Smash: “Pilot” and “The Callback”
Posted by therebelprince on February 19, 2012
I miss watercooler shows. Not that I was old enough – or even alive enough – to analyse the contemporary reactions to Dallas or Twin Peaks or Seinfeld (three of my favourite shows, incidentally, so perhaps I’m a lot more mainstream than I thought), but it’s been ten years since a scripted series topped the Nielsen ratings for a season, and it’s clear that no series will ever be able to capture such a broad cross-section of the public again, in an era full of cable series, DVDs, and internet recaps (and self-defeating TV schedules). Sure, shows like Lost or Grey’s Anatomy tap into a certain part of the cultural zeitgeist (and some, like Game of Thrones, manage to win over a good chunk of non-genre fans), but they still tend to find a particular niche of fans, and then run with it.
Not that Smash is going to reverse this trend. It’s a rag-to-riches musical set in the pansexual world of show-business, in which straight men, gay men, and women alike all idolise Marilyn Monroe, and baseball is just an excuse for a musical number. We may live in a post-Glee world now, but this still isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. I was prepared to hate Smash, on the basis of previous TV musicals – Glee, Cop Rock, the entirely forgotten Hull High – and my general confusion at the popularity of mainstream musical theatre. Instead, I’m enjoying a number of elements, although I have that sinking feeling that the elements I’m taking to aren’t the ones we’ll be seeing a lot of…
The pilot episode of Smash is a pretty damn good pilot, if I may say so. (Okay, for this to work, we’re gonna have to assume I’m adding “by network television standards” to the end of every overarching statement, mmkay?) It suitably grounds our two leading composer/lyricists, Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle), while setting up the lavish world of musical theatre. Messing and Borle are two actors adept at both comedy and drama, which is why I’m hoping they won’t be stuck in tired personal subplots all season long. The plot of Julia and Frank (Brian d’Arcy James) trying to adopt a Chinese baby is the biggest worry, but in the space of two episodes, it has evolved from the tired “Julia’s writing is at odds with Frank’s family desires!” to the more nuanced “a married couple having to delay their greatest dream”, so I’m withholding judgement. Meanwhile, we haven’t seen much of Tom beyond the fact that he seems to be a lonely guy with a lot of love to give.
The central drama of both the pilot and episode two, “The Callback”, comes from the agonising decision of which actress will play Marilyn Monroe, the centre of Julia and Tom’s new musical extravaganza. The discrepancy between the two – perky, Marilyn-esque, long-time chorus girl Ivy (Megan Hilty), and “soulful”, inexperienced-but-eager, brunette Karen (Katherine McPhee) – makes the battle interesting, although the treatment of the two characters seems oddly weighted. Karen is clearly the series’ protagonist: the ingénue who can’t seem to catch a break, and whose Midwestern parents (Becky Ann Baker and Dylan Baker) would really like her to just get a real job already. The Bakers added some nice shading to characters who could’ve been hopelessly one dimensional, so I hope they turn up again. McPhee is doing a great job as Karen the person, but – and I apologise if this seems meta – she just doesn’t have the experience of Hilty. A seemingly soulful dream sequence in which Karen sings “Call Me” opens the second episode, but it’s just not exciting. I’m hoping this is a deliberate choice (at one point, Karen is lambasted for “not doing anything” during an audition), since McPhee does finally come alive in her final audition at the end of “The Callback”. But it was no surprise to me when Ivy got the role. Hilty does a great Marilyn, although the writing for her character has been pretty surface-level thus far. An early scene in “The Callback” takes great delight in showing Ivy and her friends walking down a genuine New York street, but it seems to have come at the expense of dialogue with any depth whatsoever. My assumption is that Karen will be cast as Marilyn’s understudy, while joining the chorus, before assumedly getting a chance to take over at the last minute. It’s the most cliched and inevitable turn for this plot, and will surprise absolutely no-one, but if the writers can give Ivy some depth, then they’ll be leagues ahead of most “understudy makes good” stories in recent memory.
While I dislike Glee for all the usual TV snob reasons (constant reversals of character, patchy plotting, the subtlety of a sledgehammer), the series has at least been able to revel in its position as an unabashed worshipper of music in all its forms. Some musical numbers take place entirely in characters’ heads; some are diagetic; some seem to be genuine examples of characters bursting into song. Smash – with one exception in the pilot – is wisely restricting musical numbers to dream sequences and rehearsals, and I for one hope it stays that way. The acting calibre of the non-musical characters – which includes Jack Davenport and freaking Angelica Houston – should be enough to hold our interest, without the need to do an Andrew Lloyd Webber tribute episode any time soon.
The series’ entirely original songs are composed by Marc Shaiman & Scott Wittman. I’m not au fait with what’s currently on Broadway, but the songs so far have struck me as believable as Broadway tunes. Admittedly, Marilyn: The Musical seems a bit one-note. It’s a very old-fashioned tale, without any of the inventiveness of the scores of Michael John LaChiusa or Jason Robert Brown, but there’s a reason that your average tourist family flocks to see Wicked or Jersey Boys rather than a tale from one of those esteemed gentlemen. The series has – for the most part – avoided satirising the often false atmosphere of the theatre world. When someone tells Tom or Julia how talented they are, they really seem to mean it. More and more, Smash reminds me of a “Broadway dreams” film like 42nd Street, rather than a 21st-century take on that world, but perhaps this is the best way to attract viewers. Making the theatre a world where dreams can come true makes it a helluva lot more appetising than the place where ambitious chorines slowly poison the prima donna in the lead-up to opening night. At some point, however, I’d like the series to feature a character from the more self-serious world of musical theatre that exists just off-Broadway. When Eileen’s ex-husband Jerry (the perfectly cast Michael Cristofer) tells her that she was always deluded into believing theatre is art, we’re probably supposed to see him as a villain. For me, it was one of the few truthful sen to come out of these two episodes. I’m not denying that grand musical theatre can soar and lift the heart, and I don’t expect anyone to tune in for 15 weeks of two chain-smoking composers arguing over which key best suits the orchestration. Yet, I guess this is how doctors feel about Grey’s Anatomy: it’s tough to watch two composers just working without a book (script) and putting together a whole musical based on what songs they like best.
Anyhow, in closing, I’m looking forward to this season of Smash, with my usual reservations. I can see the series going in any number of directions, so I suspect it’ll be one of the few interesting series of the 2011-12 season, even if it ends up being forgettable. Hopefully, the series won’t just fall back on to cliched plots of marital affairs and sweet-girl-lured-to-the-dark-side, because there’s a lot of drama to be mined from the rigorous, unforgiving, often incredibly fake process of creating a work of art from scratch. Whether it’s having to fire an actor because their character isn’t needed in the final draft, travelling to another city for previews, and – in our post-Spiderman world – the incredible media pressure on a new Broadway show before it even opens, there’s a lot of fun to be had here. Here’s hoping the writers are on the same page.
- Jack Davenport is great as the musical’s director: seemingly a sleaze, but clearly there’s more going on. He’s always been a great performer, but in the last few years, Davenport has carved out a niche as scruffy, possibly nefarious, but undeniably attractive Brit, and I like it.
- Phillip Spaeth is probably the most notable secondary actor of the first two episodes. As Ivy’s dancer friend, he’s brought an endearing strength to the role, but I hope the character doesn’t fall into the trap of being ‘the bitchy gay’.
- Finally, if there’s one plot I could do without, it’s Karen’s new career affecting her partner Dev (Raza Jaffrey)’s life and career. I like Jaffrey a lot – he’s warm, down to earth, and has a great chemistry with McPhee. I know we have to expect some drama for Karen, since she’s a naive Iowan entering the world of showbiz, but it was really refreshing that the two of them were so open with each other. I don’t want to lose that for cheap drama.