I can freely admit that I sat down to watch the Smash pilot with some apprehension. It’s been hyped at the “end all, be all” of television shows by NBC, much in the same way Glee was hyped (and over-hyped) by Fox. And the premise isn’t a very compelling nor broadly appealing on paper: a bunch of rich Broadway-types decide to mount a lavish musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe while insanely gorgeous actress vie for the title role. That’s it. No ad men struggling with the conformity of their times. No down on their luck, dying teachers turning to the meth-making business. No royal squabbles over a throne made of iron. Nothing that would make me, nor most people, go “this is my show!” So, how did Smash fare? Pretty, pretty good.
Okay, that’s an understatement. Smash is a fantastic riveting behind the scenes look at the making of a musical that is seems to be destined to fail from the get-go. The fact that a previous attempt at a Marilyn Monroe musical crashed and burned in spectacular fashion hangs over every scene in the pilot. It also doesn’t help that the creators of the new musical (played by Will & Grace‘s Debra Messing and Broadway vet Christian Borle) aren’t on the same page regarding some of the more pivotal aspects of the show — most importantly, who is going to direct and choreograph. (That eventually falls on the shoulders of Jack Davenport from the Pirates of The Caribbean series.) More fuel for the speculation of the early demise is the impending divorce of producer and financial backer played by Academy Award-winner Anjelica Huston. She might not have all of the funds required to see the show through.
To make things a bit more broad and recognizable to non-theatre types are the storylines of the ingenue (Megan Hilty) who was promised the lead role by Borle, and the young, struggle actress (a phenomenal Katharine McPhee) who needs a her first big break. Thankfully, they don’t come to blows in the pilot, which would be ridiculous and have a “been there, done that” sense to it. Instead, the girls are pretty much separated for most of the episode, so we can catch a glimpse of who they are. Their hopes, their dreams, and their aspirations — which will hopefully help when they do inevitable clash. Instead, the struggle to find the right actress to play Monroe falls on the musical’s creative team. And that struggle is done very well.
As we all know by now, Smash is based on an idea by Executive Producer Steven Spielberg (you know, that guy who made them films about archeologists, aliens and lost androids) but the pilot was written by renowned playwright Theresa Rebeck. Though it has the usual problem that most pilots face — lots of story set up that doesn’t necessarily pay off immediately, character introduction, and expositional dialogue — Rebeck makes sure that everything moves at a pace that keeps the scenes from being bogged down by too much of that.
The pilot (and the following two episodes) is also briskly directed by another Broadway vet, Michael Mayer, who knows how to keep things visually exciting, very much like another Spielberg discovery and cohort Sam Mendes. The musical numbers (written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) pop in a manner that doesn’t come off as cheesy (think Chicago) or as hipster-ironic (think Moulin Rouge!). They are what they are: pretty awesome. Though Mayer has directed a couple of small features before Smash, don’t be surprised if he moves on into Road to Perdition territory in the near-future.
Like I said above, Smash isn’t necessarily for everyone but there is a passion for the theatre that hopefully resonates to more than just theatre-lovers. The passion is recognizable, very much like the passion for advertising is evident in Mad Men or to a lighter-extent, the passion for crime-solving is evident in a show like Psych. I know two shows that don’t seem to have anything in common with each other or with Smash but the key is passion.
Now, will the show save NBC from its dismal ratings? There is a hope that it does but the air of failure hovers over the network in a similar fashion. Maybe it is a metaphor. But it’s a damn good one.
8.5 / 10