‘Smash,’ ‘Revenge,’ and ‘Mad Men’s Sneaky Bisexuals and Bitchy Blondes

I was hatewatching Smash this morning, and I realized the show is managing to be the second example for two mini-trends that have been bouncing around episodes in recent weeks — the sneaky bisexual, and the blonde being abused by her creator.

The fairly clear implication of last night’s episode was that assistant-turned-wannabe-producer Ellis was willing to sleep with a star’s agent to get her to consider playing Marilyn more seriously than she had previously, even though we know he has what appears to be a serious, live-in girlfriend. Much like Revenge’s bisexual, loner tech billionaire Nolan, Ellis’s sexuality is presented less as a means of personal expression and more of a strategic tool. Ellis is one of the most irritating characters on television, a relentless climber without an iota of personal attachment, whether it’s to another human being, to ideas of merit and talent, or to the work and the subject matter itself. If Smash has been successful at anything, it’s managed to communicate the other characters’ investment in musical theater. Ellis just seems to want power because it’s there. And perhaps its best scene was a fight between Tom and Derek that turned into a sophisticated debate between how gay men and straight men see Marilyn Monroe and the theater. So it’s particularly disappointing that the show defaulted back to the old stereotype of the Evil Bisexual.

Nolan’s portrayal on Revenge has been more nuanced: he’s clearly very personally invested in helping Amanda/Emily at minimum in memory of her father (thought it would be nice if the show spent some time articulating how Nolan and David Clark got so close in the first place). He’s got an actual attachment to the cause at hand. And when he seduces Tyler, the unstable imposter who’s insinuated himself in wealthy scion Daniel Grayson’s life, Nolan appears to feel at least some sense of sympathy with the other man — there’s an actual frisson of attraction there, not merely convenience. But it’s true that Nolan doesn’t appear to have much of a life of his own, at least in the slice of time we’re seeing him. He’s not allowed genuine romantic attachment, or even business moves that don’t serve Emily/Amanda’s interests. His whole life, not just his sexuality, are at her disposal, though the show has clearly demonstrated the limited scope in which that arrangement can remain comfortable.

Smash is also in company with Mad Men in taking out some nastier emotions on its signature blondes. As much as I think that what Mad Men is doing to Betty Draper, turning her fat and even more miserable than usual, has some basis in Matt Weiner’s distate for the character, I also think it makes sense as an arc. The woman who had, as the only tool at her disposal, beauty, finds it can’t bring her happiness, and then loses her power. There’s an un-vindictive plot available in there if this means that Betty ends up forced to address some deeper issues. Only time will tell if the show avails itself of that option.


By contrast, Smash is being just nasty to Ivy, and that nastiness comes from a profoundly illogical place. Prednisone does have side effects, but the show seemed to take a real leap in turning its most professional and disciplined character into a pill-popping, drunk, show-flubbing hot mess. More to the point, turning Ivy into a joke minimizes her disappointment in a way I think is unfortunate: she’s legitimately heartbroken at the loss of her first big chance. If the show wants this to be an even fight between Karen and Ivy, which is the sense I’ve gotten from the show’s renewal and the dismissal of its showrunner, it’s got to make Karen more legitimately compelling, not undermine Ivy in a way that denies her character consistency.