ZOË RICE: I came to Smash with mixed expectations. On the one hand, I’m a sucker for a musical number, and before Glee became unbearable I was an early fan. A new TV show with the promise of awesome – dare we hope Fame-like? – musical numbers meant at least a tingle of excitement. On the other hand…theater people. Don’t get me wrong; to use the cliche, some of my best friends are theater people. But man, some of them can be pretentious. And inauthentic. And so “on” all the time. Would the Smash characters be just like that?
Smash‘s premiere episode wound up disappointing me a lot more than it titillated me (and no, I’m not referring to Karen’s boobs-out “Happy Birthday” performance). Unfortunately the early focus of the episode rested on Debra Messing’s character and her song-writing partner. Although I loved Messing as Will’s best friend Grace, I kind of can’t stand her as Smash‘s Julia. She comes across as falsely earnest, overly dramatic, and just so “actory.” Granted, that’s likely true to her part, but I find myself more drawn to her writing partner, Tom, the less dominant member of the duo, perhaps the more loyal, and definitely the more likable.
Katherine McPhee as Karen Cartwright is better than I thought she would be, and her English politico boyfriend is a doll. Unfortunately there was so much cliched dialogue about “dreams” that I was probably rolling my eyes when she gave some of her best vulnerable, wistful-eyed pouts. I’m sure they were all very convincing. Megan Hilty, too, feels well cast as Ivy, the star-in-waiting. One of the character-points of Smash that I like is that neither competing starlet is unlikable. Ivy has paid her dues and earned the part, and she wants it so very badly.
The most watchable characters (and actors) on Smash are the sleazy English director, Derek Wills (played by action-hero-named Jack Davenport), and unsurprisingly the down but not out producer Eileen Rand, whom I’m just going to call Angelica Huston. Very unfortunately, the least watchable part of Smash seems to be “Marilyn the Musical.” In the second episode, by the time Julia was rhapsodizing about a number with Dimaggio, Arthur Miller, and JFK singing about what they want in a woman I actually said out loud, “Oh God, no.”
As the second episode closed, the team behind the musical chose their Marilyn. It was the obvious – and correct – choice. Now that the plot won’t be focused so much on “Will it be Karen or Ivy?” I admit I’m curious to see what conflict will come to the forefront next (and I’m willing to see Ivy fail and Karen step in, if that’s the direction). But I fear Smash will suffer the same problems as the doomed Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip: In a show about a show, the meta show has to be as good as everyone proclaims it to be. Marilyn the Musical – right now – just isn’t.
JESSICA BADER: I’ve been excited about Smash ever since that day last year when I decided to sit down and watch the trailer videos for all of the new network TV shows. A show about the making of a Broadway musical? With original songs from Marc Shaiman? What’s not to like (other than the whole not-premiering-until-February-sweeps thing)? Yet, I can’t help but feel like both the show and what’s expected of it are a bit too much.
Perhaps the best thing Smash has going for it is the impeccable casting. If the central conflict is going to be the battle between the ingenue and the paid-her-dues veteran of the chorus line, going with an American Idol alum and a Broadway star relatively unknown outside of the musical theater world for those respective roles really helps sell it. Those of us who watched FlashForward know that Jack Davenport can do smarmy very, very well. And with the show-within-a-show being Marilyn: The Musical, who better to compose the original songs than Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who nailed that late-’50s/early-’60s sound in the Broadway adaptations of Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can?
If there’s one thing about the first two episodes of Smash that does worry me a bit, it’s that the show seems to be trying a bit too hard to zoom out from the creation of the musical and shoehorn in plotlines about the main characters’ personal lives. I’m hoping that the revelation that it will take two years for Julia and her husband to go through the process of adopting a baby girl from China means that it will be on the back burner as far as storylines go, and as adorable as Karen’s boyfriend Dev is, the whole thing about them having a fight because her audition ran late and she missed a dinner with his colleagues just seemed like filler. There’s plenty of drama and conflict to mine just within the working environment of the show – the bad blood alluded to between Tom and Derek from the last time they worked together; Julia’s instant and obvious loathing of Tom’s new boundary-challenged assistant; Derek and Ivy sleeping together shortly before she’s chosen to play Marilyn – some of the other stuff just feels tacked-on.
As much as I enjoy Smash, I worry that all the hype on it to be NBC’s savior can only lead to disappointment. This is not the kind of show that I can really see reaching a mass audience; all of the things I love about it – the insidery references, the magical realism of the musical numbers, the utter New Yorkiness of it all – are exactly the kind of things that people outside of the Broadway community don’t respond to. (Incidentally, this is where the comparisons to Glee - a high-school drama set in a small town in the Midwest – really fall apart, although one could argue that Karen Cartwright is who Rachel Berry will be in five years.) Still, I’m excited to see where Smash is going.