Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Does NBC Have a "Smash" Hit On Its Hands?

Megan Hilty and cute boys in sparkly baseball uniforms - Just two of Smash's many valuable assets
After months of hype and weeks of Facebook statuses about how much more awesome Smash is going to be than Glee, the NBC musical drama about the creation of a Broadway show finally aired on TV last night.  And I have to say, I enjoyed it.  A lot.  Am I obsessively addicted to it, ready to devour any and all information I can lay my clammy little fanboy hands on?  No.  But I will certainly be tuning in next week to see where things go after a very solid pilot.

First off, I want to say that any comparisons to Glee are apples to oranges comparisons.  Whereas Glee is primarily aimed at young girls with attention spans no longer than a typical YouTube video (and gays who act like said young girls), Smash is aimed squarely at adults.  This goes a long way towards explaining why it is already functioning on a higher level than the Fox series, since most adults won’t put up with the kind of nonsensical shenanigans that occur with alarming frequency at McKinley High.

Thankfully, the characters in Smash are all reasonably coherent, believable people who behave in consistent and mostly logical ways.  I say mostly because it is a tad suspicious that such an on-the-ball personal assistant to a famous Broadway composer wouldn’t realize that sending at an unauthorized copy of a demo recording would be frowned upon.  And even more suspicious is that Katherine McPhee’s character, a 24-year-old who seems well adjusted to New York City and the theatrical scene, would receive a call at 10 o’clock at night telling her to go to the house of the Broadway director she just auditioned for and not figure out he wanted to sleep with her.  But other than that, the characters are well written and serve their functions well.

A large part of this is due to casting, which is spot on.  I particularly enjoyed Debra Messing and Christian Borle as the composing team, and Jack Davenport is deliciously smarmy as the hotshot Broadway director (and I can’t wait to find out why his character and Borle’s hate one another).  Even McPhee, who was probably the biggest question mark as far as acting ability was concerned, is doing a fine job.  Do I want to give her an Emmy?  No, but I also don’t want to yell at her to get off the screen, either. 

I also think the show did an excellent job in handling the biggest concern among theatre lovers prior to the pilot airing.  Most people I know, in typical diva worshipping fashion, seem to be of the opinion that any sane person would cast Megan Hilty on the spot.  I happen to agree that she is probably a more appropriate choice to play Marilyn Monroe, but the pilot of Smash makes a good case for at least seeing what McPhee has to offer in the role.  And honestly, they sold me on the idea of this rivalry with a single line of dialogue: the dismissive “thanks” given to Hilty by the director after her workshop performance of the baseball number.  He clearly doesn’t like Hilty, and honestly, that sort of unfounded bias would be more than enough to hold someone back in this business.

Yet in another way, their rivalry actually is my biggest concern with the series.  If Smash is going to be about the development of a Marilyn Monroe musical, the fictional creative team is going to have to pick their lead relatively early on.  But the pilot sets up the competition between these two actresses as the main conflict for the series, so I’m interested to see what new obstacles they manage to invent while keeping both women in play. 

It also drove me *insane* when I heard that disgusting, Autotune-style mechanical reverb kick in on the FIRST NOTE of McPhee’s rendition of “Beautiful.”  People do not sound like that in real life, and they certainly don’t sound that way when they audition.  If it had kicked in after McPhee went into fantasy-land later in the number, I could have dealt with it, but not right away.  It was the one bad habit from Glee to rear its ugly head, but was thankfully confined to that one performance (Hilty’s vocals sounded gloriously unaltered, which is what happens when you cast actual Broadway talent).

I was also happy to see that unlike Glee, Smash is putting a lot more effort into the “book scenes.”  On the high-school set series, they get so busy singing their pop covers that I often feel like the story is rushed and underdeveloped.  By cutting the number of songs in half, Smash actually had time to begin to develop its large cast of characters and their various problems.  And when the songs did occur, they were for the most part new songs of a very high quality.  And by having the musical at the center of Smash be about a showbiz star, the songs written for the show-within-a-show will be able to reflect the same themes going on in the characters’ lives, which makes them actually work within the context of the TV show.

As Glee continues to be undone by its erratic behavior, the impending graduation of its core characters, and the dramaturgical gymnastic that will be required to keep said characters around for season 4, it’s nice to see Smash come along and take the TV musical into adult territory.  I will certainly be watching, and I hope the rest of America will as well. 

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