Sunday, May 27, 2012

Smashed

It seems strange to think that only a few months ago, Smash was being touted as the show that would save network television.  As you'll know even if you haven't been following the show, simply from the tenor of the conversation surrounding it, this has turned out to be most emphatically not the case, but if Smash couldn't be excellent, engaging, fun TV, it has at least proved to be the next best thing--a series whose creators' arrogant certainty that they are crafting a masterpiece is matched only by their inability to grasp just how far the finished product falls from perfection.  Smash doesn't quite reach Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip levels of hubris, but it comes close enough to make one wonder whether that quality is a particular pitfall of the "let's put on a show" genre.

Smash, whose first season came to a close last week, follows the early stages of the production, from inception to previews, of Bombshell, a new Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe.  Its main characters are writer/composer team Julia Houston and Tom Levitt (Deborah Messing and Christian Borle), director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport),  producer Eileen Rand (Angelica Huston), and the two actresses vying for the role of Marilyn, newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) and long-time chorus girl Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty).  The show's flaws have been enumerated too many times in too many places for me to need to go into them in much detail here.  Most of them stem from a crucial disconnect between writers and viewers, an inability to convince us that what we're seeing on screen is what the writers want us to see.  That Julia's marital woes are high drama rather than an insipid, soapy storyline that only distracts from the main event of the musical's production (and along the way seems to find endless ways of castigating Julia for failing as a wife and a mother).  That the character of Ellis (Jaime Cepero), a power-hungry assistant dreaming of a producer's credit, is a true Eve Harrington rather than a talentless troll whose transparent and ineffective conniving the rest of the cast inexplicably tolerates instead of booting Ellis to the curb.  Most of all, that the wan and listless Karen is the true future star while Ivy, whose performances pop off the screen, brimming not just with musical talent but with the energy and emotion that set apart a musical theater performer from just a person who can sing, is the also-ran (Hilty's credibility as a Broadway star, by the way, is well earned--she's had starring roles in several productions, including, just this year, the Marilyn role in a revival of Gentlemen Prefer Blondes).

Where I demur from the consensus about Smash is the oft-expressed sentiment that the one advantage it has over Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip is that its show-within-a-show is convincing as a worthwhile cultural artifact that is actually as good as the characters in the show-without-the-show think it is.  The songs for Bombshell were written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, an actual Broadway songwriting team, and, taken individually, they are indeed very good.  Cleverly written and instantly hummable (I could rattle off a few bars of several right now), they are the only part of Smash that feels as if it was created by people who actually know what they're doing.  Taken as an aggregate, however, a certain obviousness begins to emerge.  The view the songs take of Marilyn is familiar and not a little shopworn.  We've got Marilyn using Hollywood as an escape from her sad life and the love of the crowds as a substitute for the love she never felt in her personal life--the opening number, "Let Me Be Your Star," bids farewell to Norma Jean Baker as Marilyn begs the audience to accept her.  We've got Marilyn as a canny user of sexuality--the brassy "I've Never Met a Wolf Who Didn't Love to Howl" explains how to make the most of your assets--and as a victim of it--singing bitterly in "On Lexington & 52nd Street," Joe DiMaggio expresses his frustration at being married to a sex symbol, as epitomized by the Manhattan street corner on which the famous skirt-billowing scene in The Seven Year Itch takes place.  And, of course, we've got Marilyn, the wounded, emotionally unstable orphan too fragile for this world--the sad ballad "Secondhand White Baby Grand" compares Marilyn to an old piano and reminds us that "something secondhand and broken/Still can make a pretty sound."

Smash tries to echo and modernize these issues in its show-without-the-show storylines--like Marilyn, Ivy has her own problems with pills but is also more aware of their dangers and less willing to be browbeaten into using them, and her relationship with Derek seems at first like a classic casting couch situation but develops into something more complex; Karen, meanwhile, is torn between beckoning stardom and her non-theater-person boyfriend who, though supportive, doesn't understand either her drive or the demands of the life she's chosen.  But, like everything else non-musical about the show, these plotlines are handled in such a trite, unconvincing fashion that it's left to the songs to shoulder the show's entire thematic burden where Marilyn is concerned.  Which leaves Bombshell feeling not only obvious, but shapeless--there's never any sense of the story that Tom and Julia are trying to tell about Marilyn, or any statement they're building up to.  As good as the individual songs are, the musical they belong to quickly comes to seem like a string of Marilyn Monroe clichés.  (For a while I thought this reaction was at least in part the result of not being very versed in Broadway musicals, but here's New York Magazine's theater critic Scott Brown, in an article asking if Broadway songwriting is in crisis, noting that Smash seems to reflect a trend of neglecting the "book"--the storyline and non-musical portions of the play--in favor of the music, and saying that Bombshell has "no discernible book.")

The paucity of Smash's ideas about Marilyn is exposed in the mid-season episode "The Coup."  Following a tepidly received workshop performance, Derek tries to wrest control of the show by suggesting his own spin on the material.  Working with Karen, he stages a number called "Touch Me," which features Karen writhing in a state of near-undress, initially inviting the audience but then menaced by faceless figures who transform the bed she's been dancing on into a cage.  Tom and Julia are appalled by this betrayal of their vision (and by how terrible "Touch Me" is--if the goal was to replicate soulless, personality-free manufactured pop, the job could scarcely have been done better).  What they should be appalled by, however, is that by stripping away their clever lyrics and arrangements, "Touch Me" reveals how many hands their take on Marilyn has already passed through.  More than anything, "Touch Me" is reminiscent--to the point of seeming derivative--of Britney Spears's "Piece of Me" (and even more than that it puts me in mind of this rather brilliant fanvid juxtaposing the song's triumphant lyrics with the not-so-triumphant reality that inspired them).  And Spears is of course a wannabe Madonna, an artist who based a substantial portion of her public image on Marilyn while updating it to reflect modern notions of sexual and economic autonomy--most notably in "Material Girl," whose video famously quotes the staging of "Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend" from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes.  In other words, Smash's ideas about Marilyn Monroe are less innovative and less original than a 25-year-old pop song.

The "Touch Me" debacle pretends to be a conflict over the soul of the musical.  "Marilyn was gorgeous and wounded," Derek sneeringly tells Tom in a shouting match they have after it, a scene that might have been one of the season's highlights were the issues it raises not so thoroughly squandered. "But she was also a drug-addicted sexual icon the likes of which the world cannot get enough.  She is an insanely provocative and timeless figure.  She is not some sweet little gay male fantasy."  For the rest of the season, Derek insists that he alone has the vision and the guts to turn Bombshell into art, but his decisions--or rather, the one decision to cast Karen, rather than Ivy, as Marilyn--move the show in the direction of safe, inoffensive, crowd-pleasing pap--a sweet little fantasy, and not so much gay as asexual.  It's obviously a mug's game to complain about the inconsistent or nonsensical behavior of Smash characters--we're talking about a series whose cast includes one attempted poisoner, one sexual harasser, and a man who calmly explains to his girlfriend that she should be fine with his infidelity because it's in the service of the show's success, and outside of campy soap opera (which Smash is sadly far too self-serious ever to be), it's never a good sign when writers have to make a substantial portion of their cast into sociopaths in order for the plot to work.  But neutering Bombshell not only destroys the one aspect of Smash that works, it completely defangs the characters' insistence that they are doing something worthwhile, and only further exposes the hollowness of their vision of Marilyn, if someone as bland and unsexy as Karen is good enough to fulfill it.

It was thus with perfect timing that The London Review of Books published, halfway into Smash's season, the text of Jacqueline Rose's lecture "A Rumbling of Things Unknown," which shows that there are still ways of talking about Marilyn Monroe that don't descend into the same familiar clichés.  Rose's piece reveals a Marilyn who is not just intelligent, well-read, and bent on self-improvement--aspects of her personality that Bombshell, at its best, ignores, and at its worst seems almost to be mocking--but politically savvy, able to connect the trap laid for her by Hollywood's attitudes towards gender and sexuality with issues of race and class, and both versed and invested in the political issues of her day.  This is all, perhaps, rather heady stuff for a musical, but it is rather depressing that when Tom and Julia are finally called upon to come up with a final statement on Marilyn, it is almost the exact opposite of Rose's lecture.  In the play's first preview, the audience is dumbfounded by its ending, in which Marilyn kills herself and the curtain falls.  Though the blame for this is placed, rather typically, squarely on Julia's shoulders ("She died!" Julia indignantly responds), this is yet another demonstration of Smash--and Bombshell's--neglect of the book.  Until this point, it had genuinely not occurred to anyone involved with the production that something more meaningful than the simple chronological recitation of the events of Marilyn's life--set to song--was necessary to make a good show.

Tom and Julia hastily cobble together a closing song, "Don't Forget Me," sung by Marilyn to the audience after her death.  It's the only Shaiman & Wittman song that I genuinely dislike, not simply because its lyrics, in contrast to the witty wordplay that characterizes Bombshell's other songs, are obvious and insipid ("But forget every man who I ever met/Because they only live to control/For a kiss they paid a thousand/Yet they paid fifty cents for my soul"), but because it serves to completely depoliticize Marilyn.  "If you see someone lost and in need of a hand/Don't forget me," Karen sings, and later "There are some born to shine who can't do it alone/So protect them and take special care," as if the only problem Marilyn had was that she was in need of a hand, and as if the Hollywood system that both made her and helped to destroy her was guilty of nothing more than not taking enough care.  If Jacqueline Rose shows us a Marilyn whose exploitation she herself can connect to the systematic exploitation of racial minorities and lower classes, Bombshell, in its final statement on her, pretends that Marilyn's own exploitation was the result of bad people, not a system designed to do just that.  (This is somewhat counteracted earlier in the musical, in two songs--"Don't Say Yes Until I've Finished Talking" and "Smash"--in which the Hollywood system's predatory approach towards young actresses is addressed, but as both of these songs are focused on the single figure of Darryl F. Zanuck, and the former even make much of his idiosyncrasies and autocratic temperament, it's hard to see them as extending past that figure, especially in light of "Don't Forget Me.")

Bombshell is not the only worthwhile thing about Smash--Angelica Huston is wonderful as Eileen, it's great that Jack Davenport has not only been given a major role but one that gives him a chance to be snide and sarcastic as often as possible, and the Broadway actors with which the show's cast has been stuffed are uniformly excellent, particularly Borle and Hilty, whose careers, on and off Broadway, will hopefully receive great boosts from the show.  But pretty much everyone on this list is working against their material, struggling to craft believable, complex people despite a writing room that has the impulse towards campy soap but produces po-faced melodrama.  Bombshell was Smash's one chance to work as intended, but it too falls prey to the show's critical disconnect between what shows up on screen and what the writers think they are producing.  "I don't want anyone else to do her," Julia tells her husband in the pilot episode, implying that she has some special insight into Marilyn, some idea of how to do her right that no one else will.  But that idea, as both the platitudes that open that exchange in the pilot ("she wanted so much to love and be loved") and the rest of the season reveal, is entirely conventional and familiar.  Which is the problem with Smash, in a nutshell.

Monday, May 21, 2012

REVIEW: The Avengers

My review of The Avengers appears today at Strange Horizons.  Short version: I enjoyed the film, but not nearly as much as so many other have done, and certainly not to a degree that makes its phenomenal box office success understandable to me.  As impressive as it is in its ability to tie together characters and plot points from five previous movies, I can't help but think that The Avengers also lays out very clearly why the Marvel movie franchise is fundamentally flawed.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Women and Horses

Earlier this spring, HBO cancelled Luck, a show set in and around a struggling Southern California horse-racing track from Deadwood creator David Milch, then several weeks into the filming of its second season, following the death of one the horses used on set.  Two other horses had already died during the filming of Luck's first season, and in the face of intense criticism following those deaths the production promised to tighten its safety protocols.  When these proved ineffective, HBO and Luck's producers jointly came to the decision to pull the plug. 

I never fell in love with Luck, which outside of its tense, riveting horse racing sequences always seemed a little too benign for its subject matter, but I did enjoy the first season and was looking forward to the second.  Nevertheless, the news of the show's cancellation came as a relief to me.  I was deeply troubled when I learned about the first two horse deaths on Luck's set, and the third one left me wondering whether I had any right to continue watching the show.  Much as I liked Luck, it seemed like the height of entitled hedonism to accept and even expect that helpless, innocent creatures would have to die for the sake of my entertainment.  At the time of the cancellation, a lot of people (myself included) assumed that HBO was using the horses' deaths as an excuse to justify cancelling a low-rated and only moderately well-received show, but information that has come to light since then (including HBO's claims about the cost of cancelling the show) suggests that the people who made that decision had qualms similar to mine, and that they truly did put an end to something they loved because it could only live at another creature's expense.

Not long after Luck's cancellation, however, I read the New York Times's profile of safety practices--or rather their absence--in real American racetracks, which result in a rate of death for horses (and of death and catastrophic injury for jockeys) besides which Luck's death count is practically insignificant.  The gap between these two entertainment industries' attitude towards the deaths of horses--a show-stopping calamity on television is just the cost of doing business in horse racing--made me realize just how situational were the ethical qualms that I--and, presumably, executives at HBO and the Luck production--had experienced.  That gap came once again to my mind last week when I read Emily Nussbaum's essay on Game of Thrones in The New Yorker.  Nussbaum, notwithstanding that she has an excellent last name, has for some time been my favorite professional TV reviewer, but the Game of Thrones piece felt a little by the numbers, a little too repetitive of ideas that have already been raised about this much-discussed show.  It was only in her final paragraph that Nussbaum made me sit up and take notice.
As with “True Blood,” the show’s most graphic elements—the cruel ones, the fantasy ones, and the cruel-fantasy ones—speak to female as well as male viewers. (One of the nuttiest quotes I’ve ever read came from Alan Ball, “True Blood” ’s showrunner, who said that a focus group had revealed that men watched his series for the sex and women for the romance. Please.) But there is something troubling about this sea of C.G.I.-perfect flesh, shaved and scentless and not especially medieval. It’s unsettling to recall that these are not merely pretty women; they are unknown actresses who must strip, front and back, then mimic graphic sex and sexual torture, a skill increasingly key to attaining employment on cable dramas. During the filming of the second season, an Irish actress walked off the set when her scene shifted to what she termed “soft porn.” Of course, not everyone strips: there are no truly explicit scenes of gay male sex, fewer lingering shots of male bodies, and the leading actresses stay mostly buttoned up. Artistically, “Game of Thrones” is in a different class from “House of Lies,” “Californication,” and “Entourage.” But it’s still part of another colorful patriarchal subculture, the one called Los Angeles.
The train of thought this observation started on its tracks received a boost several days later from Troy VanDerWerff's AV Club review of the most recent Game of Thrones episode, "The Old Gods and the New."  Discussing a brutal, graphic scene in which the character Sansa Stark (played by Sophie Turner) is separated from her guards by rioters who beat her, tear her clothes, and are about to rape her when she is rescued with murderous efficiency, VanDerWerff notes:
Sophie Turner was most likely 15 when that scene was filmed. 15! I know that’s old enough to know about the ugly things of the world, like sexual violence, but it still horrifies me.
Since its premiere last year, Game of Thrones has come under a lot of fire for its copious use--some might say reliance--on nudity and depictions of sex and sexual violence.  Some of these complaints have obviously been heard and applied to the show's second season--the much-derided "sexposition" has been toned down considerably (I can think of only one scene in the second season that answers the description, a somewhat sickening sequences in the second episode in which the weaselly, self-important Theon monologues to the lovestruck daughter of the captain of the ship carrying him home--whom he obviously holds in something just barely above contempt--as he thrusts into her).  In its place, however, we have copious amounts of "plot-relevant" nudity--the scene in which the priestess Melisandre gives birth to a demon leaves absolutely nothing to the imagination--and sexual violence--two episodes before Sansa's attempted rape, she is humiliated by her fiancé and captor, the psychotic boy-king Joffrey, who orders that she be publicly stripped and beaten in retaliation for her brother's military triumphs against Joffrey's grandfather; later in that same episode, Joffrey orders one of a pair of prostitutes (sent to him by his uncle and fan favorite Tyrion) to viciously beat the other on pain of her own death.

Until now, the terms in which the discussion of nudity and sex on Game of Thrones has been conducted have stressed the "necessity" of these images--were they created simply to titillate and distract the audience from a dry bit of exposition, or to cement the producers' sense that they were creating high, mature art?--and the second season seemingly addresses that concern with a shift in the way it uses sex and sexual violence to advance the plot and our understanding of the characters.  But as Nussbaum and VanDerWerff point out, there is another question that is not adequately served by the argument of "necessity."  Even if it is necessary for the story that a young girl be beaten and nearly raped, is it alright to ask a young actress to simulate that experience?  Why are we, on the one hand, outraged by the deaths of horses on the set of Luck, and on the other, casually accepting of the potential mistreatment of human women on the set of Game of Thrones?

There's a danger of reducing this question to a glib joke, similar to the one that George R.R. Martin himself made when irate fans complained about the end of the second episode of Game of Thrones's first season, in which Sansa's father Ned is forced to kill her dog.  After assuring his readers that the dog wasn't really killed, Martin drily noted that "Rhodri Hosking, the young actor who played the butcher's boy Mycah [who also dies at the end of the episode], was not actually killed either, though oddly, no one seems quite so upset about him."  The issue here isn't that people get more upset about violence when it's directed towards animals than when it is directed towards people (though this is often the case).  No one in the racing industry, after all--or at least not enough people--is getting worked up over dead horses in the same way that Game of Thrones fans became upset over the simulated death of a puppy, or that HBO and the producers of Luck became upset over the real deaths of horses.  The lack of a corresponding outrage on behalf of actresses on Game of Thrones, the fact that, on the contrary, the ubiquity of sexual and sexually violent scenes in cable drama has created a market for attractive young women--historically the most vulnerable and exploited group in show business--who are willing to be stripped and to simulate often humiliating or violent sex on camera, suggests something much more disturbing than that fans of the show don't value the well-being of women as much as they do that of a dog.  It suggests that, just as dead horses are the cost of doing business in the racing industry, traumatized and humiliated actresses are the cost of doing business in cable television.  And it suggests that we, as viewers who enjoy Game of Thrones and excuse its violent sexual content because it is necessary to the story, have accepted and even come to expect that vulnerable young women will be mistreated for the sake of our entertainment.

The two situations are not entirely the same, of course.  Women are not horses.  They will naturally have a range of opinions and reactions to acting in the nude and simulating violent sex, and the actresses who have knowingly chosen to appear in explicit or violent material on a show like Game of Thrones deserve to have their choice respected--even if we question the choices of the people who decide to film such scenes.  The damage caused by a scene like Sansa's simulated assault is ambiguous, determined by personality and circumstances--and in some cases maybe even nonexistent.  We're suffering from a dearth of information from the actresses themselves, about what it's like to actually film these scenes, and what their potentially harmful components are, without which this whole discussion has the potential to be patronizing in the worst possible way.  Still, it bothers me that hardly anyone is asking the question of whether scenes like these are harmful to the actresses performing in them, especially as those actresses are often the ones least in a position to raise the issue in a way that will get it heard and treated seriously.  The Irish actress Nussbaum mentions was free to leave a shoot that she found demeaning, but what did that cost her in terms of money, professional connections, and bad will with the agent and casting director who got her the job?  Sophie Turner may have been consulted with and counseled about her rape scene, but does that mean she didn't feel pressure to accede to it?  Not a lot of people are asking these questions, and with cable television, especially HBO, now firmly ensconced as the standard-bearer--and standard-setter--for quality and high drama on TV, it's long past time that they gained higher prominence.  The cancellation of Luck showed that the cable industry has lines in the sand, ethical boundaries it will not cross.  It's time to find out where more those boundaries lie--where women, and not just horses, are concerned.