Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Get a Sneak Peek at NBC's "Smash"

The new NBC show "Smash," which premieres in February, has been getting a lot of good press and a lot of splashy (smashy?) coverage ever since critics got a look at its pilot episode last June. It's been touted as a perfect choice for just about everybody, mixing familiar Broadway performers (Christian Borle, known for "Spamalot" and "Legally Blonde: The Musical," as well as the recent off-Broadway revival of "Angels in America," Megan Hilty, who's played Glinda in "Wicked" and the Dolly Parton role in "9 to 5: The Musical," and Brian d'Arcy James, who was Shrek in "Shrek the Musical" and has credits in "Titanic," "Carousel," "Blood Brothers," "Next to Normal, "Time Stands Still," and "Pardon My English" at Encores) with TV stars (Debra Messing from "Will & Grace'), film stars (Academy Award winner Anjelica Huston and Brit Jack Davenport, memorable in "The Talented Mr. Ripley" and the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movies) and one Reality-TV princess (Katharine McPhee from "American Idol.")

That's a lot of star power. Especially since most of them can sing really, really well, which is part of the plot on "Smash."

"Smash" involves a composer/writer team (Borle and Messing) trying to put together a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe. Their attempts to get "Marilyn" going are complicated by a tough producer (Huston) whose personal funds are frozen by a rocky divorce, a mercurial, somewhat slutty director (Davenport) who can't stand Borle's composer, two choices for the lead role of Marilyn (Hilty as a Broadway regular who desperately needs a leading role and McPhee as a dewy-eyed newbie), and a scheming intern (Jaime Cepero) who doesn't mind playing dirty if it gets him to the top.

We also see a bit of their personal lives, with James as Messing's character's handsome husband who gave up his own career to keep their home lives afloat (they have a teenage son and have been trying to adopt a baby from China, a familiar trope in exec producer/writer Theresa Rebeck's playbook) and British theater star Raza Jaffrey as McPhee's character's sweetheart of a boyfriend.

Although "Smash" doesn't start until Monday, February 6th, NBC is doing a roll-out of the premiere episode now, letting pretty much everybody who wants to get a sneak peek. I watched it on Comcast On Demand (for free), and they're also offering it on airplanes, via iTunes, Amazon, Xbox and some other options now, with and Hulu joining the party and streaming it after January 23rd.

So, yes, I watched the pilot. And I'm sorry, but I didn't like it much at all. On paper, I'm down with all the stars and I was certainly looking forward to a backstage look at Broadway. What could be more perfect for me than show about a musical in development, as its creative team tries to get it on its feet for workshops and out-of-town tryouts (season 1) to hit the Great White Way (season 2)?

Well... I found myself wanting to smack both Messing's Julia and Borle's Tom for making what seemed like indefensible choices (Why did she jump into a show after promising her husband she wouldn't? Why is he so set on Hilty's Ivy to play Marilyn and why doesn't anybody else let him want her? Why are they using Davenport's Derek as the director when Tom hates him and he hates Tom and Derek is a sleazebag to boot?) and not seeing what was so special about McPhee's Karen, who is supposed to be knocking our socks off with her fabulous potential. First, they had her sing a Christina Aguilera song for her Broadway audition, which seems unlikely to impress Broadway types. Plus she didn't seem luminous and unforgettable to me. She seemed... Kind of surly and smug. I would've given the role to Ivy, someone we saw singing and dancing and doing very well as a Marilyn type, while Karen just sang Christina Aguilera, stood around looking awkward, while being a waitress, snarking at her parents and making out with her cute boyfriend. She did thrust her boobs out to try to get into a Marilyn frame of mind, and she donned a man's shirt with no pants to show the director she could be sexy, but if I had to pick a the starlet from yesteryear she was channeling, it would probably be Barbara Parkins or Diane Baker, nowhere near the Marilyn wattage.

And then... Well, her name is Karen. I don't know any 20-somethings named Karen, although I'm sure there are a few out there. The operative word being "few." In my mind, Karen sounds like someone I went to high school with. In the 70s. There were lots of Karens in the 70s. Karen Carpenter. Karen Allen. But now? Not so many. I suppose they were just trying to make her sound like a sweet, simple, plain girl from the sticks. But to me, that girl's mother should be named Karen, while she should be Lauren or Ashley or Jessica.

Yes, I am well aware that is a very fine point. But when I find myself picking at the small things rather than leaping over the threshold of disbelief, it's not a good sign. It means I didn't really buy the premise, I wasn't willing to jump on-board and care about these characters and their problems, and more importantly, that I wasn't really rooting for anybody to achieve his or her aims within the plot.

That's a problem for me.

I should note, however, that friends whose taste I very much respect have reported that they liked "Smash," the pilot, a lot, and that it well exceeded their expectations. And it may be that by trying to set up so much in one episode, Rebeck and her writers pushed too hard for me, and I will like further episodes much better. Let's hope so. I want to like a show about Broadway, if for no other reason than to get people who've never been there to take an interest, take a trip, buy a ticket. Maybe by crossing over an "American Idol" alum, NBC will attract people who would otherwise not try a show about Broadway. (And they are definitely pushing Katharine McPhee as the main draw. See the poster up top, and how she is at the top of the heap. Oscar winner Anjelica Huston is practically falling off the side.)

NBC's site for "Smash" is here, with all kinds of info about the cast and crew, as well as a chance to see that pilot episode starting January 23rd. I can't wait to hear what the rest of you think.


  1. I may perhaps be one of the friends who said it exceeded my expectations, but I should underline that that remark was in the context of deliberately reduced expectations. After "Glee," which also purports to take us behind the scenes with performing musicians and which I find unbearable and unwatchable, and after "The Playboy Club" and "Pan Am" tried to create soapy fun in specialized milieus and failed... I was expecting very little, and found myself more than decently entertained.

    Of course, it remains to be seen how it'll hold up, and several of Julie's objections are spot-on -- I don't care about the name thing (I'm not the name researcher she is, but I teach undergraduates and I've had several Karens lately), but we do have
    - the lyricist who has agreed to take a year off for her family and immediately reneges
    - the eager young assistant who betrays a confidence and is rightly fired, and then somehow is given an important position in the production
    - the nasty director, the only one in the world the composer absolutely will not have, who is the one they get
    - once they get this director, he messes with the material

    But the last of those points seems weirdly true to life -- see the Wise Guys / Bounce saga that Sondheim writes about in his newest book. You trust yourself to a director's vision, and he screws up what you thought you were writing and turns it into something else.

    The incongruity of Ms. McPhee (whose name I knew but whom I've never seen before) as the charismatic new girl they gotta have... well, I write that off in advance as the deal with the devil that a series makes to get this subject matter on the air at all. I mean, the country sadly won't be tuning in to see Christian Borle or Brian d'Arcy James or Megan Hilty, and even names like Anjelica Huston or Jack Davenport are no draw.

    Well, we'll see what it comes of it, and I may tune out eventually. But for now, I want to see episode 2.

    By the way, for non-Comcast people, iTunes may be the easiest way to check it out right now, and they've made it free.

  2. Too bad that you don't like the pilot. I've watched it free OnDemand 7 times and enjoy more & more each time! After the pilot is the sizzle reel which shows alot of future scenes. Now this is where all the excitement for Smash comes; the singing, the dancing, more detailed stories, the flirting! Ahh definitely my favorite show this season and I'm not a theatre person!

  3. And I'm definitely TEAM KAREN!!!!!! She can SING and DANCE and ACT!!

  4. I appreciate the differing views. I'd like to see the show succeed, I do like most of the people involved, and any attention to Broadway is fine by me. So maybe it will get better for me. Fingers crossed.

    Did we see Karen dance? I don't recall that.

  5. Gosh, and Theresa Rebeck is usually so good at tangling and untangling the lives, motivations and foibles of multiple characters. Seems to me there's a fine example of this coming up soon, locally...

  6. AND no one is adopting a baby from China in "Mauritius," which makes it stand out. Oh, and "Mauritius" is what Kevin is talking about. Opening February 16th at Heartland Theatre.