A review of tonight's "Smash" coming up just as soon as my mother sets me up for a date at a steak house...

After "Smash" hit an early low with last week's episode featuring barefoot karaoke, lots of Ellis and the most whitebread Joe DiMaggio in filmed history, the series put itself back on firmer footing with "The Cost of Art." The show still has many problems — and a lot of the material involving Karen in particular annoyed me — but at least this episode dove headfirst into the kinds of stories and conflicts it should be dealing with if it wants us to care at all about the journey of "Marilyn: The Musical" from Milan to Minsk an idea to a hit.

We got deeper, for instance, into Eileen's various money woes and how they're impairing her ability to go out on her own and produce this show. Because Eileen's played by Anjelica Huston, there's a built-in assumption, I think, that she's supposed to be this formidable, ultra-competent font of wisdom, but I like that she's turning out to be more fallible than that. She really is in over her head a bit, just as Jerry insists, though she manages to get her way out of trouble by making a very convincing pitch to Broadway-prodigy-turned-sitcom-star Lyle West.

And though the presence of a non-bonus Jonas brother does little for me, Lyle's birthday party turned into one of the more interesting sequences the show's done so far. (Assuming you can ignore the weirdness of everyone at the kid's birthday party being a minimum of 10-15 years older than him.) In particular, the impromptu performance of the USO song was among the show's more infectious musical moments to date(*), so much so that I didn't even mind that Lyle either magically knew the lyrics to a song he'd never heard before or could expertly improvise some of his own in mid-number.

(*) It helped that the performance finally gave Debra Messing a chance to look like she was enjoying herself, rather than Julia being wracked with guilt over her hypothetical adopted Chinese baby and her affair with Michael Swift, or smelling trouble from Ellis. I like Messing in general, but Julia's been a big drag on the show thus far.
Christian Borle's been carrying that partnership in terms of happy moments, and that was even before Tom was surprised to realize how much he was enjoying the blind date his mom set up. 

And though Ivy's "half a diva" turn could feel like yet another desperate attempt by the show to get us to root against her and for Karen, I think the idea of how a veteran chorus girl reacts to finally being center stage is an interesting one, and the show effective tied her bad behavior together with her neuroses about being the star to the point where she seemed complicated and messy, and not like a two-dimensional villain.

On the other hand, pretty much everything involving Karen drove me nuts. The idea that she'd be able to shame one of Ivy's closest friends into switching teams — or, at least, into playing for both teams at once (which isn't what Ivy wanted at that point) — with her speech about how she didn't sleep with Derek was cringe-inducing and not believable with what we'd seen of these characters before. It's another case of Karen being pure and good and perfect in her blandness — though I don't know how much fault there is the writing and how much is Katharine McPhee's acting — and the more it happens, the more I wind up rooting for Ivy just because I don't like being this manipulated. And then after the other members of the ensemble perform a backup singer intervention on her, the way the show chooses to demonstrate what Karen has learned is with a performance of "Rumor Has It" in which she's clearly singing lead? Huh?

"The Cost of Art" was the last of the four episodes NBC sent out before the series premiered. I'm not sure if I'll be getting other episodes in advance, though given the rapidly-declining ratings, I imagine NBC will do whatever it can to keep people talking about the show as the season moves along. I'll do some kind of write-up of episode 5 sometime next Tuesday morning, and after that, we'll play it by ear after that.

What did everybody else think?