT Scene: A Bollywood number exemplifies the highs and many lows of Smash

Katharine McPhee in "A Thousand and One Nights," a Bollywood number from Smash's "Publicity."

THAT Scene is a new recurring feature that takes a closer look at a single scene that exemplifies a particular show, theme or moment in time. The scene might be good or bad, but it will always be memorable and worth talking about.

Smash is an incredibly frustrating series. It contains certain moments that are absolutely sublime and transporting in the way that only musical theater can be, but those moments are surrounded by absurdly over-the-top drama and conflicts that, rather than feeling like a natural outgrowth of the storytelling, seem as if they were dropped into the action to create false conflict. And while some of the characters - notably Tom, Derek and Eileen - are fascinating creations, they tend to get overshadowed by the soapier elements.

"A Thousand and One Nights" (also known as "the Bollywood number") encapsulates Smash's wildly uneven tone and and lazy storytelling perfectly. The number starts out as a bizarre exercise in WTF-ness, escalates into a wildly entertaining piece of musical theater, and completely falls apart after a moment of sober analysis. Plus, it's derailed in the middle by the appearance of Julia, Frank and the hilariously inept actor who plays their equally inept son.

I'm not going to lie; I really, really enjoyed this number the first time or five I watched it. And I continue to enjoy the hell out of it now, despite the many, many problematic elements at play. The tune is catchy enough that I've been singing it in the shower for two days, the choreography is incredibly fun (as a dancer, I'm a huge sucker for good choreography), and the costumes are shiny and brightly colored. "A Thousand and One Nights" is no "The Higher You Get, The Farther The Fall" or "Let's Be Bad," but it is a solid piece of theatricality, which is something I greatly appreciate.

Of course, it's not as simple as all that. When the cultural insensitivity on display in a number like this (I've been trying to decide if the stereotyped Bollywood fantasy would have been less offensive if Karen had a caucasian boyfriend, and I really don't know) is only the third or fourth most pressing problem, you know that there's trouble.

One of the issues plaguing "A Thousand and One Nights" is the trumped-up circumstances that bring it into being. I might be in the minority on this, but after the first couple episodes of the series, I really held out hope that Karen and Dev could have the kind of realistic, non-dramatic relationship that is very rarely shown on TV. They seemed like a really relatable couple, the kind of people who wouldn't be plagued by stupid misunderstandings and who would recognize petty fights for the unimportant occurrences that they were.

Unfortunately, Karen and Dev quickly got sucked into TV Land (a theoretical world where TV shows take place, not the network that re-runs old sitcoms). In TV Land, people in committed relationships are immediately cast under suspicion when they have friends of the opposite gender; they are constantly moaning about having to choose between their significant other and their career; and they take every tiny spat as a sign that their relationship isn't meant to be. As much as I hate, hate, hate Julia's storyline, at least the dissolution of her marriage is the result of actual problems, not random roadblocks created by writers who need to give Dev something to do.

Again, I may be in the minority on this one, but I actually quite like Dev. At least, I like the Dev we met at the beginning of the season. That Dev was smart and successful, supportive of his girlfriend, and fun. The current incarnation of Dev, however, makes terrible decisions for no reason other than to push the plot along, picks fights with Karen over nothing, and lies to his girlfriend to hang out with one of his female co-workers (whose name I refuse to learn, because she is a plot contrivance rather than a real character). And even when Bollywood hallucination Dev was being charming, singing and dancing like a pro (seriously, can Raza Jaffrey dance every week?), said plot contrivance had to show up in a cutaway tableau and ruin my fun.

Which brings me to the biggest structural problem of "A Thousand and One Nights," one that happens to mirror Smash's biggest problem: the cutaway scenes. The shots of Eileen and her new love, Julia and her awful family, Tom, Rebecca Duvall, Derek and Ivy and the plot contrivance interrupted the flow of the number. They weren't all terrible - in particular, the sight of Derek shuffling away after feeding grapes to Ivy was pretty fantastic - but they broke up the momentum in a serious way.

If we read this in terms of Smash as a whole, with the main action of the number as the mounting of the Bombshell production, "A Thousand and One Nights" serves as a pretty good mirror of the series that spawned it. The really interesting, fun stuff - the behind-the-scenes-of-Broadway action - keeps getting dragged down, broken up or totally ignored in the face of an onslaught of personal drama. Almost everything that works in Smash is related to Bombshell: all the best musical numbers, the fascinating verisimilitude of the work required to prepare a show for Broadway, and the conflict over writing styles and unprepared scenes is great. Unfortunately, all that good material is surrounded by a shit storm of soapiness that wouldn't feel out of place on later-season Gossip Girl, and it's getting harder and harder for the best facets of the show to climb out from under the crap.

The cutaways also illustrate the problematic tendency of Smash's writing to reduce even its most complex characters to easy archetypes or single character traits. Ivy is a diva; Tom is a commitment-phobic player; Eileen is a moony woman in love. Of course, these are all aspects of their personalities, but they're hardly the whole story. To watch any given episode of Smash is to see at least one character reduced to their most basic elements; in this particular episode, Ivy was a scheming diva and Karen was a naive rube from Iowa, while the previous episode had Tom as a manslut.

In the single most problematic reduction, Dev - who, let's not forget, has a degree from Oxford, which indicates that at least part of his identity is British - is reduced to being Indian. Never mind that he's a Brit who lives in New York and has a (mostly) successful career at the mayor's office; if he's going to sing and dance, it's going to be in a Bollywood number.

As I mentioned, I don't have a problem with the idea of a Bollywood number in and of itself, and I thought most of "A Thousand and One Nights" was very entertaining. Unfortunately, however, the entertainment factor doesn't make up for the fact that the single most developed character of color was reduced to his most basic ethnic identity in the name of fun. With Sam, as of now, limited to the trait trifecta of black, gay, and into sports (oh, and Christian, which really makes it worse), and Ellis second only to Leo in terms of awful (the shot of Ellis, dressed very much like Aladdin, stealing a bracelet from Eileen while she made out with her new boyfriend, was simultaneously the most hilarious and uncomfortable moment in the number, the episode, and the series to date), it's disappointing that Dev's big number was tied to such a reductive conception of his ethnic identity.

If I were willing to give the Smash writers any credit for subtlety, I might think that having a Bollywood number at this particular juncture in Karen and Dev's relationship was an interesting play on the conventions of the big Bollywood production number, which are frequently used to represent sexual desire while eliding actual sex. Playing those associations against the fissures in Dev and Karen's relationship could be a somewhat effective way of illustrating the new hollowness of their relationship, which has all the trappings of a real romance without any of the heat.

But, as much as I would like to think that this type of symbolic representation at least occurred to the writers when they were scripting "Publicity," I have to assume that this is just a figment of my imagination. "A Thousand and One Nights" probably happened because the episode needed a big production number, Dev happens to be of Indian descent, and Katharine McPhee looks good with a bare midriff. The number, like so much of Smash, is entertaining at the expense of coherent plot development and complex characters. The writers need to realize that sometimes entertainment - even top-quality entertainment, like so much of "A Thousand and One Nights" and somewhat less of Smash as a whole - isn't enough. Not when you sacrifice everything else for it.


  1. Don't forget that A thousand and one nights, a genie bottle, and belly dancing don't quite fit in with a Bollywood number and a picture of the Taj Mahal in the background. It makes the writers look pretty ignorant.

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