NBC's new musical drama "Smash", a behind the scenes showbiz drama about Broadway musical theater and our enduring Marilyn Monroe obsession, premieres tonight. If pilot quality and series promise equal ratings, the show will make good on its title. The internet has had a good laugh about its relentless ad campaign and the absurd "Introducing... Katharine McPhee" angle (American Idol being underground experimental television that only 5 people have ever seen, don'cha know) but the show is smartly written enough to use McPhee's familiarity as an opening gambit to throw you into an unfamiliar world.
"Somewhere Over the Rainbow" is long since the most oversung song in the popular canon and a song McPhee was already known for from her original introduction years ago. But this cozy dreamy showtune reverie is interrupted by a cel phone, snapping us back to plainclothes everyday New York where McPhee's "Karen" is auditioning for god knows what. The casting director is decidedly unmoved and takes the call.
Dreamy musical outbursts screeching to a halt for reality-check comic purposes is as familiar a cliché as Somewhere Over the Rainbow but "Smash", as it turns out, isn't actually going to coddle us. Continued after the jump.
It throws you right into the business of musical theater, full of references and dialogue details that I imagine only showqueens are going to absorb instantaneously. A poorly written show would surely have one of the many characters be a complete newbie in this world, a surrogate if you will. And while McPhee's Karen Cartwright and one assistant fill that to some degree it's not as pronounced as it usually is in these circumstances. The characters here know the world better than (most) of the audience will. It's smart to dive in deep for specific textures because inside showbiz dramas can't avoid cliché otherwise; there have been too many of them. It's a happy accident that musical theater, one of the oldest forms of showbiz, is now a fresh milieu for this kind of story since it's been so rarely dramatized in the past few decades.
Since this is a pilot we're introduced to several characters and potential plot threads. Julia and Tom (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) are a songwriting team with a hit show called "Heaven on Earth" currently running. They're supposed to be on break until Tom's new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) accidently gives them the idea of a Marilyn Monroe musical. Julia's husband Frank (Broadway vet Brian d'Arcy James) is not pleased since they're in the process of adopting and Julia is a workaholic. Meanwhile Eileen and Jerry (Anjelica Huston and Michael Cristofer), powerhouse producers, are in the middle of a "vindictive" divorce and Eileen's current project, a My Fair Lady revival, has been put into escrow. A leaked song from the Marilyn musical interests her and soon she's convincing the songwriting team to hire womanizing director Derek Willis (Jack Davenport) even though Tom and Derek despise each other.
Derek wants the fairly green Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) to play Marilyn. And he also wants her to earn the role in his bed (McPhee's panic about her casting couch moment = Emmy clip!) but Tom and Julia want to promote one of their favorite chorus members Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) to lead status.
This Ivy vs. Karen drama can't possibly last for a whole series, so eventually they'll have to choose but it's a more interesting contrast than it initially appears. Movies and television are, generally speaking, very anti-education and training, preferring to sell the easy and therefore more inclusive dream myth that all you need is talent and a dream to make it in any profession. So if Smash follows past patterns and promotional clues, Katharine McPhee will be playing Marilyn Monroe by mid season. Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, who did a great Dolly Parton in the 9 to 5 musical a few years ago) is in the thankless story position of experienced trained performer who might not have the magical "it" factor. But rather than ignoring Ivy's dream and courting full and easy sympathies for Karen who we assume will win out in the end, the pilot episode paints a rather sympathetic contrast between them. Ivy is a consummate professional who just can't catch a big break and whose personal life is empty, everything sacrificed for a dream that might not be coming true. Karen wants the dream just as badly but losing it wouldn't hurt her as much. Her life is rich. She's younger, just starting out. She has a loving boyfriend in Dev (Raza Jaffrey, instantly adorable as her cheerleader and would be husband.) and parents who worry about her. They aren't quite supportive of her dream but you can tell they want her to be happy.
When Dev and Karen take her parents out to dinner they argue, for what must be the 100th time about her choice of profession. "Sometimes dreams are hard," Karen says earnestly, frustrated at the repetitive argument. Out of context in advertisements it sounds like a terrible on-the-nose line. But the beauty of the "Smash" pilot is that in context the line rings absolutely true. Someone's heart is going to get broken and mounting this musical is obviously not going to be easy on any of the principal cast members.
Seven songs?! They're totally spoiling us. Standards "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" (McPhee), and "Beautiful" (McPhee), "Happy Birthday Mr. President" (McPhee), "I Want to Be Loved By You" (Annaleigh Ashford), Originals "National Pasttime" (Hilty), "Kisses Come Free" (Hilty), "Let Me Be Your Star" (Hilty & McPhee). Megan Hilty kills the big production number, a risque funny baseball number but the highlight might just be the duet finale, that's treated like an actual musical number and not just a grounded they're singing because they're rehearsing or on stage number.
Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity, My Fair Lady, Scarlett Johansson, Kristin Chenoweth, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark ("Reidel! Reidel starting going after Spider-Man before they even started previews he was already attacking everyone. Before they even started maiming people!"), two Marilyn clips from Some Like It Hot
This exchange between chorus boy Dennis (Phillip Spaeth) and composer Tom (Christian Borle) was great. It was even synchronized to the dance number going on onstage (onstage being offstage in this case). Tom doesn't remember but there was obviously sexcapades.
Happy news! If the pilot is any indication, it's going to be nearly impossible to choose a best Anjelica Huston moment in each episode. We have a new player in the Emmy Supporting Actress race. I love the expression on her face when her husband calls her vindicative. Ha! But at this moment, I'll take her delicious Mama Bear condescension when she's talking the reluctant songwriters into working with a director they don't want. She laughs at their jokes but she's not listening to a word.
Ohhhh, we're so hard on each other in this business."
Needless to say she gets her way.
Full disclosure: I've been dreaming of this show my entire life (Seriously. I've always wondered why only hospitals, courts, police stations and office buildings are allowed as workplaces in series television) and the first time through I was so nervous that I merely enjoyed it. The second time through, without the anxious burden of "oh my god please be good i need musicals in my life!" I was smitten. There are curious moments where it feels a little, um, sedate (?) given the topic -- it could probably use more laughs -- but mostly it thrills. A-
Next Monday can't come soon enough.