Since Smash‘s premiere in February, nearly every preview has teased us with Karen (Katharine McPhee) writhing around in a bedsheet singing, “Touch me.” Every week, my boyfriend would jokingly ask, “Is it the ‘touch me’ episode yet?” I don’t blame him—early on, Karen’s struggle to get in touch with her sexuality was a fascinating conflict. But by the time we got to that number in last night’s episode, “The Coup,” it was a cringeworthy, uneven performance that reflects the show’s current shoddy state.
First, some background on the song. After last week’s Marilyn: The Musical workshop stumbles and fails to impress investors, director Derek (the wonderfully smarmy Jack Davenport) enlists Karen to rehearse a super-secret number. Even though it’s baldly wrong and sure to alienate her from the people she wants to impress — hire One Republic to pen an electro-pop number and not tell the musical’s writers – she goes along with it because we’ve come to realize that Karen is nasty and opportunistic.
So, they show Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) the “Touch Me” number, and it’s as awful as you expected it would be. In stark contrast to the soaring vocals and coy sexiness of Tom and Julia’s songs — and, let’s be honest, Ivy’s (Megan Hilty) singing — we’ve got the usually lovely Karen turned brittle and sexy to the point of sleaziness. The point, that Marilyn’s fame was as debilitating as today’s starlets hounded by the paparazzi, shines through only for a moment. Otherwise, it’s soft-core pandering.
Over the past eight episodes, I’ve had the nagging feeling that Smash is pandering to its viewers. Early worries were that the show would be too insular and alienating for those outside of the New York theater scene, especially because its writing staff includes talented playwrights Theresa Rebeck and Jason Grote. Instead, it’s swung to the opposite pole: Smash has increasingly become the New York City that the writers think the viewers want. Every single member of the theater community converging on the same restaurant? Throwing Manhattans in each other’s faces? Snarling “Jerry, you can’t take my investors!” and “The Nederlanders won’t be happy to hear about this broken boiler”? It’s a caricature.
And that’s what “Touch Me” was—a sloppy imitation of a quality show. It didn’t fit Marilyn Monroe one bit. Part of the romance of Tom and Julia’s creation — which is supposed to actually go to Broadway in the real world if the show succeeds — is the period-piece feel of the 1950s. It’s not as if My Week with Marilyn asked Michelle Williams to ever play a modern version of the film icon.
Plus, the whole plot of “The Coup” was just ridiculous. I’m an emerging player to the theater scene, but it seems ludicrous that a director could just “steal” a show away from its writers, even if he has the backing of weaselly Ellis (Jaime Cepero) and uber-producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston in her unfortunate dominatrix wig).
Of course, the utter failure of the “Touch Me” number actually manages to bring Derek closer to Tom and Julia, as they almost unanimously agree that they need a star to give Marilyn enough clout to bring it to Broadway. (Enter Uma Thurman in the next few episodes, although her pregnancy means she won’t be a permanent fix.)
So, fingers crossed that the number was a meta message from the producers: We’re showing you what clearly doesn’t work so that we can get back to what does. Because there’s so much to this show that is just fantastic; let’s give Smash the chance to win us back.