After what seems like months on end of repeating commercial after commercial after commercial for the show during all of its programming, NBC finally premiered the new musical drama series ‘Smash’ this Monday. Surprisingly, the ads somehow didn’t give away all the best parts of the episode. Even more surprisingly, the show is actually kind of good.
Keep in mind that I went into this with the lowest of possible expectations. Those endless ads with ‘American Idol’ runner-up Katharine McPhee belting out Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” had really ground me down. Not to mention my inherent skepticism of anything starring Debra Messing.
Regardless, the ‘Pilot’ started to win me over right from the start. The episode opens with aspiring starlet Karen (McPhee) doing a dreamy rendition of that old, sappy chestnut “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” perhaps the biggest cliché in musical theater. Barely a verse in, she’s halted by a ringing cell phone, and we discover that she’s really in plainclothes and auditioning for a part. Bored with everything about her, the casting agent waives her off dismissively to take the call. This ain’t Oz, sweetheart. This is the real world, and you’ll need to do better than that. Crestfallen, she returns to her waitressing job.
The series charts the development of a new Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. (And yes, the episode even acknowledges that Marilyn nostalgia is a bit overexposed at the moment.) Intertwining storylines follow the songwriters (Messing and Christian Borle), the producer (Anjelica Huston), the assholish director (Jack Davenport from ‘Coupling’) and two actresses.
Ivy (actual Broadway star Megan Hilty) is friends with the writers, has a lot of professional experience, has the right look, and is a great singer. Everything about her is perfect for the lead, except that she’s not a big name star yet. The producers insist on auditions. That’s when Karen walks in. She’s the only person to show up who doesn’t dress in a Marilyn costume or sing “I Wanna Be Loved by You.” She doesn’t look the part in the slightest, but she dazzles everyone with her performance the aforementioned Xtina song. Suddenly, Ivy has serious competition for the role.
What separates ‘Smash’ from other TV musicals like ‘Glee’ or (going back a bit) ‘Fame’ is that it’s about professionals. These aren’t kids. They’re people who do this for a living, and they’re good at it. The episode has a lot of fascinating behind-the-scenes details about what it takes to launch a Broadway show. The performances from the entire cast are good, and the songs are pretty great (they sound to have been written by real Broadway pros). Amazingly, the network refrained from spoiling the musical’s songs in the TV ads. We also get to see a work-in-progress version of one of the musical’s production numbers, and it’s stunning.
That’s not to say that the episode is perfect, unfortunately. Quite frankly, I don’t get the big competition between Karen and Ivy for the Marilyn part. They’re both equally great singers, but Ivy is clearly better suited for the role. I just don’t see Karen as being that much more of a breakout sensation. It might be different if either, 1) Karen was obviously a better singer than Ivy even if she didn’t fit the role in other ways, or 2) Ivy was the better singer but Karen was a big-name star stealing her spotlight. As it is, if the producers are going with a relative unknown anyway, why wouldn’t they just pick Ivy and be done with it?
A scene where Karen has to prove that she can pull off Marilyn’s sex appeal by seducing Derek the director to “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” doesn’t work at all. She’s more bumbling than sexy, and even her singing kind of sucks there. Yet we’re supposed to believe that he’s completely bowled over by her. I don’t buy it.
The other thing that bothered me is some ambivalence about what type of musical the series wants to be. While there’s some measure of a fantasy element where we can see flashes of what the finished show is supposed to look like through its rough beginnings, the first three-quarters of the episode are otherwise presented realistically. All of the songs spring diegetically from the scenes because the characters are auditioning or rehearsing. However, at the end, the episode throws in a non-diegetic musical montage where the characters break into song at home and on the street. It comes from out of nowhere and feels totally false. That’s not the type of series that we’ve been led to believe we’re watching.
I think that I can forgive it these issues. ‘Smash’ is one of the more promising series of the new year.