When looking at the new TV series Smash, I tried mightily to keep Glee in mind.
Glee, after all, is the gold (and gold-generating) standard for music-based dramatic programming, having spawned not only a hit show but CDs, downloads, DVDs, concert tours and a big-screen movie. I was very enthusiastic about the Glee pilot, which seemed refreshing and exciting, and I was a devoted fan at first.
But it became increasingly evident as the show moved into a second and now third season that the dramatic stories seemed to get shoved aside, and character consistency ignored, in favor of musical moments — and especially themed shows where all the songs could be nicely packaged for sale, even if they were pale imitations of the original. This was especially evident in the replication of vintage music videos by Madonna, Britney Spears and, most recently, Michael Jackson; while they may have been painstaking copies, they were still just copies.
Brett Birk of Vanity Fair, in announcing that he was giving up on Glee, ranted even more:
“It wasn’t just the senseless theme episodes, the distracting guest stars, the tonal vacillations, the wanton disregard for character or narrative arcs, the haphazard interjection of sentimentality, the intemperate shuffling of alliances and antagonisms, the cynical pandering to the god of iTunes Downloads, or the leaden commitment to clichéd, ‘feel good’ plot points,” he said. “What truly killed Glee for me was its stubborn refusal to act upon its promise. … The show had no plan. … It would have been nice to feel that, at some point after the pilot aired, someone on the executive team had gathered his writers, stood in front of an easel, and with them crafted some broad ideas for how things should progress — filling in signposts for each character, and the group overall, with respect to how they might thoughtfully take us there. Instead, it seemed that every idea and action was contrived extemporaneously, and without scheme or strategy.”
Which brings me to Smash, which premieres on NBC at 10 p.m. Monday. The show is built around the creation and staging of a Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. It so resembles Glee in its ability to move the story along with musical numbers, including fantasy sequences in which rehearsals are transformed into full staging of musical numbers. It is Glee-like in its blending of show tunes (some both original and marvelous) with contemporary material; more than once in the early episodes we find characters drawing on the modern songbook in clubs or at parties. And the show’s social complications — alliances formed, romances launched, betrayals and diva-like behavior along the way — will be recognizable even to young viewers; one character specifically compares her situation to high school.
But, based on the four episodes I have seen, Smash does seem to have the plan that Glee lacked.
The series follows a large ensemble of characters. It includes the writing team of Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), who while nominally on a break are suddenly drawn into the idea of a Marilyn musical. They become involved with producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), who wants a big show as part of her rebound from an ugly divorce from her husband and business partner.
Then they need a director: Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), as smart as he is egotistical, and not friendly with Tom. Even more, they need a Marilyn, and the choice comes down to two actresses: Broadway chorus veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) and relative newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee, an American Idol runner-up). And around those characters swirl others: Julia’s husband, Tom’s assistant, Eileen’s ex, Karen’s boyfriend and others who appear as the show proceeds.
They are shepherded by a production team that includes a lot of people who know their way around stages and musicals, including series creator Theresa Rebeck, an award-winning playwright; executive producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (the movie version of Chicago, TV’s The Music Man and more); songwriters Scott Wittman and Marc Shaiman (Hairspray), who are also executive producers. And, because of that, everyone involved has a clear understanding of what goes into making a show — where Glee from the beginning was not even clear about the geography of Ohio.
So instead of some fantasy where songs are written in a moment and the show opens on Broadway with minimal effort, this sees show business as arduous. Instead, the creation of the show is itself piecemeal: a song here, a song there, and the plot to be sorted out during a workshop process before a full staging is even possible. Smash knows about the cost of this effort, with even the workshop requiring hundreds of thousands of dollars to mount.
And the show knows that some things have to be handled immediately; by the end of the second episode the show has its Marilyn (although the loser in that contest does not disappear from the scene). In the four episodes previewed, the thing moves logically — bumpily at times, but even the bumps make sense in the context of show creation. In fact, when Smash detoured into the personal lives of some of the characters, it felt like a digression from the major narrative. I wanted to see where the show went.
Of course, after four episodes I can’t say that Smash has everything figured out — especially if it is successful enough to have to come up with a second or third season or more. But I liked very much what I saw in those four: the music, the performances and the admission into a world that is as rich in history and excitement as it is bursting with song.
Rich Heldenfels writes about popular culture for the Beacon Journal and in the HeldenFiles Online blog at http://heldenfels.ohio.com and on Facebook and Twitter. He can be reached at 330-996-3582 or email@example.com.