Smash Deserves a Standing Ovation

Smash S01E01: "Pilot"


Here is a sentence I didn't think I would be writing: Smash is incredible. I can't remember the last time I felt so impatient waiting through commercial breaks, mostly because HBO doesn't have commercial breaks. This show feels and looks and holds an audience like something on HBO, but it's not: It's piped into our houses for free, and you're cheating yourself if you miss it.

There's a realism to the intention of Smash that's inspiring and delightful. The urgent possibilities, the sounds, the air of New York City leaks in at the seams so vividly it feels like you're traveling. Rather than skirting the hard economic realities and personal tiffs that can gather like storm clouds backstage, Smash invites us to revel in them as the greatest of dramas. Smash looks down from the lofty height of spectacle and asks us to consider the sometimes base, sometimes noble human urges that propel theater forward as infinitely more fascinating than any other drama. Not since Fame has a camera attempted to capture so many levels of how a theatrical production happens and how many wasted lives it leaves in its wake.

Two moments in the premiere won me: First of all, Debra Messing (as Julia Houston, half of the duo that's writing the Marilyn Monroe-themed musical Smash centers on) was a straight-up bitch. She had a scene where she had to reprimand and fire an assistant, and she shrieked like a banshee trying to be heard over a hair dryer. I don't think she was even trying channel bitchiness, the direction was probably "In this scene, you fire an assistant." And Debra just figured, "Oh, okay, yell at the help," and let loose the bitch of war. The fact that no one reigned her in is admirable. To not candy-coat a major character, but to reveal her bitchiness, is a winning note of realism.

The other moment that won me over was also courtesy Debra Messing, in an impassioned speech by Julia about Marilyn. "You know what she said in her last interview? She said she didn't want them to turn her into a joke," Julia said, touchingly describing how Marilyn glowed with her love and her need to be loved, like a saint. (This is the interview. It's fantastic.)

Marilyn Monroe was many things: a natural comedian with immaculate timing, an incandescently beautiful being, a savvy businesswoman, a ruthlessly ambitious starlet, and a fragile, lonely star. Her memory has become clouded by the glamour of the lighter roles she was thrust into before she created her own production company, and her talent and pain have sometimes been overlooked in the blaze of her lasting, triumphant images. The idea that there is going to be a weekly prompt for a national discourse about Marilyn and how complexly awesome she was literally made my heart beat faster.

Okay, that surge of optimism came before I saw the lone misstep of this pilot: a crass, hyper-sexualized musical number about Marilyn visiting a baseball team. Reducing the icon to a cooing Betty Boop and including pantomimed motorboating, this scene made me super sad. Even with Debra's speech serving as an awesome mission statement, the musical her character is creating seems to already be veering off course. The dance was an elaborate set piece meant to introduce the villain: Derek Wills, a director who Julia's writing partner, Tom, hates and decries as a terrible person. Yet his work is just too "brilliant" to ignore. (What was so brilliant? The hot dog innuendos? The baseball bat phallus? Is that brilliant? If so, I've babysat some very brilliant six-year-olds.)

Aside from this thematic brain fart, the show has already built up an intriguing and layered world. Julia is trying to adopt a child while also pursuing the musical, which thanks to a leaked song is creating huge buzz on Broadway (that is how the world works, right? Okay, good. Can you get a degree in making viral videos yet? Might need to go back for my Masters). Anjelica Huston's Eileen Rand, a producer seizing on the project as a way bounce back from a horrible divorce, lights a fire under the writers, helps them find the horrible director, and suddenly they need to find: a STAR!

Enter Katharine McPhee, who I pretty much despise, but who is enjoyable as Karen, a waitress who's trained for Broadway but hasn't yet landed a role—luckily she has a handsome and English-accented boyfriend, Dev, who's ready to lick her wounds.

Karen's rival for the role is Ivy Lee, a chorus girl who's personal friends with Tom, sang the song that was leaked, and danced as Marilyn for the director's audition. Despite what could be seen as having an advantage, it was painfully clear that she can in no way assume she's getting the gig. Her fit of nerves (and hence vomiting) gave Karen a chance to audition before her (cue jazzy blue lights and Christina Aguilera. Every time Katharine McPhee breaks into song: snack break!). When Karen and Ivy both earned callbacks, we got a pitiful snapshot of Ivy's life when we saw her in a truly grim apartment, her big news being quickly shot down by her mom. No rich, accented boyfriend is boosting Ivy's ego.

Meanwhile, after Katharine, excuse me, Karen's belt-down-the walls rendition of "Beautiful" (as heard from my kitchen) and ensuing callback secured her a little celebration with her boyfriend, her moment of victory was interrupted by a booty call from the evil director, who got her into his apartment and hinted that she was going to have to get all up on him.

It's truly exciting for Smash to develop the rivalry between Karen and Ivy without making either of them a villain. They both stayed sympathetic and entirely deserving throughout the episode. Karen rose to the director's challenge by stripping down, putting on one of his dress shirts, and sexily singing in his lap, then telling him "it's not going to happen" (slick way to slip in a second audition song). And while it's sad the director is a toad (could have told you that after seeing his "brilliant" burlesque choreography), his villainy serves more to prove Tom is a good judge of character. The real villain is the circumstances: one great role, two girls capable of the part.

The episode culminated with the callback, cutting between Ivy and Karen as they traveled through the city singing the same audition song; the episode cut to black on the last ringing note, without any reaction from the other side of the audition table. While the inserted musical number was a little Glee, the fact that both ladies probably would be singing their audition song on the way to such an important callback (albeit probably not quite so loud and enunciated) made me forgive the number as ultimately being diegetic. And the ending (isolated from the marketing) was a certainly dramatic one. We know from promos that their rivalry is going to extend much further, but I am still going out of my mind waiting for Episode 2.


QUESTIONS:

... How did you like the Smash premiere? Is the show going to save NBC or drive it into the ground?

... Is the taste level of Smash strikingly higher than that of the musical its characters are making?

... Katharine McPhee: do you love her so much or was Mary Faber ROBBED of this role?

... Can this premise last for four, five, or six seasons?

... Marilyn Trivia Question: What did Marilyn name the white poodle that was given to her by Frank Sinatra?

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Didn't watch it because it's on the loser network NBC. Remember NBC is the network that has crummy, unwatched shows like 30rock and Parks & Wreckreation.
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I'm not going to be keeping up with this show this spring but I saw the leaked Pilot about a month ago and made a bold prediction that the show will do pretty awesome. I mentioned that if peope can only get past the first 20 minutes of the show or so b/c it starts off EXTREMELY slow, which is why I think is part of the whole "HBO" feel the author speaks of.



I felt the contrast between mcphee's character and Ivy would be an interesting rivalry. I think her establishing the role as the talent who refuses to sleep with the boss would win over interest from the audience.



That and the other underlying plots plus the success of "Chicago" the movie and Glee the show I felt this show will do extremely great this season.



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I loved it and now I can also look forward to whether the show will meet Lily's standards for Marilyn representation! Not watching American Idol also means I don't have any anti-Katharine bias to overcome to like the show! This is going to be great.
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Boring!!!!!!!!!!!!
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I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed it as much as I did and I am looking forward to the next episode. I tuned in primarily to see Debra Messing and Anjelica Huston, as I am not a huge fan of singing type shows (especially as was done at the end), but I did enjoy this one. I am so happy to see Debra Messing again; I love her! I do hope that Katherine McPhee takes the newish-to-acting training wheels off soon so that I can enjoy her character even more. She wasn't bad, but I hope she gets even better.



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Was the dog called "Smash"? 'Cause this show is a dog. Katherine whatshername is a boring ho-hum nothing - why didn't they find a real star for that plum role?
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And filmed the search! Awwww, next time.
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I loved the first episode, it wasn't boring and slow like a lot of shows are at first. Important things were happening and the characters were interesting, I will tune in again and I hope that the show really is as good as the first episode has made me believe.
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I fell asleep in the first ten minutes. Then a few days later I watched it from the point where I nodded off and it got considerably better. I'll definitely keep watching.
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This piece of crap, i tortured myself with the first 10 min., please don't show it to me ever again. But yet another proof that the world have shrunk into a place where so-called "Talent"-shows gets more appritiation than something that is actually good. People demand your brains and hearings back.
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Please watch after the first ten minutes! (see the comment directly above yours) It gets so much better!
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Being a proud NON-viewer of every single episode of "American Idol," I had no bias for or against McPhee prior to watching this pilot. And while I thought she was slightly bland and unemotional, I found her cuteness irresistible and singing ability undeniable. I could totally believe that she was the good girl from Iowa that she portrays on the show. In no way do I see her as any version of Marilyn -- sexy or otherwise -- but it's too early to tell how things will develop over the season.



I was bummed to see that guy playing the director. It took me a few minutes to recall that he was the guy who swooped in on the main FBI agent's wife in "FlashForward," which always pissed me off. He's now 0 for 2 in my book. To be fair, he wasn't a jerk at all in that show but the bad taste in my brain remains.

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No! Jack Davenport is awesome!!
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-I loved the premiere. I surely hope that it'll do good for NBC.

-I think so. But let's be honest here, sex sells, and I can understand why a musical about Marilyn would have some of it, even some very obvious moments (e.g. baseball scene), though I would obviously hope that that's one of very few.

-Do not know who Mary Faber is (or at least not coming to mind right now), and I personally have nothing against Katharine McPhee.

-I certainly hope it can, because I'm a musician by trade. If this is successful it'll help my business just by being out there.

-No clue. Poodle whatever. But I love Frank Sinatra. The man.



As to your HBO comment, I LOVED the way this show went into commercial breaks. Listen to the soundtrack to "Dexter" or "Game Of Thrones" or "Six Feet Under". No great swells to a sudden stop as it jumps out to commercial where the obvious breaks in the show are. Listen to the soundtrack to this show, and it was formulated in the same way. It just cut to commercial, the show wasn't centered around it, it's more like the commercial just interrupted the show rather than when even great shows like "LOST" or "Fringe" lead right up to the commercial. It's a bit too much probably for me to hope that they continue this trend throughout the show's run, but I would sure love for them to do so.
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That's a brilliant observation. You must be a musician to be so sensitive to the soundtrack. This show certainly didn't acknowledge commercial breaks. Its almost like a film that happens to be on tv. Stupendous.
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Wow... I am so impressed and can't wait for the whole season to unfold. Katharine McPhee rocked it, and Debra Messing smashed it :)



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"If you talk to a dog or a cat it doesn't tell you to shut up" MM
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This bored me to death, I'm sorry. I don't know what all the critics are seeing in it. Virtually nothing happened, it was just people standing in rooms and talking. And the songs weren't good either. If they all have to relate to Marilyn then this will get old quick.
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Whoooa! This is what I thought of this show on opposite day!
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Loved it. Premise can't last more than 3 episodes or they will strech it too far and lose it. Looooooove Debra Messing.
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Emmys will be all over it in September
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I LOVED IT!!!
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I never thought I would say considering it's not my type of thing..... but I loved it. The pilot was just great: from the acting to the writing. Although I'm not a fan of Katherine Mcphee, I do think she did a good job with her role of someone who wants to make it and prove herself to everyone. That being said, my main issue is that if I had to choose between the two leads it would be a no brainer.... I don't see how it's so difficult, Ivy is so perfect for the role in so many ways. She just has that innocence and fragile persona while still being sexy.

I truly hope that it does well and that people like it as it's a truly great show.

I'm really happy Lily is the one recapping this show, I really love her recaps as they're hilarious yet insightful. Thanks, Lily!
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Thank YOU! That honestly means a lot, thank you. I am really excited to be covering this show, and it looks like we are on exactly the same page on Katherine McPhee and Ivy (Ivy in a landslide!)
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I thought it was good television, and I will be watching more. Plus Commodore Norrington's character was awesome, obviously not in a good-guy sense, but a good performance without a doubt.
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AGREED. Big time.
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Loved it. Treat it right, NBC!
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I really liked Katharine McPhee in this (I never watch American Idol either, so I didn't know who she was). I also really like the actress who plays Ivy. They both did very good jobs, and they can both sing and perform-something not all the kids on Glee can do.

Why do you really not like Katharine? I'm curious.



I disagree about the baseball number. If you want to do a study on Marilyn you can't choose only the frail woman inside, but also the persona she created. Her persona as a sex symbol was part of who she was (and of course further fed her insecurities). You can't ignore that.



But, yes, I am super excited for this show as a fan of Broadway and television. They made an excellent pilot and I hope the quality remains this good.
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She was definitely a sex symbol, but I don't think the baseball number telegraphs "sex" so much as "crass". Even at her most provocative, Marilyn retained an innocence and joyfulness (like as Billy Wilder's girl next door in Seven Year Itch, languishing in the air conditioning or enjoying the street grate) She's gets across the idea of sex without us ever seeing someone motorboat her, and I think the baseball number was much closer to a lampoon than an homage.

Katherine: my impression of her from her season of American Idol simply wasn't a favorable one. She came across as humorless and a little arrogant. Of course, God knows what I would come across as on American Idol, I'm sure its an emotional meat grinder, so I'm trying to stay open. So far I think she's great in the role, although singing "Beautiful" made no damn sense. (The writer's problem, not hers)
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Am I the only one that wished David Tennant was the evil director?
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No more musicals on television! It's just free money for itunes
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how when the songs are written specifically for the show!?
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Yeah I have to believe there is a big fat kickback involved with these symbiotic tv show/itune relationships.
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So So happy you are the one to recap this show Lily! This show ROCKS HARD. can't wait for the next episode!!

It will def. save NBC!!

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Thank you so much! You just made my day!!
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Fantastic! What a great show!

I am a fan (and I use that term loosely) of Glee, but already Smash is 10x better. Smash feels authentic, adult - well written. The show also has an insane cast (so glad to see Debra Messing on my screen!)



My one tiny problem is are we suppose to be rooting for Karen to get the part or Ivy? Or both? Because I am firmly in the Ivy category, we saw Ivy's burning passion to become a star whereas Karen we didn't see any of that.



I guess we will see as the season continues. I hope the viewers stick around because this show is SO good! One of the best new shows this television season! Well done NBC.
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I like that so far the show is letting us choose who to root for. Both are compelling as heroines and have great attributes for the part. I'm sure casting directors have faced this issue many times before and its fascinating to assume that perspective.
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I agree, the more I thought about it the more genius of the writers it has become to me. They are putting us in the casting directors seat, giving us the dilemma of who is right for the part. God I love this show and we're only on ep 1!
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I didn't like it. I found the characters way too stereotyped. The self important self involved writer, the ultra gay second writer. The pretentious millionaires soon to be divorced wife. The boyfriend that knows way too much about broadway and marilyn monroe to be straight. The will do anything to get the part blonde the naive out of towner that just wants to make it. I could go on but I think you get the point. Maybe it is because I don't like theatre folk because they are too self important and too self involved to be enjoyable. Oh and I forgot the stereotypical Director. That somehow the production needs or it will be an utter failure.



I never found Marilyn Monroe interesting. She seemed like she would do anything including changing everything about herself in order to make herself appealing.



And if the test song wasn't offensive or held marilyn in a ridiculous light I am not sure what does. And if that is their first song the rest are going to be horrible.



I did like McPhee in the role, she is the only appealing character of the bunch.



I don't think this is going to last the season. But it is NBC they have a tendency to drop geat shows and keep the crap ones.



Also, this is too close to being a pg version of Showgirls.
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Ya, more crap for the masses. Good thing its time slot doesn't conflict with any good shows. And ya it will probably get another four or five seasons...God help us all.
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The premise is good enough for 6, 7 seasons, but since it's NBC, hoping for a second season is already pushing it. Fingers crossed!
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I really loved it! Mind you when Katharine did that little stint with that HORRIBLE blonde haircut way back when I wasn't feeling her at the time. Now? This will definitely hit my Glee spot because I can't stand that show anymore.
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And yeah, Lily, what up with the McPhee hate? She was my fave on American Idol too.
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I was not a fan of hers on American Idol. She seems kind of humorless and reminds me of a crazy roommate I had once. All that having been said, I was impressed by her turn last night and found myself rooting for her character, so in a few episodes, who knows, maybe I'll get over my residual rage from living next door to her lookalike.
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I thin this may be a hit for NBC. Loved the pilot.
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- I loved the premiereand I hope it will save NBC (but it's NBC, so who knows?).

- I don't know who Mary Farber is, but I liked Katharine as Karen (though I think Ivy is perfect for the part of Marilyn after watching the premiere.).

- If the writers do it right it could go on for seasons, but not as a musical-in-production but all the stuff that comes afterwards.

- She named him Maf (short for Mafia) ;)
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I think this first season will focuse on picking the marilyn then next season will focuse on the show itself. Then the third season will focus on the reviews and contract struggles.

I think if they play there cards right that is how the series will progress.
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I agree, I think they can extend this premise- I mean Spiderman had what, 5 years of buzz before it premiered? 4 seasons easy!
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Mafia! You got it! Three thumbs up!
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I absolutely loved the premiere and Katharine was incredible as I knew she would be. Not really understanding your hate for her either.
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I loved the premiere. I don't want to judge that particular musical number too soon. Maybe I'm giving the show too much credit but I saw it as representing how the world saw Marilyn, or the Marilyn that Norma Jean worked so hard to present. That song/number is in contrast to the song Ivy and Karen were singing at the end for callbacks was representative of the person not the icon Marilyn.



Also, Lily why do you hate Katharine McPhee so much?
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