11.5 million viewers tuned in to watch the premiere of Smash, and only twenty percent of them changed the channel before it was over. Considering the bad wrap musical theater gets most the time, this response was amazing. But Smash isn’t just a show for those who know all the words to “Oklahoma” — it also appeals to anyone who enjoys getting an inside look at a glamorized industry.
There’s a lot of ego in this show from the get-go. We’ve got our heroine, Karen Cartwright, a very inexperienced actress played by the cute Katherine McPhee, who actually jokes, “Why do I always have to be sexy? I wish I was fat.” Karen has a hot British boyfriend named Dev who supports her dreams, even when her visiting midwestern parents discourage her with their talk of “reality.”
Elsewhere in New York (and by the way, the city looks great through the Smash camera lens), we are treated to the perspective of the writers. Tom (Christian Borle), a fun-loving gay writer-of-musicals is trying to convince Julia (Debra Messing), his usual writing partner, that they should work on a new show. However, Julia’s husband is dead-set against her involvement. The couple is trying to adopt a child, but Julia is still under the magnetic pull of the stage, and agrees to help Tom with a one-song demo.
The worst thing about Smash is the proposed musical itself, which is based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. The show quotes an interview with Marilyn in which she says, “Don’t make a joke out of me,” but this musical does just that, with tacky over-sexualized numbers that ignore the fact that Norma Jean was a real person. My first thought was: “How much better would this show be if the writers were actually concerned with artistic integrity?” But my second thought was: “Interestingly, this cringe factor doesn’t ruin Smash, because our real interest is in the story of the characters themselves, not their show.” (Besides, there is the realistic option that the musical could turn out to be a flop, which would also be fun to watch in future episodes.)
In short, they use Ivy (real Broadway star Megan Hilty), a blonde, more established actress to sing a demo of the first song from “Marilyn: The Musical”. The video gets leaked by Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Tom’s over-eager house-sitter who later describes working backstage in his youth in this dramatic, misty-eyed manner: “I felt happy, even just being backstage…I don’t know…I felt…whole.” This line is indicative of a problem that will hopefully work itself out through future episodes: there are good characters played by good actors, but the dialogue sounds stilted and super-cheesy a lot of the time.
Luckily, halfway through the pilot, we are introduced by the two least cheesy characters, producer Eileen (Anjelica Houston) and director Derek (Jack Davenport). Derek is a snappy, cocky Brit who is hated by the Julia-Tom writer team. He’s a “terrible human being,” but they agree to consider him for “Marilyn” because Eileen is pitching him. After they finally agree to work with him, (he’s just too good not to work with), it’s time for auditions.
Karen is a brunette and she’s the only auditionee who doesn’t dress up as Marilyn or sing a Marilyn song. Instead, she comes in looking like someone off the street and sings “Beautiful” by Christina Aguilera. There is a gag-worthy montage of all the decision-makers looking at her in slow-motion awe while the viewers think: “Really? This would never happen.” We never find out if she gets the part (though, where would the show go if she didn’t?), because she’s up against Ivy, the most obvious choice. After a close call with the casting couch where Derek comes onto Karen, both actresses end this episode at the callback, singing “Let Me Be Your Star.”
Despite many eye-roll moments, the story is captivating enough to warrant a second watch, and these characters should all be fun to follow.