daniel ferrer looks at NBC’s heavily hyped musical drama …
Television is hard to do. The audience isn’t securely penned into a theater. They don’t have the luxury of enjoying the story without interruptions from Pepsi and Toyota. You end up competing for their attention even after they’ve tuned in. But the biggest challenge is that you can’t just entertain them in the moment; you have to give them a reason to come back in a week.
Smash makes good on the former, then flounders on the latter. It has a simple yet intriguing premise: Take the workplace drama to Broadway, chronicling the arduous production process from start to finish. It has a suitably crowded ensemble cast, including some potentially awards-sweeping performances by Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport. It also has a few musical numbers to up the creativity. The pieces are all there, laid out on the table, but nothing is connected yet.
Among those pieces are Julia Houston and Tom Levitt (Debra Messing and Christian Borle), two veteran playwrights who have a career-turning epiphany to make a musical about Marilyn Monroe. They seem to handle the more procedural conflicts that go along with the whole premise of professionals coming together to make something happen. The show’s emotional center comes in the form of two rival actresses: the struggling hopeful Karen Cartwright (American Idol‘s Katherine McPhee) and the more seasoned Ivy Lynn (real-life Broadway star Megan Hilty). It’s obvious who we’re supposed to root for, but judging by the ending, their real conflict hasn’t even started yet. There’s also Huston’s Eileen Rand, a bigwig producer whose career is in jeopardy due to a messy divorce. But no one on the show is more scene-stealing than Davenport as Jack Wills, a talented, egotistical director with major collaborating issues. The character is rather flat, but it’s his performance that elevates it to something worth watching.
Probably the biggest issue with the pilot is the fact that the groundbreaking potential of the premise is squandered on the trite and cliché. Theater is a very difficult business, where creative differences clash and anything can go wrong at any given moment. The fact that we’ve never seen any of that on television makes the writers’ jobs fairly easy. There’s plenty of fresh conflict to navigate without resorting to old tropes. Unfortunately, old tropes are what this show is built from.
There’s the actress looking for a break. There’s the career-minded mother whose professional life gets in the way of her home life. There’s the proven artist whose talent leads to a sense of entitlement both on the job and in the bedroom. All of these are suitable, maybe even necessary components to the story, but none of them have a shred of complexity. Yes, Karen is struggling as an actress. We know that because she keeps saying so. But why? Sure, she doesn’t always get callbacks, but she lives in a nice apartment, is in a healthy relationship, and goes to nice restaurants. I just can’t see the conflict that the characters keep alluding to.
Then there’s the atrocious subplot of Julia’s adoption. It’s an obvious gambit that tries to bring some drama home with the character, and even worse is that there’s absolutely no place for it. Why would someone so committed to their job and so unromantic in all other aspects decide that adoption is a good decision? The show really entertains when it gets to the nitty-gritty of the production process. I had more fun in the five minutes spent dealing with a leak of unfinished songs by an intern than I did watching three different scenes where Karen’s boyfriend encourages her to follow her dreams.
The musical numbers are a mixed bag. Their presence means Smash will face inevitable comparisons to Glee, the only other show of its kind on the air. However, while Glee gives us a sugary caffeine injection in the middle of a show that couldn’t stand on its own, Smash flows much more smoothly in a narrative sense. Each number flirts with diegesis while giving us an alternate take inside the mind of the performers. It’s not executed perfectly, and the songs aren’t as infectious as a musical ought to be, but the trick definitely causes the music and story to flow together nicely.
I stand by what I said earlier. Smash shows a lot of potential. It simply isn’t facing in the right direction to make that potential worth something. Right now, it’s a superficially entertaining show that’s easy to swallow. With some serious character renovation and some added focus on the central conflict, it can become a truly compelling and human story.