Smash 1.10: “Understudy” Recap & Review Smash 1.10: “Understudy” Recap & Review
Matt Tucker reviews the tenth episode of NBC's musical drama series Smash. Smash 1.10: “Understudy” Recap & Review

Synopsis: Awaiting their delayed star, the production team makes Karen the understudy for Marilyn, as Eileen tries to instill confidence in her prospective investors. Upon hearing the news, Ivy devises a plan to get back into the production.

If you have not seen this episode yet and do not wish to be spoiled, do not continue reading!

Recap: The show now christened Bombshell, the team anxiously awaits for newly hired movie star Rebecca Duvall to arrive from a trip to Cuba. He assistant, though, doesn’t have a visa to get into the country, so she’s stuck offshore for days. This makes the show’s possible investors antsy and Eileen is left trying to convince them to invest in the show rather than just a star. She relays her frustrations to Nick, the bartender at the Bushwhack, who offers her an unorthodox alternative. Nick wants to invest in the show and also turns Eileen on to aging rocker Randy Cobra, who has more money than he knows what to do with. Ellis does due diligence research on Cobra and tells Eileen he passes but shares concerns about Nick’s own shady past. Eileen doesn’t want to hear about it. When Cobra accepts to come on-board as primary investor, Eileen invites the other investment team to the bar to tell them decisively that she doesn’t want or need their money.

Tom and Julia are nearing their tenth anniversary as a writing team and are interviewed by a college reporter about it. They share a tradition every year where they go to see a production of their first show, Three on a Match. The reporter asks what Julia’s husband thinks of her and Tom’s relationship and Julia gets flustered and leaves. Tom, meanwhile, has struck up a friendship with Sam and the dancer joins Tom and John the lawyer on a walk to go see a production of a critically ravaged show. John becomes jealous of the attention Tom gives Sam, further driven home when he sees the two of them talking at rehearsal when he drops by unannounced. Later, at the production of Three, the director brings Tom up on stage. In honor of their anniversary, he presents Julia with an apron signed by the cast. Overwhelmed, she bolts from the theater. Outside, she tells Tom that Frank found out about the affair with Michael and left her. Julia, meanwhile, tries to get info about Frank from Leo, who doesn’t want to get in the middle of it. She steals Leo’s cellphone and calls Frank, pleading with him to meet her so that they can talk. They set up a meeting at a restaurant but Frank doesn’t show. John, in turn, confronts Tom about his feelings for Sam over breakfast and when Tom can’t offer a defense, John walks out.

While the production team waits for Rebecca Duvall, they decide to make Karen her understudy for Marilyn and ask her to fill in during rehearsals. Rehearsals become hellish as Derek gets fed up with her lack of theatrical experience. She mentions Derek yelling at her to Dev, as well as the fact that he made sexually advances toward her the night she went over to his apartment. Dev angrily demands why she didn’t tell him and Karen leaves. Dev, meanwhile, lost out on the deputy job to the man from D.C.. He decides against telling Karen and reporter friend R.J. suggests that he go with her to D.C. to see about other opportunities there.

Ivy, already angered about Duvall taking on the part of Marilyn and having been fired from Heaven on Earth because of her drug-induced debacle during production, is disgusted to learn that Karen has been made understudy. She concocts a plan to worm her way back into the show, first by suggesting to Derek that he treat Karen like Marilyn and baby her to get her to do her best work, then by suggesting to Karen that she make her mark on the part while she has it. After bringing Karen sunglasses as a present, Sam questions Ivy’s motives, only to be let in on her plan.

At rehearsal, Derek tries the softer approach with Karen and it works, also causing him to view Karen more as a solid choice for Marilyn. When Eileen finally gets word that Duvall will be arriving for rehearsals, Derek makes the effort to visit Karen in person to tell her. He also apologizes for the night at his apartment. Leaving Karen’s, Derek runs into Dev, who instigates a fight. Karen breaks it up and she and Dev have an angry discussion about whether each would give up their pursuits for the other.

Karen puts on a stirring song performance during the next rehearsal that wows the production team. Stopping by the space, Ivy watches Karen sing and ponders just how good a Marilyn she would make. Before anyone can offer Karen praise, Rebecca Duvall makes her entrance. As everyone greets her with applause, Derek and Karen share a commiserating look.

Review: Aside from some rather tepid DEV-elopment, Smash turns in another relatively strong installment this week, primarily because it has returned the majority of its focus onto the musical within the show. Last week’s dalliance into Julia’s crumbling marriage was a commendable effort but the show is best when it pertains to the stagework and not flitting about the characters’ personal lives. That’s not to say we shouldn’t get well-rounded character work that incorporates the intimate details of their existences, but the melodrama too often pulls from the more intriguing behind-the-scenes peek into a budding major Broadway production.

One of the standout aspects this week was the levels Jack Davenport brought to director Derek. With the selfish, self-centered character, it’s hard to tell at any point what is genuine, but it was nice to see him take Ivy’s suggestion to approach Karen (Katharine McPhee) with a soft, velvet-gloved hand rather than his usual consternation. The interesting side effect of this is that he actually appeared to find general affection and respect for Karen, and that shared look between the two following her performance of “Never Give All the Heart” when the much-ballyhooed movie star Rebecca Duvall (guest star Uma Thurman) finally graced the room with her presence was touching. The scene where Derek tells Karen both that Duvall is finally ready to begin rehearsals, dropping her back to ensemble/understudy, and apologizes to her in-person for the night he tried to get her to sleep with him prior to the callbacks was surprising, delicate and honest, and a highlight of the episode. Again, one can’t help but question Derek’s sincerity, but there did appear to be authentic concern for Karen tonight. (He was leaning toward her above Ivy during the callback sessions, though.) It’s nice to see more from a character who is coming close to caricature.

By contrast, one of the lowlights of the episode also revolves around Karen, and that’s anything to do with Dev (Raza Joffrey). Here’s a character who just wasn’t very compelling before now actively creating drama in his relationship with Karen. To what end? They never clearly establish why he doesn’t feel the need to tell Karen he didn’t get the deputy job; even relaying a sense of shame would’ve been sufficient. He’s given many opportunities to tell her – including a moment where the douche from D.C. who got his job all but addresses Dev like a peon right in front of the two of them – and yet doesn’t and it can’t help but feel like poor writing for the sake of creating tension between the two. It serves to undercut any impact of the moment where Dev “hypothetically” asks if she’d give up her dreams to support him in any opportunities that might be out of NYC. He asks her to ask him to give up his pursuits for her dreams and she can’t. Of course, she can’t because how can anyone figure out just what the hell Dev is doing in this moment. This is the kind of forced drama that ruins relationships – and makes for bad TV – and the show and Karen would both do well to convince Dev to just partner up with shifty R.J. the reporter and get out of town.

Eileen (Anjelica Huston) also got to have some fun this go-round, dealing with flaking investors who are more interested in paying for a star than paying for a musical. The whole arrangement with Nick the Bartender presenting her aging rocker Randy Cobra as an alternative investor heavily leans on the shady side, but there was tremendous joy in seeing her thumb her noses at the balking investors. Eileen is much better with some sass rather than seen floundering around and, though it’s hardly something you’d ever see happen in a real environment, dragging the stodgy investors to the Bushwhack bar just to light their contracts on fire was a daffy but fun headthrow for her. It also makes up for her blind naivete about the whole affair. At least, in the short term.

And then there’s conniving Ivy (Megan Hilty). Trying to ease her way back into the Bombshell (still not sold on that title) team, she’s taken an approach of being everyone’s über-friend to be seen as valuable. It’s unfortunate as I rather liked the moment in last week’s episode where drunk Ivy and drinking Karen performed together for a crowd in Times Square. The rivalry aspect can be fun but it felt like a more appealing tack to these two than what we’ve seen previously. They seem really intent on making Ivy sort of a soap opera-ish villain, though, so it’s not altogether surprising to see her devise this kind of plan. It would be better if Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.) actively persuaded her against this, as he’s come across as mostly a good moral compass for her, which made his blasé attitude toward her plan ring a bit false. Still, it’s worth seeing how this plays out before passing judgment.

A few things that stood out: The moment between Tom and Julia where she tells him that Frank left was heartfelt and such a wonderful moment that really sold their history together; Katharine McPhee is a stunner and there were moments when fresh-faced Karen made my heart skip; Derek’s lovely little mental delusion of Karen as Marilyn during rehearsal; Eileen postively shutting down Ellis when he tried to expose some dirt on Nick (though that will likely come back to bite her in the ass); Tom as Zanuck during the steam room meeting number was a terrific showcase for Borle; and Megan Hilty’s lovely rendition of Kelly Clarkson’s “Breakaway” as she imagined winning her way back into the role of Marilyn and arriving to the ecstatic applause of the entire production.

A few things that would embarrass even the most delusional stage mom: Dev and Derek’s “fight” scene, though it was a much more realistic fight than most seen on TV; John’s little freakout about Tom and Sam, which seemed much more written than particularly evident in what was shown on-screen; the whole bit with the green reporter from one of the nearby colleges; Leo.

Smash would do well to keep the focus on the show – as this Rebecca Duvall arc will seem to do – because it makes for a stronger series, as this week proved.

Matt Tucker Editor/Senior Writer

Matt Tucker is a stage and film actor, writer, Seattleite, comics nerd, sports fan, and aspiring person. Someday, he’ll be a real boy. He's an editor and senior writer for KSiteTV network (GreenArrowTV, DaredevilTV) and the sports blog Sonics Rising. He's also Movies/TV editor at SmarksOn. Follow him on Twitter at @MattBCTucker.