Smash is finally here! After what feels like months on end of buzz about a new musical television show, we are finally treated to the pilot - on free preview, no less! (Watch on YouTube here - it's available until February 6th.) The network, the critics, the internet: everyone seems to want you to watch Smash.
And, I must say, I think I will! Overall, the pilot was fresh and unique, with interesting conflicts to mine and character relationships I'm looking forward to seeing as they develop every week.
It begins, naturally, with a song: Katharine McPhee, as the protagonist Karen, takes on "Over the Rainbow" before a dreamy starlit background, with a matching twinkle in her eye. Turns out she's just at a dreary audition, and a cell phone ring yanks us from the reverie and back to cold reality. Karen is dismissed. It's a charming hook to start the whole show, and if anything I'd say they could actually put more weight behind this construct. I wanted to indulge in the fantasy a little more, to see Karen close up and really get a sense of her talent before we were slammed with reality. This is our main character! Introduce her like she's the star!
Nevertheless, we start out with a wannabe Broadway star. Then, we meet two Broadway producers who want to make a show. Aha! Julia and Tom are pitch-perfect partners, who have a successful career on Broadway - but who are also taking a break so that Julia can focus on her growing family. (She's looking to adopt.) But a seed is planted in their head by Tom's new assistant Ellis - why not do a musical about Marilyn Monroe?
And, here's our show. This season of Smash will be treating us to the process of putting on a Broadway musical, from concept to curtain. As such, I wanted a little more magic in the birth of the idea. The pilot strung everything together like it was almost mundane - the random assistant sees a book, gives the idea, and then all of the creative process happens quickly and offscreen. Next thing we know, Tom's written songs and they're recording demos!
Truthfully, for me, I love that Smash is a show driven by the process. We are being witness to the creative process, to the development of something larger than these characters, that most people watching at home couldn't even fathom putting together - and dammit, I actually want to witness that! The pilot missed an opportunity to assemble these character's participation in the process as something more than just business decisions. And it's all there - the original numbers being penned for this vehicle are phenomenal, both by song and dance perspective, which indicates that everyone involved is massively talented and therefore extremely winsome. There's magic in the making, but the pilot didn't quite make the most of it.
For instance, we got a chance to see Ivy Lynn, an underappreciated Broadway performer and Tom's top choice for Marilyn, sing the musical's demo online, where Karen found it and sang along. But these two scenes were independent of one another, where they could have been cross-cut to visually suggest these two's impending competition. Not only that, but we saw no part of the creation of the song, or Tom and Julia's active creative participation in the project. We were given a glimpse into the debate of original musicals (like Marilyn) versus revivals (like My Fair Lady) and how the former is definitely a risk - but commentary on that wasn't present beyond a few throwaway lines. And ultimately, I still can't quite get past the fact that the Marilyn idea came from the writers planting a book on the coffee table and having a character say, "Oh, look at that." I get that Broadway's a business and a workplace just like anyplace else, and amping up the fanciful aspects too much could get overblown and exhausting, however - I think a teeny tiny step in that direction could put a little more wind in Smash's sails.
The character work, so far, is solid. Katharine McPhee, somewhat surprisingly, is just as beguiling in her non-musical scenes as she is under the spotlight. While I think that's certainly a compliment to her ability to make staid scenes charming without being cloying, I also wonder if the show is trying too hard to make Karen the underdog. Intellectually, I understand that she's special, because she's not like everyone else who auditioned for Marilyn. But at the same time, it's hard not to want Ivy to land the role of Marilyn simply because we've watched her earn it, onscreen. "Beautiful" is supposedly the moment that we sit up and take note of Karen, but I'm not quite buying it yet.
I get that this is a girl from Iowa, who appears to be a bit naive about what to expect when a producer calls you to his apartment late at night. And I don't doubt that part of Karen's character arc will be about toughening up and coming into her own. I just want to see stronger hints that she's had it in her all along, that's all. The scene with Derek in his apartment was incredibly difficult for me to read because I couldn't figure out if he was indeed propositioning her, and how aware of that she was - until she made it clear at scene's end. Either make it apparent to the audience what each character's stance is in at every point in that scene, or really play up the cat-and-mouse aspect and pair it with a reveal, to raise questions about Derek, and then root for Karen.
I'm curious as well to see what the writers are going to do with Julia. Firstly, I must say that I am loving Debra Messing in this role. She's not without personality, but her part in the narrative is not to be a certain "type" of character, which often happens to female roles. They shuffle into the story under a label, and that's their shtick until the writers get around to dimensionalizing them. I like that Julia is not that. She is kind of an Everywoman, but without falling into the traps that make a lot of female characters stereotypes or cliches (and not Everywomans, at least not in the same way that there is an Everyman).
That being said, I'm not sure what the writers want me to feel about Julia's family. Because every scene with her husband in the pilot made me want to punch the guy in the face. Forget Ivy or Derek, the real antagonist in this show is the man who says, "I hate the theater, I really do." Julia's husband Frank is in turns grumpy, guilt-throwing, patronizing, and borderline unsupportive of Julia's work - and I can't figure if he's supposed to be so unlikeable, or if the writing and direction just laid it on a little too thick to emphasize that there will be growing conflict for Julia between her home life and her work. Only time will tell.
Of course, I'm also already prepping myself for the Tom and Derek antagonism to materialize fully (consider me curious as to why Tom hates him so much) as well as the competition between Ivy and Karen for the part of Marilyn. I'm unsure what to make of that second one, because while it is refreshing to see a thus-far bitch-fight-free lady competition, I'm not entirely clear on what the writers want me to be feeling for each character. At this point, I'm firmly Team Ivy, and crossing my fingers that Smash gets renewed another season so that Karen can take the lead in their next endeavor.
In all, though, caring about these characters and the future of their relationships and happiness is a sign that Smash delivered a solid pilot. While there are certainly some aspects of their show that could be tweaked to be even stronger yet, there's a lot of potential here for good drama, interesting character development, and a damn spectacular musical number. I'll be watching.
The Report Card:
Musical Numbers: A
Episode MVP: Ivy