Let me start out by saying that I am a theatre nut. I’ve always loved Broadway musicals (even the small ones) and have done my time working in community theatre for many years. So ever since we were teased with Smash in early 2011, I’ve been breaking out in spontaneous jazz hands with anticipation. But does one of the most buzz-worthy shows of the season live up to its hype?
Let’s break it down after the jump. (Please note this recap contains SPOILERS)
I wanted to love Smash. I really did. But based on the pilot, I don’t think the series will meet my lofty expectations. My biggest problem with the show? Clichés. And I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised by this – Broadway musicals are often defined by their hammy clichés and that’s the whole fun of it. So why is this a problem here? Well, for one, it’s a television show, and what works on stage just didn’t work for me on the small screen. Now that’s not to say that it’s impossible for the genre to translate to the screen: there are many musical films that are excellent (see Cabaret (Fosse, 1972) and All That Jazz (Fosse, 1979) if you don’t believe me). Heck, even Glee in its heyday really hit a home run melding the song and dance with the dramedy.
But in Smash, it just doesn’t work. It’s way too predictable and boring. Smash is essentially a backstage musical stretched out into a television series. And as I mentioned, the clichés are so abundant you can’t do an eye-line kick without smacking into one. What do we have here? The timid wallflower with a powerhouse voice, Karen Cartwright (played by Katherine McPhee- who we’ve been ‘introduced’ to about a dozen times); Derek Wills (Jack Davenport, breaking free from his ‘other guy’ typecast role ala Pirates of the Caribbean and FlashForward) as the overbearing ‘British’ director, who seamlessly oscillates between extreme asshole and caring mentor; the overtly gay composer/writer, Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) and his beard of a partner, Julia Houston (Debra Messing) who does double-cliché duty as the neglectful mother who choses work over family. And the list goes on…
I will say however, that I was quite surprised with the pilot’s treatment Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) who plays Karen’s competition. I appreciated that she wasn’t painted (immediately) as the one-dimensional ‘bitch’ who will step over everyone and do anything to get a part. There is an authenticity about Ivy that I get – she wants this and she’s intensely driven, but still shows vulnerability. This is effectively communicated when she confesses to Tom that she’s auditioning for other parts despite having a job in his other musical, Heaven on Earth. This of course, plays to her advantage as it lands her the Marilyn part in the workshops. And I just loved the scene when she’s talking to her mom on the phone about getting a callback. Excellent. I’m happy to be introduced to you, Ms. Hilty. But I fear that Ivy will soon turn into a watered-down Cristal Connors (of Showgirls fame) when we get more scenes with her in direct competition with Karen. I predict she’ll be sleeping with the director and pushing McPhee down the stairs by episode three.
Other predictions? Julia’s marriage is going to end up in shambles and will likely have a tawdry affair with another Broadway creative-type that ‘understands’ her and her devotion to her work (probably the one that Messing is rumored to be dating in real life ); Derek WILL sleep with Ivy (because she’s there) but will really have eyes for the sweet virginal Karen, who will eventually screw things up with her hopelessly devoted boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey). Oh, and the reason that Tom has a serious hate-on for Derek, has to have something to do with unrequited love (Is Derek a bisexual perhaps? Or only when it’s advantageous to him?).
Obviously, I could be completely wrong, but the fact that I’m even able to forecast these predictions demonstrates the abundance of tired archetypes found throughout pilot. I don’t doubt that these characters exists, in some format, in the proverbial ‘real world’ – I just wish that the show had taken a more subtle route and chosen a less predictable path to bringing “Marilyn the Musical” to the big stage.
Curiously absent from my bitchy list of predictions is illustrious Anjelica Huston, who plays cut-throat producer and shrewd business woman, Eileen Rand. Elieen is currently going through a very public divorce with her rich and prestigious husband, Jerry (Michael Christofer) which can lend itself to some juicy, soap-opera worthy drama. Although her scenes are arguably just as cliché as the others, Huston’s acting chops add a freshness that makes it very difficult for me to box her character into a cookie-cutter frame. Perhaps it’s because I just want to enjoy her and buckle in for the ride. She’s at once familiar but intriguing, and the other character/actors could stand to learn from her.
I’ll stick with Smash for another few episodes at least, if only to see if my predictions pan out.
Some other observations
- Was it me, or were the production values on the stage scenes really crappy? I’m speaking here of the baseball number as it switched from rehearsal studio to big stage production (Chicago: get your lawyers on the phone for theft of intellectual property). The lighting looked so incredibly amateurish. Was this supposed to represent a musical I wanted to see? (Answer: no.)
- I’m sorry, but how did assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) manage to keep his job after posting Ivy’s private recording session on YouTube? Yes, we got some protest by Julia, but not nearly enough! Prediction: Ellis is actually an amazing talent (which both Tom and Julia are going to be SHOCKED to discover) cultivated from all the time he spent watching from the wings. He’s going to parlay his assistant gig into starring role in the new musical. (Yawn.)
- I seriously found the late-night rehearsal scene between Derek and Karen cringe-worthy. I know she’s supposed to be naive, but really? Cock-teasing the director when you don’t even have the part is almost as dumb as accepting the offer to come to his place at 10:00pm in the first place.
What did you think of Smash? Am I way out of line? I have no doubt that the show is going to be hit, but in the same breath I think it will pitter away into obscurity just as Glee kinda has. Besides, when “Marilyn the Musical” does finally open, what happens next? Perhaps then this show will get interesting. Chime in with your thoughts in the comments section below.