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Pilot Review: SMASH

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Season 1, Episode 1
Date of airing: Feb 6, 2012 (NBC)
Rewatched for review: Feb 5, 2012
Number of review in February/2012: 31/154

Not always is the series premiere of a new TV show that important for a broadcast network. Usually, the success or failure of said series premiere doesn’t depend on a life-or-death situation for the network, but NBC and SMASH have a different relationship with each other. The drama about a Broadway musical and its life, starting with the very idea and continuing with its casting for the major role, metaphorically will either kill NBC or bring it back to life. The executives from the NBC offices see in SMASH the savior of their beaten network and the show where the audience will return (especially for Robert Greenblatt, who took this show with him from Showtime).The critics see in SMASH a potential hit TV show, which can live up to its title (even though it’s unclear if the drama with its difficult topic will ever be something for a mainstream audience). And the potential audience outside of the business has gotten much from SMASH lately. Reportedly $25 million did the marketing and promotional work cost – billboards, paper ads, online ads, taxi stands, the 40-page program guide in Broadway style, which was given to the press beforehand. Is SMASH the smashing success NBC is looking for since 2006, or is it just the last sign of life for a network, which was on top of the Nielsen charts not even ten years ago?

Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee, runner-up in season five of AMERICAN IDOL) is standing on a stage, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” – her dream, her element is the theater and the musical. A dream, which is not reality, after she gets interrupted by a ringing cell phone, which brings her back to reality: a casting for a musical, and she doesn’t get the job. On the other side of New York, stage writer Julia Houston (Debra Messing) dreams of a proper musical, which tells the life of Marilyn Monroe, despite there was a huge musical flop in 1983 already. This is her dream, and she wants to live it – so, an outline and a first song is written, and the project goes to Broadway producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), who is looking for a director. At the same time, Broadway actress Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) is dreaming to get the Marilyn role, and takes part in the project from the beginning. But before the production of the Marilyn musical can begin, there are some problems to fight: Arrogant British director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) and Julia’s co-writer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) can’t stand each other, and there is a question about who is going to star as Marilyn. In the running: professional and hard-working Ivy, who is looking for her breakthrough, as well as green, but talented Karen, who just wants to live her dream.

2012 just found its best TV pilot so far. After the year had begun with the probably worst pilot already (WORK IT), aspiration can show, if it has it. The fact that SMASH is everything but bad, and also delivers to a niche audience, also means that the show will have troubles to actually find a bigger audience and to be considered mainstream but somebody else than the TV critics. Musicals are not everybody’s darling, especially when they are so different from the mainstream hit GLEE. And to destroy all comparisons between GLEE and SMASH right now, there is to say that those two shows can’t really be compared to another – the surreal fantasy-high-school world in GLEE and the authentic real-life drama in SMASH are two different pair of shoes. GLEE might have given the musical genre a revolution in television, after it didn’t happen with COP ROCK (1990) and VIVA LAUGHLIN (2008), but SMASH shows that the musical genre doesn’t always have to stand beside the real-life world. It can deliver real drama and characters – this is just the problem the show has to face in the long run.

It could be another great written show, the music could be filled with another number-one hits. Marilyn Monroe and musical couldn’t be more fitting for NBC, but is it going to fit between business and the American audiences? Let alone for the international market, if SMASH should ever cross the North American borders as a success. And the pilot actually has all the elements to consider it a really great one, to make audiences invest time in the characters for once, without being disappointed by unnecessary mystery and fake thrill moments. It begins with the rivalry between some of the characters, who can’t be defined with “protagonists” or “antagonists”, and it doesn’t even stop with the depiction of the production of the Marilyn musical, which surely is the seed of some great and original drama in television. And hopefully the reality and authenticity will also come over, to give the audience a mainstream look into a world, which isn’t really known by many people.

SMASH is able to succeed in almost all levels – if you have interest in musicals. “In almost all levels”, because the pilot doesn’t really work well, when it wants to show ALL the sites of Broadway – the light ones and the dark ones. SMASH wants us to be happy and to root for the characters, but it doesn’t even go into the negative aspects of Broadway. It can’t be the happy wonderful dreaming world everybody is hoping to live in. It can’t be just about conflicts between the characters, because they can’t stand each other for private reasons. The pilot only takes time in depicting the idea of the Marilyn project, as well as the casting process. Which is great potential by itself, but while the Broadway-contra is missing, the pilot is not as authentic as it wants to be. But the rest is working. The pilot gives a lot of time to the characters and their first depth scenes, and the original (Broadway) music is just the dot on the “I”, the cherry on the cake. COP ROCK might have completely failed with their original songs back then, but in SMASH (even though in just one single episode so far) it has worked, and it doesn’t need to come around the corner with pop covers (no matter how good McPhee’s performance of Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” is). That also gives the nagging TV critics, hating on reality TV killing scripted television, looking for originality and quality. Even though SMASH works with clich├ęs and cheesy moments now and then, the show definitely has quality, and even more, it is original.

Actually, the pilot has no difficulties in delivering to the mainstream audience as well, without not losing its straight-forward approach. Despite the anthology-like first half, with thee different stories only being connected by the Marilyn theme, the second half is able to connect all the storylines, making the pilot a spectacle of a Broadway production and the TV show following its story – which is pretty interesting for network TV standards, if you think about it. Even the audiences, who don’t know about Broadway or Marilyn get a few digressions about both elements of the show, making SMASH something of an entertaining drama, as well as giving insight into the niche and the Hollywood icon Marilyn Monroe in no less than 15 episodes. If only there would be a large percentage of an open-minded TV audience in America.

Ultimately, those digressions aren’t the main aspect of SMASH. The Broadway production will deliver the drama, the idea of a Marilyn musical will divide and bring together the characters, the hectic time before the first performance will keep the characters fraught and connected. And when Steven Spielberg (who deserves his credit this time, because the idea for SMASH came from his mind) actually follows through with his original plan – showing the ups and downs of a musical production within one season – then SMASH can stand as an example in network television storytelling-wise. TV shows become season-long anthologies, like Ryan Murphy’s AMERICAN HORROR STORY wants to be one (and he better make a season-anthology out of it), like HEROES should have been one in 2007. SMASH could be a trend-setter here, and it would be desirable to have a varying TV show, which re-invents itself every year anew. Especially, when SMASH stays realistic, and never even thinks about copying the fantasy world of GLEE and its pop cover performances. And especially, when SMASH delivers proof that reality television can be beaten by original programming. At least this year. 9/10

Marilyn and her baseball career

Proof that American Idol delivers real stars

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Written by Christian Wischofsky

February 6, 2012 at 7:00 PM

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