SMASH Recap: Season Premiere - Give Me My Remote : Give Me My Remote

SMASH Recap: Season Premiere

February 7, 2012 by  

When Robert Greenblatt took over as NBC Entertainment Chairman in early 2011, he inherited a tragic kingdom of shrinking viewership and devalued brands. Unable to demonstrate patience in building new programs from the ground up, a luxury of his previous post at Showtime, Greenblatt invested in projects with marquee value and high profile names attached. You may remember them better as THE PLAYBOY CLUB, PRIME SUSPECT, and THE FIRM.

To his credit, NBC’s new prime time leader swings for the fences. Greenblatt brought more than a resume with him from pay cable. He arrived to the Peacock Network with a passion project, a backstage look at Broadway, simply titled SMASH.

If this week’s premiere is any indication, SMASH is NBC’s most aspirational new program since FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, with all the ingredients necessary to attract a large mainstream audience. Armed with an exceptional cast, a unique take on the competitive world of Broadway, and a rich menu of storylines to follow, SMASH must become NBC’s signature hour of television.

Here is my personal bias, lest I be accused of being as unethical as the “idiotic theatre bloggers” mentioned in the SMASH pilot. In 2006, I was diagnosed with a severe case of McPheever. Though I was 29 at the time, and a responsible banker by day, my weekly routine of voting inordinately for Katharine McPhee defeat the evil Taylor Hicks and win AMERICAN IDOL was almost Bieber-like in its childishness.

Flash forward to the opening moments of SMASH, and a nostalgic nod to the IDOL days. McPhee, in the role of Iowa transplant Karen Cartwright, sings the familiar refrains of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” only to be cut off by a smartphone-happy director who barely gazes at her. From that point forward, the mission of SMASH becomes clear. The audience is invited on a journey to understand the inertia of show business, and the genetic makeup of those who dare to conquer it.

The universality of this bizarrely insulated world is in its earnestness. Despite the over-the-top nature of the Broadway stage, the people responsible for bringing those shows to life are committed to their work. In SMASH, the world of theatre is the family business that you have shopped at for years, run by hundreds of dysfunctional cousins, many of whom have daddy issues.

Debra Messing sets the tone for the entire cast as Julia Houston, an elite playwright who is equal parts workaholic and absentee mother. If SMASH were a cliche, Julia would be a man’s part, perhaps a theatre owner or the producer with deep pockets. Instead, Messing reimagines the archetype of a working mother, saddled with the burden of an insanely creative mind. We cannot reject Julia’s passion for her work, because the light in Messing’s eyes resonates with authenticity. From the first flicker of an idea for “Marilyn: the Musical” (the stage show within a show) eeks out of her composer partner Tom’s assistant, Julia’s one track mind is locked on a singular, artistic destination. As the mother hen who will bring the show’s main characters together, Messing is well-positioned to do the most meaningful work of her career.

The backbone of SMASH’s first hour is Katharine McPhee’s trial by fire as a mainstream television star. For this show to gain traction with casual viewers, audiences must root for Karen Cartwright, and McPhee bears the weight of that responsibility. If, like me, you knew Katharine McPhee best from her reality singing days, prepare yourself to be impressed. Every beat of Karen’s story feels true, from the pavement pounding auditions to the soul-crushing “pep talk” from her father. NBC endured critical barbs for including the Broadway-like “and introducing Katharine McPhee” title card in early previews and trailers. Those critics were wrong. That type of billing is intended to alert audiences that they are watching a fresh new star, and Katharine McPhee fits that description. Free from Randy Jackson’s incoherent barbs and the pressures of fitting in to a struggling pop music scene, SMASH brings McPhee back to her roots in musical theatre. Her acting chops are legitimate, and Karen Cartwright is the freshest face on a shiny hour of TV. Besides, anyone who sings with Zachary Levi tends to get a pass from the team at GMMR.

The infighting behind the scenes of “Marilyn: the Musical” will satisfy audiences who enjoy the soapier elements of shows like DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES. Tensions between Tom and pretentious director-choreographer Derek Wills, played with smug caddishness by British actor Jack Davenport, will no doubt flare up on a weekly basis, the byproduct of Tom’s appreciation of cordiality and Julia’s Type-A insistence on excellence. Anjelica Huston pops up as financier Eileen Rand, whose pending divorce casts a long shadow on her ability to produce a top shelf show. Finally, the competition between Karen and Ivy Lynn, a veteran Broadway performer played by Megan Hilty, for the title role adds a BLACK SWAN vibe to the diva overload.

Two scenes from this hour could be perceived as too risque, even for a network show. First, the “baseball number,” a musical selection that served as the impetus for what a Marilyn stage reboot could be, was a full scale assault of double entendre and “can you do that on network TV” visuals. In fairness, the cheeky nature of Marilyn Monroe’s public persona were consistent with the more outrageous elements of the song. After all, this is a 10pm show!

Second, Karen’s close encounter with Derek’s casting couch could easily have turned away viewers, were it not for our heroine’s decision to reject her director’s more subversive advances. I do not expect Karen’s public servant boyfriend to survive Season 1, but it would have been a death knell to the audience’s rooting interest in her character were she to have succumbed to Derek’s prying hands.

SMASH has the spontaneity of COP ROCK, minus the crime rate; the breathtaking voices of GLEE, minus the creative team of GLEE; the spirit of FAME, minus the alarming volume of 80’s aerosol hair. It is the new idea that sounds like something you have heard of before. SMASH is the rare show that ought to be a critical darling and an audience favorite.

I grew up watching NBC. More than any other place on my dial, the folks at 30 Rock have kept me company for 34 years. Beginning with characters like ALF, Sam Malone, and Ed Stevens, then later with Coach Eric Taylor, Chuck Bartowski, and Michael Scott, I have tuned in to this network to see someone I like at the end of a long day.

The characters on SMASH, despite their eccentricities, were instantly welcome on my HDTV, and if the door of your DVR is open to visitors, now is the time to have these folks over for a dinner party. The stories alone will be worth the liquor tab.

What did YOU think of the SMASH premiere? Did it live up to your expectations? Was the ad blitz prior to the premiere detract from your impression of the pilot? What characters are you most looking forward to seeing in the weeks ahead? Is it too early to start the Team Karen vs. Team Ivy debate on Twitter? The lobby doors are open, so please bring your comments in through the mezzanine level!

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3 Responses to “SMASH Recap: Season Premiere”

  1. Kath Skerry on February 7th, 2012 11:44 am

    Wonderful recap! Can’t tell you how much I am enjoying this show. I first saw the pilot almost a year ago and I have been waiting not so patiently since then for NBC to put it on the air.

    Not going to spoil a thing, but I will tell you that I’ve seen the first four episodes and the show has yet to disappoint!!

  2. Rory on February 7th, 2012 12:29 pm

    Nice recap. Just to point out a minor thing but Julia (Debra’s character) is a lyricist not a playwright. There’s a difference.

    As a theatre-goer, it kinds saddens me that you don’t point out more the Broadway stars in this show… Brian d’Arcy James, who’s great as Julia’s husband, Christian Borle, who’s fantastic as Tom, and Megan Hilty, who’s brilliant as Ivy. Honestly, I’m currently Team Ivy just because in the sing-off at the end, Ivy is just a better singer than Karen… then again, I know what happens so… 🙂

    Quite frankly, I’m looking forward to the other Broadway peeps heading to SMASH. With Law & Order gone, SMASH will be the next place for those to get some TV credits. I spotted so many during the pilot & I know that many more will show up in the episodes to come.

  3. Erik Wilkinson on February 7th, 2012 12:53 pm

    Rory: I appreciate the distinctions you made regarding Julia’s role as a lyricist. As a person lacking any discernible musical talent, including the ability to sing in the shower on key, I apologize in advance for missing any of the Broadway parlance that may be incorporated into the show’s writing.

    Any omissions made regarding the supporting cast were a function of deadline and the pilot’s central story. In many ways, the relationship between Debra Messing and Brian d’Arcy James will bridge the gap between show business and reality for the audience. I trust that future episodes will explore their relationship in greater depth.

    If SMASH’s first episode can be equated with a preview performance on Broadway, I hope that advance ticket sales will pick up due to positive word of mouth! I look forward to reading your feedback in the weeks to come.