This TV season, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Noel Murray, who’ll be covering the show week to week, and Todd VanDerWerff talk about Smash.
Smash debuts tonight on NBC at 10 p.m. Eastern
Why hasn’t there been a show like Smash before? I don’t mean a weekly TV musical; Glee exists, as did Cop Rock, not to mention the glut of special musical episodes of everything from Moonlighting to Scrubs. But while each new season generates yet another iteration of doc, cop or lawyer dramas, the insular, at-times-cutthroat world of Broadway theater has remained largely unexplored on television. There have been shows set in the entertainment industry, and even a few with an emphasis on theater (Fame and Slings & Arrows spring to mind), but a weekly, hourlong series about the ego-wrangling involved with mounting a big-time Broadway musical? That fruit’s been hanging low on the tree for too long.
Of course, the problem with being the first to properly tackle a subject is that the audience is bound to be packed with fact-checkers. Almost as soon as the announcement of Smash—which stars Katharine McPhee as an aspiring singer-actress who battles with a veteran chorine played by Megan Hilty for the lead in a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe—I started reading gripes online about the casting, and the kitschy subject of the musical-within-the-musical, and how implausible it is that anyone could move a show from conception to opening night as quickly as Smash promises to do. It’s not that people don’t register those kind of complaints with, say, the Law & Order franchise; it’s just that decades of legal dramas have worn us down to the point where we accept the fudging on trial dates and evidence-gathering as a tradeoff for dramatic expediency. (As entertaining as last week’s The Good Wife was, for example, it’s ridiculous to imagine that any real-life grand-jury hearing would be as full of grandstand plays and unexpected reversals as the ones that greeted poor Wendy Scott-Carr.) But Broadway buffs will be less forgiving of Smash’s narrative shortcuts, I fear.
Me, I’m willing to give Smash’s creative team a lot of leeway, because I want to see the show succeed. I was never a raging theater geek in high school or college, but I took a few drama classes, and had plenty of friends who were Broadway-obsessed. These days I watch the Tonys every year, and buy cast albums, and read New York theater reviews and news. I’m casual in my Broadway fandom, but I am a fan nonetheless. So when I say I want to see Smash succeed, I don’t just mean in the ratings, but creatively. And in the pilot already, there are signs that creator/writer/producer Theresa Rebeck is onto something with this show, as well as signs that the show isn’t fully sure what it wants to be.
Here’s the big plus: Smash has a crack cast. In addition to McPhee (whom I’ve liked as a screen presence since her American Idol days) as Karen Cartwright, and Hilty (already a Broadway vet at 30) as Ivy Lynn, Smash stars Debra Messing and Christian Borle as Julia Houston and Tom Levitt, proven Broadway hitmakers who get inspired to write the book and the score for a musical about Marilyn Monroe; Anjelica Huston as Eileen Rand, a wealthy producer going through a rancorous divorce; and Jack Davenport as Derek Wills, a brilliant director who’s a difficult collaborator. These characters arrive with their own backstories and subplots, some of which could be fruitful (such as Eileen’s martial woes, which have financial repercussions that could impact the show) and some of which already seem a little strained (such as Julia’s attempt to adopt a child, which is threatened by her decision to start on this new show). Overall though, I like that Smash is at least trying to take place in the modern world, where bloggers and YouTube and Netflix are as integral to the creative process as two people sweating around a piano.
But the Smash team then risks that sense of realism with their musical numbers, which aren’t wholly diegetic. Sometimes the characters sing because that’s their job—because they’re auditioning, or practicing—but sometimes they sing because they’re not just characters aspiring to put on a musical, they’re characters in a musical, called Smash. Even during the audition sequences, Smash cuts from ordinary studio spaces to the fantasy in the singer’s head: that she’s on a big stage, performing with dancers and full orchestration. I’m not opposed to the expressionistic aspects of a musical in theory, but Smash is trying to thread a very narrow needle here. This isn’t some Dennis Potter-style postmodern effect, where the grim real world is set ironically against an uncomplicated old Hollywood song-and-dance. This is the naturally dramatic and music-filled life of a Broadway performer cranked up just a couple of degrees—from sincerity to hoke.
I also take a little issue with the staging and arrangement of the fantasy sequences. When Ivy is dressed up as Marilyn and singing a raunchy, double-entendre-filled baseball number, the routine actually looks better in the practice space than it does in the Dream Theatre, where it comes off as glitzy and corny. And when Karen auditions with a passionate version of “Beautiful,” the AutoTuned and lavishly orchestrated version in her head clashes with the unadorned, from-the-heart version that actually convinces the producers to give her a callback. As for Smash’s original songs—written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman—they’re respectable, but not immediately memorable.
Still, good for Smash for not just relying on existing pop songs for its musical element. And good for Rebeck (a renowned playwright) and director Michael Mayer (a Tony winner for Spring Awakening, who also directs several subsequent episodes of Smash) for letting the characters toss around showbiz jargon without feeling the need to explain everything. The closer Smash gets to ER or The Shield—sophisticated shows with insider-y, “you are there” feels—the more it has the chance to be something special.
For now though, it’s best to remember the advice the pilot episode itself gives: “No one would’ve hired Marilyn to play Marilyn at the beginning.” Just for its novelty value alone, Smash deserves some time and space to become what it’s going to be. After all, there’s no real model for it. There’s nothing really to compare it to, beyond what theater freaks—myself included—hope it will be. As a new kind of musical TV drama, it’s not wholly effective yet, but it’s on a good track. If nothing else, Rebeck gets the anxieties of show-folk. As dramatically iffy as the Julia/adoption storyline may turn out to be—or Karen’s subplot, for that matter, about her relationship with her skeptical parents and her supportive politician boyfriend—they do set up scenes in which the characters find themselves putting on a front before family members and government officials. The stress in their private lives mirrors the stress in their careers, which mirrors the stress of Smash itself as a one-of-a-kind TV show. They all share that mild panic that comes from always being on audition.
- I said that Smash deserves some time and space to become what it’ll be, but of course “deserves” is a relative term. I say this because I love musicals, and I want this show to be good. If you’re not inclined to like musicals, you’re probably not going to give Smash much leeway to be broad or sentimental, which is fine. But as I cover this show in the weeks to come, I’ll be coming at it from the perspective of someone who sees the musical as a viable form, with its own conventions worth respecting. I’m looking forward to talking about how Smash works (or doesn’t) both as a unique kind of workplace drama and as a unique kind of musical.
- Two documentaries that Smash reminded me of: Every Little Step (about the casting process for a Chorus Line revival) and ShowBusiness: The Road To Broadway (about the hits and flops of one especially fertile Broadway season). Both are recommended for theater buffs. (Also recommended: our own Todd VanDerWerff’s interview with an at-times-brusque Theresa Rebeck.)
- I’d love to watch a weekly drama about casting and mounting a television show like Smash, wouldn’t you?
Todd: Smash is the kind of hyper-earnest, well-meaning workplace drama the networks just don’t make any more, at least since they abandoned that format in favor of glibly despairing case-of-the-week shows. And if it’s not really transcendent yet, well, not many network shows are. All the same, it’s a well-made series that feels like it’s on the edge of something more than very good after its first four episodes. While I’d argue it’s not as good as some of the early raves for the show would have it be, I also think it’s well worth the time of anyone who hopes that network TV could be more than just a place where creativity goes to die.
If there’s a problem with Smash it’s that the show doesn’t really avoid cliché. Indeed, it steers right toward every cliché in its path. That’s going to be a dealbreaker for a lot of people, who may be hoping for something more original in its storytelling. But the show is so damned sincere about how much it embraces the clichés of the backstage Broadway story that those inclined to like this sort of thing—and I’m very much one of them—will forgive it some of these excesses. There are things that absolutely don’t work—a subplot featuring Julia trying to adopt a baby is just awful, particularly when it involves the actor playing her teenage son, who’s one of the worst actors I’ve seen in a series of this quality in quite some time—and there are things that are troublesome, like the portrayal of Ivy in later episodes.
But there’s also an endearing sense of trying to relearn the lessons of shows like Hill Street Blues, ER, and The West Wing. We’re going to go into a world we might not always see, with characters who are likeable and engaging and have their own personal problems we’ll learn about. If the show doesn’t take chances, well, it doesn’t have to. It just has to make us nod along. And even in this flawed state, that’s something Smash is already very good at.