Smash – Pilot
In this day and age of economic depression the theatre has again become a place only for the cultural elite, eg. for the rich. While most of the middle-class wouldn’t much mind missing out on the latest adaptation of the bard’s book or Tom Stoppard’s latest mental, meta-fictional masterpiece there is one market that they will regret losing and this is the musical. Thankfully though NBC has come along with Smash, their latest attempt at airing a show that will live up to its namesake, and Smash is for all intents and purposes a musical although it airs in your lounge room rather than on the boards of Broadway.
For those of us that love the catchy hooks and complex choreography of a big musical number and the sense of elevated emotion that one such song can bring to a scene this is undoubtedly a good thing, but musicals are not to everyone’s taste and so I must warn that Smash is a direct translation and brings with it the good and the bad. The story is shallow and sugary, the characters defined instantly by their appearance then given little more depth than that and of course there is a lot of singing, which will without a doubt serve as a negative for many people.
Though those criticisms may sound crippling the show somehow manages to overcome them, at least at this stage, and by virtue of being on television and thus running for an extended length it has the potential to turn these into positives, perhaps even bettering the original medium. So by taking the musical from the stage and onto the small screen Smash is not only functioning as a stop-gap, but potentially proving itself to be an evolution; this may well be the beginning of a series of TV musicals.
This is where I have to bring up Glee. Now of course Smash isn’t the first attempt at trying to make a show out of show-tunes but it is to my mind the only actual Musical on television at the moment; Glee, for all its potential, is little more than a compilation album come to life. Simply having characters sing does not a musical make, there is more to it than that and Smash realises this by writing its own songs rather than simply stealing them (Unless it is appropriate to do so, like within the context of an audition scene). The only other similarity shared by the two shows – this one a long-form drama for adults – is the fantasy stage sequence and comparing the two approaches to these proves to be enlightening to the program as a whole: Smash shows the stage in quick flashes, they are executed in a much more logical manner, in that they have some logic to them at all, and serve a clear purpose; to illustrate the difference between the imagination of the characters and their reality, both positively and negatively.
So that is the structure spoken about, but what of the story itself? Well as is commonly the case with theatre this is a post-modern and meta affair in that Smash is essentially a musical about making a musical. We follow the writers, producers, director and stars on from ontogenesis to the stage as they attempt to put together Marilyn: The Musical. Which, as it turns out, is not about a certain iconoclastic goth rocker but rather sets out to tell the story of Ms. Monroe like only a musical can, through song and dance. Marilyn is a great subject: she is herself iconoclastic, her image alone instantly evokes emotions, and her works all ply well with the world of plays. Taking that meta-structure one step further and allowing the show itself to tell the story of a real Norma-Jean is a very clever take on this, one that will allow the show to delve into her character without ever seeming tangential or stressing its Studio 60 factor.
To give Alan Sepinwall’s atrocious dad-joke some merit, Smash has to take more than a name from Friday Night Lights’ playbook. It’s almost an idiom now but although that show was about Football you didn’t need to know anything about football to like it and in the same way Smash needs to make it so non-musical fans are able to not only follow but enjoy this program and they seem to be doing this in a number of ways. For one the other, and in this case potentially literal upside, to using Marilyn as the base of your show is that it sexes things up for the straight-male audience who wouldn’t normally consider Musicals to be their thing; if they happen to be walking past the show though there is a lot that could catch their eye from the stunning leads through the erotically-charged dancers and entendre in the songs to the more literal sex scenes.
The show’s other attempt at hooking an audience is in adopting a ‘Team x’ set-up, at its core is a battle between the two girls to see who will play Marilyn when the show finally opens. For me though this is a bit of a mis-step because it feels like one is too clearly favoured over the other by this episode and by convention as a whole; Ivy gets the backhanded treatment from both (and the ‘Coming Soon on…’) while McPhee is set as the ugly-duckling underdog with the inspiring story. For this to work Jacob Ivy needs to be kept in consideration, so I hope she gets more lead time. This then is another issue perhaps solved by virtue of being on television.
So while it may well be able to get people watching, or at least it would were it not on NBC, the show so far fails at taking the most important piece of advice from Lights which is: be good, be good and it doesn’t matter what you’re about. Unfortunately all the stuff outside of the singing is a little off-pitch: the characters are too uninspired at this stage, the corporate espionage too dry and the relationships intriguing but too simplistic; though this can and hopefully will change as the series progresses thanks to that Television time, I don’t have unwavering faith that it will. So if you like a song or two then give it a shot, this shows for you, but if not give it a shot to woo you but don’t feel bad if it fails (Though NBC certainly will, no matter what they said at TCA).