Karen Cartwright imagines herself in a shimmering white dress, center stage, belting out that ultimate dreamer’s song, “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” She stretches her hands above her head, ever so dramatically, because she’s really into this performance – she isn’t just singing these words, she’s feeling them. She closes her eyes. Oh, yeah. She’s all up inside this song and we immediately understand the subtext here: these lyrics have been etched into her heart since she was a small girl, head already full of big city hopes and dreams about makin’ it. A cell phone rings, jolting Karen back to reality. She’s in a small room – far from the spotlight- auditioning for some jaded folks who somehow can’t see that she’s from Iowa and that she has aspirations! How wide-eyed does a girl have to be before someone gives her a leading role in a Broadway musical, yo?
American Idol is all about regular people with unexpected talent, yearning for stardom. (Well, it used to be. Now, according to the most recent promos, it’s all about kids falling off of stages.) Katherine McPhee is an American Idol runner-up, so I guess she’s suited for this Karen part on Smash, NBC’s much-hyped drama about the creation of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. McPhee’s Karen has a fresh-faced charm about her, the kind of girl you’d maybe instinctively root for, and the character’s Midwestern origins are, I believe, supposed to make her that much more appealing. The people in that region of the U.S. dream harder than the rest of us, right?
So much about Smash works: creator Theresa Rebeck knows how to write for an ensemble (unlike Glee’s Ryan Murphy, Brad Falchuk, and Ian Brennan); the original songs give me the chills (“Let Me Be Your Star,” specifically); there’s a fun, believable tension between Jack Davenport who plays the Marilyn musical’s surly director and actual Broadway actor Christian Borle, here, playing one of the musical’s writers. But this “small town girl tackles The Big Apple” thread is just too easy. Really, it’s so predictable and tropey that I’m forced to assume that Karen who, in the pilot episode, auditions for the role of Marilyn and gets a callback after an appropriately beautiful rendition of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful,” isn’t going to wind up with the part. Otherwise the character is just horribly conceived. Right now, everything about her, from her unassuming origins, to her too-perfect boyfriend, to her parents who don’t totally support her, to her gumption in the face of repeated rejection, seems ripped straight from some “Idiot’s Guide to Emotionally Manipulating Audiences with Stock Characters” or, I don’t know, The Devil Wears Prada. It’s still early days for Smash, but starting off so prosaic seems an odd choice when you consider that musical TV shows are so polarizing – corniness being one of the usual criticisms.
More interesting than Karen, but still not totally original for anyone who has seen A Chorus Line, is Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), a curvy, blonde, seasoned actress, desperate for a lead part and Karen’s main competition for the Marilyn role. Ivy is brassy, her singing voice is stout, she’s sexy where Karen is cute. She’s a villain, if only because she poses a threat to the lovely, small town girl and her dreams. But what about Ivy’s dreams? When she phones home, excited about her Marilyn callback, her mother doesn’t seem to give a crap and steers the conversation to news about a relative who’s attending night school. All the exuberance in Ivy’s body drains as she feigns interest in whatever the hell her mom is talking about. Ivy’s had some success and Karen hasn’t, but Ivy’s the tragic figure, the one we should care about.
Rebeck has created this complex character in Ivy – the character’s confidence is a mask for her true frailty – and it seems like she’s being presented as someone we should see as a viable contender, not just for the role of Marilyn but for our affections. Yet, we’re never really able to root for her because Karen, her competitor, doesn’t have any faults. When womanizing director Derek summons Karen to his apartment and tells her to show him that she can be Marilyn (wink wink, nudge nudge, say no more), she puts on one of his button-down shirts, sings “Happy Birthday, Mr. President,” but, of course, doesn’t sleep with him. It isn’t that I’d prefer her to succumb to this kind of casting couch situation (especially since her boyfriend is a total dream) but it’s simply one more example of why, as a viewer, you can’t help but want her to win. Things shouldn’t be so clean-cut, they can’t be.
If we’re talking symbolism, then Karen is supposed to represent Marilyn Monroe during her dark-haired, relatively innocent Norma Jeane days, while Ivy Lynn, who’s name is somewhat reminiscent of the icon’s, is Marilyn in her “candle in the wind” period. But even the young Marilyn wasn’t the unabashed, one-note Pollyanna that Karen is. How is she the real underdog?