Norma Jean May Be Gone, But We Can't Move On (From Smash)
Fade in on a girl with a passion for fame and a boy who won't stop nitpicking theater business.
I love Smash. Unironically, unapologetically, un-hate-watching-ly. I work in theater (for many years as a stage manager, now in an even more behind-the-scenes administrative role not worth explaining here), and I'm not sure I can undersell how excited people in the industry were for this show that was going to portray Broadway, bring musical theater to the masses, and employ a lot of our friends (speaking of which, disclosure time: I know a lot of people involved with Smash; mostly in a I-met-him-once-at-a-party sort of way, though I've worked with the director of the episodes we're discussing this week).
For a lot of my friends that excitement faded or turned to outright backlash when the show turned out to be...not as well-received as people hoped. It wasn't realistic (more on that later); it was soapy; it was cheesy. To be fair, NBC had kind of set up expectations that this was going to be a prestige drama, and it definitely was not. But I also think I watch a lot more TV than some of my colleagues. I mean, at the time I had watched eight seasons of Grey's Anatomy (yes, I've now watched eleven). I love a trashy primetime soap! And this was a trashy primetime soap with songs!
All of that said, with the exception of a couple of episodes, many many songs, and yes, some actual live events, I haven't gone back and watched the show again since it went off the air two years ago, and I'm excited to give it a sober second thought, and to watch it with you Tara. I know you also loved it, but did so a little more skeptically than I did.
My feelings about the show were so complicated that I wrote about them for Slate just before the S1 finale, calling the show "the worst thing I've ever loved" -- a feeling I never recaptured until NBC brought us all the glorious failure that was The Slap. I won't repeat myself too much from the Slate piece except to say that, for me, it was the gulf between how Important Smash thought it was and how actually campy and silly it turned out to be that made it so unmissable: I knew every episode was going to be evidence of many talented people's bad decisions, and I craved to know what those were going to be.
I guess I'm not sure I thought the show ever thought it was that important, but the network sure did. Even with the benefit of hindsight, though, it's easy to see why people were excited about it. The pilot is fantastic, both on its own terms as an entertaining hour and in doing the work a pilot needs to do. It's actually hard to understand why they thought they needed an outsider character in Karen (more on that in future installments; she's actually okay so far) because they do such a good job of establishing the world without having to over-explain it. Yes there's some typical piloty exposition, but it's handled surprisingly smoothly, and mostly we're shown, not told, how this world works. In an area I'll surely fixate on later, they even get the small stuff right, as when Tom pops in backstage and quietly checks in with a stage manager before positioning himself safely out of the way. The moment isn't explained, and it doesn't have to be, but it's totally real, and it paints the picture.
As a Broadway outsider, a lot of those would have been lost on me, but I did make a note in the pilot of the moment Ivy comes offstage from Heaven & Earth and, in frustration, musses up her wig, as another chorine behind her gasps, "They fine you for that!" That's the kind of thing that shows what a missed opportunity the show turned out to be -- getting into the nitty-gritty nerdy details of how a show actually works. I can imagine someone up the chain saying that sort of specificity was alienating to a viewer and being wrong: the more specific you can get with a story like this, the better it works; you just have to trust the viewer to come along with you.
That said, the pilot has problems that my rosy remembrance of it had conveniently elided...but since we haven't talked about them, I'm curious to get your response to some of the ones I put in my notes. For instance, when Tom and Julia are talking to TERRIBLE ELLIS early on about how Marilyn will never work as a musical, Ellis mentions Jersey Boys and Wicked as examples of shows that no one thought would work either, but like...Jersey Boys is basically a jukebox musical and I'm pretty sure Wicked viewers know a version of the story from The Wizard Of Oz.
They also bitch about movie adaptations, which is absolutely a real conversation real Broadway people have all the time, but I'd be remiss if I didn't note that Smash's real songwriters' biggest hit was Hairspray (which is great, but is based on a movie). But also, yes, Marilyn is a known property (not to call a person a property but you know what I mean), and presumably they're basing the show on that book in Tom's apartment. Nothing is original, really...except Hit List but we'll get there. Interestingly (and then a question mark?), in the novel that inspired the TV series -- which is unreadable: seriously, don't even try, I couldn't make it past page 50 -- the narrator is an assistant to the producers or something -- the outsider character who needs everything explained is kind of Ellis. Not sure why they didn't go with that instead of Karen.
UGH, KAREN. I was so happy when Becky Ann and Dylan Baker show up playing her parents because they were the only reason to care about Karen at all! I'm already offended by this character on behalf of all Broadway stars who've studied extensively and paid their dues for real that we're supposed to buy in to Karen as our heroine just because she, like, really feels the music or some shit; Karen is basic, and we never get a clearer proof of it than when she does a melisma-ridden "Beautiful" for her big audition. Even when Derek calls her over to his apartment for some textbook creepy predator shit and she "triumphantly" shuts him down, I just don't buy her character for a second. Dev: you can do better.
Interesting! I don't hate Karen YET. I know I will so maybe I was just reacting to her not being "that bad" in these early episodes. True, she hasn't paid her dues, and I love the contrast between her and Ivy, who has. But that does happen -- people do nail their first auditions sometimes, or, you know, go on American Idol. What actually sells "Beautiful" for me is Dev (who I will also come to loathe, but don't yet) watching, even though that's her fantasy. Also -- and this is totally a "just me" thing, the piano player in that scene is a friend of mine, and is in fact a piano player and not an actor, and the look on her face completely sells that Karen/Katharine has something...for now. The seeds of her being The Worst are planted when she stands Dev up for dinner though; his reaction is...large, but no matter how intimidated she is by Derek, she can't say "I'm supposed to be somewhere, let me send a quick text"?
We've really gone a long time without bringing up Debra Messing, Adam. I'm embarrassed for us both. What surprised me maybe most about this first episode is that it's already Scarf City and she's the mayor. In my recollection, that was a trope that accreted over time, but no, it's really right from the jump: she even wears a scarf IN HER BEDROOM, WITH HER PYJAMAS. Ridiculous! Maybe Julia would have been a less insufferable character if she'd been played by someone who wasn't as phony and affected as Messing tends to be -- seriously, is there an episode in which she doesn't smugly wink at someone? -- and this whole adoption plotline is obviously doomed from the start. For one thing, Frank and Julia, you are each 100 years old; the fuck do you need a BABY for? And for another, maybe quit while you're behind and focus on the crappy kid you've already got.
Oh god, Frank. Fucking Frank. Okay, yeah, now we're getting into the part of the pilot I can't defend. Brian d'Arcy James is one of the most likeable actors in the world, and they've managed to make him maybe the most hateful person on this show? He also has one of the most gorgeous voices in the world, and they've cast him in a musical and though they do give him part of a song to sing in a few episodes, he's just doing a bit and not supposed to be good. But leaving all that aside, Frank may be worse than Karen, Dev, and Julia combined. He shows utter contempt for Julia's work and jealousy of her relationship with Tom from the jump, and while I could see how that might have built over the course of their marriage, as you say, why would they be adopting this child if that's the situation? Or AT ALL?
Because Leo wants his sister, Adam.
Well, by all means, let's give teenagers everything they want.
I'm joking, of course: what teenager would give shit one about his parents maybe not adopting a baby? MAYBE if we had some sign that Leo was trying to get up to some real wilding out and wanted another kid in the house to distract his parents from whatever he's doing, but any kid who wears sweaters that big in 2012 isn't doing anything illicit. His whole whiny, manipulative bullshit about the baby might have been effective if his character had been, say, eight years old. But he's supposed to be fifteen? He don't care. It's just one of the many aspects of Leo's character that highlight how pointless he is. Ellis also has his problems but at least his scheming makes him a little fun to watch.
My understanding is that the adoption storyline (and the scarves!) was at least partly drawn from Theresa Rebeck's actual life. But that's none of my business, and the storytelling on the show is, and on the show it made no sense except as a reason for Julia to take off work (which also made no sense -- she couldn't write because she had to...wait for a baby?) so that Frank could be mad.
I mean, I almost understand the logic behind their having both made the decision for her not to get embroiled in another all-encompassing project that would be a huge distraction for her if and when Leo's sister (ugh) actually makes it to America, but you're right: if neither of them is working and they're just sitting in their house occasionally writing a letter no one's ever going to read, it's going to get a lot harder for them to ignore the fact that they hate each other...even before Michael Swift becomes a factor. (Speaking of "drawn from real life": SCANDAL!)
Speaking of Michael Swift, let's move on, because my god a lot happens in these first three episodes! I'd forgotten how quickly this show moved! Michael Swift! The Bruno Mars show at La Mama! Eileen throwing drinks! And we haven't even talked about my beloved Derek yet. There's definitely a decline in quality from the pilot immediately. That smooth exposition I mentioned...no longer so smooth. But they really don't waste any time.
Yes, when we get up to Ellis actually stealing Julia's notebook out of her purse (for what purpose? I don't think we ever find out), it's clear we're not in a prestige drama but a primetime soap, which would be fine -- Nashville certainly is! -- if Smash weren't so weighed down by its pretensions. But as I said above, even if it's a mess, it's an extremely watchable one. I mean, if I'd bailed I never would have found out that Debra Messing sings just as badly as Grace Adler!
I said up top that I love the show and I'm not sure I've backed that up here! It's easy to criticize but there's a lot to love! Even after the pilot when the budget drops it looks great. I love that they shot it on location in New York, and the musical numbers all look fantastic. And the songs are great! I (and a lot of other people, apparently) would gladly see Bombshell if it were a real musical. For all the soapiness, it does capture the feeling of working on Broadway. Derek (who is an asshole on purpose but who I find so much more watchable and likeable than Frank and Dev) speaks truth constantly, and seems to be actually smart and talented. Eileen's passion is infectious. I love the way the fantasy transformations in the studio aren't complete, whether it was a real choice or just a function of budget. We're still in the rehearsal rooms, with only some production elements added. In "20th Century Fox Mambo," the ensemble gets costumes but Karen's still in rehearsal clothes, and then this happens:
It's cheap and obvious and magical. You know: like old-fashioned musical theater.
You're right about the musical numbers; even I can't resist Karen emerging from the scrum of stylists in her full Marilyn regalia. The first one we see, "The National Pastime," is SUCH a grabber; leading up to it Tom and Frank separately tell Julia, "You could do a baseball number," and it seems like a joke until you actually see how much electricity there is between Ivy and the chorus boys. And the editing -- cutting from the rehearsal room to a full staging -- is flawless.
I would also be remiss if I didn't admit how very, very homesick the show is making me for New York! It's not even anything I have a personal connection to: seeing Eileen and Derek having a chat on a street I couldn't even identify, in the slight gloom of (I'm guessing) early April gave me real pangs.
Hawaii has its advantages, but New York is the greatest city in the world, and for a lot of the reasons that this series showcases beautifully: the feeling that anything is possible.
Yeah, you probably can't hail a cab like this in Hawaii:
...or hail a cab period.
Something about the fantasy sequences that I'm noticing this time around is that they have an incredible point of view. "Beautiful" is Karen's fantasy. She's imagining Dev watching her instead of the cold auditioners. She's alone in that scary room with him. "National Pastime" is Derek's vision of what the number will be when it's onstage. That one is more fully realized, not in the studio anymore. It's very smart. I'm curious to see if it gets less smart. (These first three episodes were all directed by Michael Mayer, who's done a bunch of film and TV but is best known for his stage work.)
For all my complaints, I'm excited to go back through the series for the first time since it aired and reacquaint myself with all the highs and lows and little bits I forgot. But the biggest thrill is to get to do it with the only other person I know who treasures Smash like I do.
We'll just have to forget the hurt that came before, forget what used to be. Thank you for letting me be your star!
The Pedant's Guide To Smash
Smash isn't a documentary, it's a drama, and a lot of the things they got "wrong" would be boring as hell if they'd gotten them "right." TV needs shorthand and shortcuts, and Smash mostly got the feeling of Broadway right: that was good enough for me. The times when it irked me were when it took me out of the story because it served no purpose -- or worse, when the truth would actually have been more dramatically interesting. And okay, sometimes I'm just a nitpicking pedant; I'm only human.
These first three eps do a really good job for the most part, and actually make a point to explain away some stuff (this process is super-fast, for example, and the money stuff is all weird, but that's because of Eileen's divorce and her emotional need to prove something to Jerry -- and do you want more scenes of her meeting with investors? No.).
The writing of Bombshell is problematic and if I recall correctly will remain so. They really do seem to have written all the songs without any script at all. I don't mind so much from a realism standpoint (what are we going to do, watch Debra Messing type?), but it does make Julia look incompetent and useless.
The one thing that I've always hated actually has no real bearing on anything. Karen's waitress friend says of the workshop, "They pay next to nothing." They don't, actually! A reading pays next to nothing, and the Bruno Mars show at La MaMa (hee) probably pays next to nothing, and no one is getting paid for these endless auditions, but a Broadway workshop like the one we see is a real job, and a full-time one. It bugs me because I think it's actually much more interesting that Karen (and everyone else) would get this great gig but it only lasts a few weeks. What if she has to give up her waitressing job? What happens when the workshop is over? I love the scene where she explains to her dad what a big deal the workshop is. I'd love it even more if she also told him she was making real money and Dylan Baker witheringly replied, "And then what?"
Adam & Tara's Smash Rewatch
- Norma Jean May Be Gone, But We Can't Move On (From Smash)
- Workshopping And Pill-Popping
- Smash Found A Peanut
- Broadway, Here We Come!
- Smash Celebrates The Voices Of A New Generation
- Smash Finally Wins Pin The Leading Lady On The Musical
- Why Couldn't NBC Give Smash That One More Chance?