NBC debuted its long awaited new series, Smash, last night and in a first for On My DVR, TV Watcher and Standing Blogger will each give their own Keep or Delete review. A “He Said/She Said” – off, if you will. So? Did our reviewers thinks this new musical show was a “Smash”?
TV Watcher’s “He Said”:
For the love of all things holy, please stop saying this show is like Glee or Cop Rocks or American Idol. Love it or leave it, Smash and its parent network, NBC, have created something that is not unlike anything tried on TV before. The appropriate analogy, I think, is the Broadway classic, A Chorus Line, with the added emphasis on the creators of the Broadway musical and not just the aspiring actors (which maybe makes it closer to the movie version?). In Smash, the on-screen singing is germane to the story of creating a new Broadway musical. On Glee, the on screen music is sometimes tangentially connected to the lofty pursuit of eventually, maybe, winning Nationals but mostly, it is used to express the inner emotions of the characters as they try to express themselves in a microcosm world that rejects them as Gleeks. Glee is about the singing (to the sometimes detriment of other essential qualities needed in a well rounded show; e.g., logical plotting, cohesive storytelling, character development and depth). While Smash may certainly use this “inner emotion” technique from time to time, I think the show’s creators made it pretty clear in the “Pilot” that the show will have lots of singing but the singing is not what this show is about. So. What is the show about? Glad you asked.
Julia Houston (played by Debra Messing in a Will & Grace-like role but so much, much better (read, less annoying)) and Tom Levitt (played by Christian Borle, who I don’t really know but could be the second coming of Sean Hayes’ Jack from Will & Grace; in fact, why isn’t Sean Hayes playing this role?) are a successful musical writing team with a current Broadway hit playing in Times Square (the show is called Heaven on Earth). When Smash begins, the dynamic duo are returning from launching their latest show on London’s West End and we learn that Julia has made a commitment to her husband, Frank (played by Brian d’Arcy James), to take a year long break so they can focus on completing the adoption process they have started. Julia and Frank also have a teenage son named Leo and she is clearly a workaholic. Tom doesn’t have any such plans and when his new personal assistant, Ellis (who I dislike with the fire of 1,000 suns) suggests they write a new show on the life of Marilyn Monroe. When Julia raises the point that EVERYONE is doing Marilyn stuff right now, Ellis sees this as proof that she’s popular. Tom is instantly intrigued because, well Tom is intrigued easily by shiny things. Soon, the snowball is heading down hill and we move from tossing around ideas (“it’ll have a baseball number!” which both Tom and husband Frank mention) to writing a few songs to cutting a demo tape of one song (at which point, Julia has to put Frank in his place because, bitch step off, girlfriend has got to do what girlfriend has go to do, you dig? But seriously, Husband Frank takes his wife’s apparent indifference to their adoption process in favor her fledgling musical idea totally better than I think anyone should … moving on). Here, we finally really meet Tom’s BFF actress friend, Ivy, who is always the chorus girl and never the lead; he taps her to play Marilyn for the demo and record their song. Ivy (played by Megan Hilty who has a long IMDb string of credits and is a natural Marilyn Monroe what with the blond hair, husky voice (when she wants it) and ample endowments). It’s at this point that the train comes of the track because Ellis has surreptitiously recorded the demo and emailed it to his mother … who has posted it on the internet. You’re fired Ellis (don’t get too excited because he comes back)! Luckily for Julia’s ego, the critics, Michael Riedel in particular (the real life NY Post theater columnist who is referred to as a Napoleonic little Nazi one minute and then a genius the next) loved the leaked demo and now the Marilyn Show has buzz!
Let’s meet Eileen Rand (played by the legendary Anjelica Huston), Broadway producer and wife of Jerry Rand, also a famous Broadway producer who has a taste for infidelity. The Rands are currently going through a messy divorce and at the conclusion of the negotiations we see on screen, Eileen (reluctantly) agrees to put all of their assets into escrow (legalese for frozen) pending completion of court proceeding to divide their estate. Unfortunately for Eileen, this includes her production of My Fair Lady which she has been working on for a while. The upswing is that she now has free time to produce the Marilyn Show! At her meeting with Julia and Tom, she pitches Derek Wills (played by Jack Davenport, last seen on FlashForward) as the bestest director and choreographer that ever was. Julia is in but Tom has some negative history with Derek and would rather kiss a girl (or gouge his own eyes out, as he says) than have him direct his show. They reach an agreement that Derek can come audition for them but no promises. Next, we meet Derek. Eileen comes to him to pitch the Marilyn Show but more delicately, the idea of having to audition for the role of director. She is candid enough to him that let him know that Julia and Tom don’t want him at all and its Eileen trying to make this magic happen. Derek agrees to prepare one number. Which he does, with choreography and male dancers and its pretty terrific, especially when you imagine it was on a short time frame. Derek stages the audition in a classic rehearsal loft space that you see in all sorts of TV shows and movies and we see Ivy is playing Marilyn for this performance too. Hey, it’s the “baseball number” that all the men were excited for! Apparently Marilyn is the National Pastime that all the guys want to do, or something? Even Tom has to reluctantly admit that Derek did a great job and we are moving ahead. Lets get our Marilyn! Wait, Ivy doesn’t automatically get the role? Look at her, and the songs and the voice and the boobs? Really? I think we have our Marilyn. Man, if I were Ivy (or Tom), I’d be pissed that there were going to be auditions but, I guess that is why I recap TV shows and don’t produce musicals.
Meet Karen Cartwright (played by American Idol runner-up, Katharine McPhee), waitress by day, aspiring actress by night with uber-supportive boyfriend Dev (played by the engaging Raza Jaffrey, who I recognized as a villain from the short-lived, The Cape) around all the time. We open on Karen belting her heart out but not getting anywhere in an audition. You get the impression that she has had many rejections in a short period of time trying to make it as a Broadway actress in the big city. In the course of the episode, we also meet Karen’s Midwest parents who just don’t get what their little girl is trying to do and seriously, she’s just a waitress. Super Dev is right there to have his girl’s back and thinks that Karen is a star.
At the initial Marilyn audition, Karen is the only non-costumed Marilyn wannabe in the holding room, complete with blond wigs and (surely fake) diamonds, etc. Karen has come dressed as … herself, with the brown hair and all. When she gets in front of the panel, Simon Cowell pops out and says it was “dreadful, awful stuff.” Just kidding, Fox won’t let Simon appear on other networks. What really happens is that Karen sings Christina Aguilera’s hit song, Beautiful (of which you would have seen clips on the commercials) and really knocks it out of the park. I should mention that several of the music numbers performed in this episode were intercut with full production scenes or, as in this case, daydreams, which makes you think the singer is imagining that? I guess? Which is something Glee does with a lot of its numbers. So, you have that similarity. She leaves the room and everyone is clearly into that performance. What I didn’t mention was that Karen went ahead of previously scheduled Ivy, because Ivy was busy tossing her cookies in the bathroom. File that away for the eventual baby storyline which prevents her from being Marilyn.
No surprise, Karen and Ivy both get callbacks for the role. Later that night, Sleazy Derek invites Karen over to his unbelievably gorgeous pad to seduce her into bringing the Marilyn sexy, which she decidedly did not do earlier at the audition. She rises to the bait so far as dressing in his slightly unbuttoned dress shirt and slithering on him while singing the famous Marilyn Monroe, “Happy Birthday” song but when the songs ends, as Little Derek is getting ready to do this, she tells him, “not gonna happen.” And she leaves. I think Derek is totally into the “hard to get” angle. Dev will not be happy. The episode ends with both Ivy and Karen preparing for, and arriving at, the call back, all the while both singing the original song, “Let Me Be Your Star.” The episode ends with the song and without a decision being made on who gets the part. Doh!
Obviously, liking Smash comes easier to those that are into musical theater already (but not so into it as to nitpick every detail, such as the show playing in the Shubert Theater is Memphis and not something called Heaven on Earth) but I think this show, benefiting from the paved road set by Glee, American Idol, X Factor, The Voice, Nashville Star, etc., is coming at the right time for mainstream TV audiences. This show is appealing to a cross section of the viewing audience, it has a great lead in with The Voice crowd (singing Xtina’s Beautiful was a nice bit of synergy); it is serialized without being overly done so that your casual viewer doesn’t need to worry too much about missing last week while the loyal viewer will get rewarded for previous episode call backs; its got room for some good character development which at the end of the day is what draws most watchers of scripted drama (whether they realize it or not); and its got great singing, so far in the form of Ivy and Karen. The show needs a little more conflict but I have to imagine that will ramp up between Ivy and Karen and Tom and Derek and Julia and Frank (who can’t remain so neutral forever if he is serious about the adoption plotline) and Eileen and Jerry. And us against Ellis. This show will be a hit for NBC and it should be though it has a longevity issue because, seriously, how long you can drag out the preparation of a musical so that people keep tuning in?
Keep or Delete? Keep, though I won’t be blogging it, just watching it for the entertainment value.
Standing Blogger’s “She Said”:
So, did you watch Smash last night? Or had you already watched it? I watched it live (gasp!), because my DVR screwed up recording The Voice (more on that in this week’s Sound-Off). Today you will see Keep or Delete reviewed from both Standing Blogger and TV Watcher. You can decide which one of us you agree with or whether we are both way off base.
So, I liked it. I didn’t love it, but it’s definitely a strong show. I thought Katherine McPhee did well. I did not watch Idol when she was on, so I didn’t really know much about her or have any preconceived notions. The end left me with a major question though. Based on the commercials, it seems that Katherine McPhee’s character Karen and Megan Hilty’s character Ivy spend a while battling this thing out. I have to imagine that one of them has to win, so how long are they going to drag out the decision, and once they make it, what happens to the other one? Anyway, on with the review …
We have our main story. Two writers/song writers, Tom and Julia, decide to write a play about Marilyn Monroe. When they record their first demo for it, helped by Ivy (who is a member of the ensemble in the duo’s current Broadway show), their new assistant records it, sends it to his mom and somehow, the video hits the blogosphere. I say somehow, because there is no way that my mom would be able to upload a video, watch it and then pass it on to a reviewer (which is what the Napoleonic Nazi presumably is). The song is apparently a hit and it looks like the show will go forward, despite some minor outside resistance from Julia’s family (more on that later). Broadway backer, Eileen meets with Tom and Julia and thinks that they should audition a director, Derek , who takes the “baseball” number, Ivy and a group of male dancers and blows Julia and presumably Tom away. But Tom and Derek have no chemistry, which is a nice way of saying that they can’t stand each other (I assume the back story will come out eventually). Everyone involved thinks this is a go, so we move toward the auditions. Karen arrives to the audition dressed as herself in a room full of Marilyn wannabes and sings a non-Marilyn song too. It works! She gets a call-back. We see Ivy puking in the restroom, but she gets a callback too. It’s clear that Julia, Tom, Eileen, Derek and a few others (henceforth to be known as TPTB – The Powers That Be) are torn between these two as the stars, so they call them back again. This time Karen gives them her Marilyn and Ivy is all decked out in white. We’ll see how this plays out.
And now, the side stories:
Julia: Julia, her husband and their son Leo are apparently involved in the process of adopting a baby. Julia had promised to take a year off from Broadway to focus on the adoption. Hubby (I didn’t catch his name) is worried that she’s not dressed right and not focused when the social worker comes to call, but said social worker is apparently a big fan, but it seems like all will be well. While initially against the whole Marilyn project, when Hubby sees the response online, he seemingly jumps on the bandwagon. I think this is a bizarre storyline and I have a feeling it’s going to be a bit of a drag.
Tom: There wasn’t much backstory here. All we learned about him was that he has a bit of a crush on his new assistant, hates working with Derek and thinks Ivy should play Marilyn. Sidestories can be a pain, but they also give the players dimension, so I hope they give him something to work with.
Karen: Karen is a sweet farm girl from Iowa who has ventured to the big city to follow her dreams. She spends her day eating off of her boyfriend’s spoon, sorry, waitressing, and going to auditions and hoping for call-backs. She has a very sweet British boyfriend who works in the Mayor’s office. Her parents think that she’s nuts and should move back home, but her dreams just might come true if she gets the part. In the meantime, Derek tries to do what he apparently does best and texts her to come to his apartment for a “private audience”, to which she shows up in sweats, right off of a heavy “practice” session with the boy (they were playing Some Like It Hot) and turns down Sir Director after getting him all hot and bothered with her rendition of Happy Birthday Mr. President while wearing only his button-down shirt. Derek is now mesmerized and Karen goes to her next callback.
Ivy: Clearly not as impressive as her brother who’s going to nightschool, Ivy thinks she was born for this role and apparently has the wardrobe to prove it. I didn’t think chorus girls made that much, but the fur thing looked expensive, and her apartment didn’t look like a hovel. Anyway, Ivy is just trying to make it and good ole Tom thinks she should. Let the games begin.
Eileen: In the midst of a messy divorce, it seems that all of Eileen’s assets are now in escrow, including the other plays she’s producing. She tries to cover up the extent of the mess in her meeting with Tom and Julia, but we know that she has no money and this play is moving forward rapidly. How will she come up with the dough?
There you have it folks. Since most of this episode was played out in the previews, I think I’ll have to wait for the next outing to make up my mind on this. Have you?