Jan 16, 2014

[TV] Smash: Season 1

For those of you who haven't been taking notes, let's establish the fact that I'm pretty into musical theater. And no, this is no passing interesting or kind appreciation for the genre - I'm really, really into musical theater. You can call it one of my obviously gay traits or something, but a good show tune is sure to brighten up my day when I need it.

So when they announced that Smash would be a television series all about a musical theater production, you'd think that I could have been more excited about it. And I was - at least initially. I watched the show from week to week, eager to see what Broadway cameo would take place next.

But the pacing of the show sort of dragged for me across the first few episodes and I ended up prioritizing other shows of greater interest over watching this one. Thus it was only during this past holiday season that I finally found time to sit down and catch up with the series despite the knowledge that it had already been cancelled. Thus the particular delay in getting this review up, but hopefully it was worth the wait.

Synopsis: Smash is a musical drama TV show created by playright Theresa Rebeck and developed by Robert Greenblatt for NBC. The show's first season received a number of awards nominations including wins for the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Choreography.

The show revolves around the Broadway writing duo of Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) who decide to put together a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Eileen Rand (Anjelica Houston) is set to produce the musical, although she's also juggling divorce arrangements due to infidelity issues concerning her husband. Thus she's determined to find funding for the production while dealing with the fact that it her husband is pretty much cutting her off completely. The team is rounded out by director Derek Wills (Jack Daveport), who has a bit of a reputation for being a highly demanding director to work with.

Beyond the production woes as Julia and Tom struggle to actually finish writing the play as rehearsals begin, the other arena of sorts involves the rivalry between Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) and Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) for the lead role of Marilyn. Ivy is pretty much a shoe-in for the role given her blonde bombshell appearance, her theater experience and the fact that she's sleeping with Derek, the director. On the other hand, Karen is an amazingly talented young woman who's singing ability and presence on-stage are hard to ignore. Thus the question of who is to play Marilyn does drag on a bit and even when the decision is made, you can't quite expect the rivalry to end just like that.

The show certainly had a lot going for it. It's primary cast was pretty strong - I died whenever Anjelica Houston was on-screen - plus the whole musical theater premise led to a good number of major cameos. I still can't get over the fact that they managed to snag THE Bernadette Peters to play the role of Ivy's Broadway star mother. Talk about living in someone's shadow - they essentially had her play a caricature version of herself while the motherly bits added in. So much fun!

However despite strong individual talent, it took a while before characters really worked well together in various scenes. One of the key relationships was  between Julia and Tom and I just didn't buy into the concept that they were already longtime collaborators and friends. That message just wasn't conveyed clearly across the episodes. The same goes for Karen and her boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) - we're told that they're in a relationship but I was never really sold on the idea based on how they interacted on-stage. It's these little gaps in how various relationships were portrayed that hurt the show - especially given how a lot of the tension was related to all these extraneous personal issues outside the core production of the show.

The first third of the show (thereabouts) dragged a bit given the need to setup all the relationships and of course the whole question of who will play Marilyn. the rivalry is fine - that's a common theme in shows and movies about crazy world of live theater. But I think it got too much of a narrative spotlight and sort of dragged the whole show's progress a bit too long. But once they got past that and allowed the musical to progress as well, then the show really started to shine, as seen in the second half of this season.

It goes without saying that this series has some pretty phenomenal musical numbers. In this manner it felt like something like a more adult Glee, at least with respect to the need for musical numbers breaking your high drama narratives and such. It's not a perfect comparison, but I'm sure you get my drift.

On the whole, the first season was decent but could have had a tighter focus on the progress of the show and strengthening the relationships of the various characters even more. But in the end I did enjoy it and I can understand why it managed to at least get to a second season. Thus the first season gets a respectable 3.5 instances of hearing someone sing the song "Let Me Be Your Star" throughout the season out of a possible 5.

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