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.


... 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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