Television has a freakish Darwinian way of mutating and adapting to meet audience demands. We’ve had music-variety shows, music-video channels, reality-star searches hinging on pitch-perfect live performances, and a certain, um, “gleeful” scripted dramedy about high schoolers bursting into Top 40 song at the slightest provocation. And now we have come full circle with Smash, NBC’s pedigreed drama about the makings of a Broadway show, featuring original show tunes mixed in with pop covers, and starring Katharine McPhee, an American Idol alum-turned-actress. It’s not meant to be camp, but its premise would strain even a showgirl’s tolerance for tassels: Two starry-eyed ingenues hustle for the role of Marilyn Monroe in the show-within-a-show, Marilyn: The Musical.
McPhee plays a guileless, gamine Iowan named Karen Cartwright who’s waitressing and hoping to catch her big break on the Great White Way. She goes to an open casting call and wows the show’s writers (Debra Messing and Christian Borle), producer (Angelica Huston, doing her best power vamp beneath a set of severe bangs) and director (Jack Davenport), ending up in fierce competition for the part of Marilyn with Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), a veteran chorus girl (and friend of the lyricist) for whom the role was essentially written.
Smash doesn’t have the rapid-fire wit of Glee, or even the writing chops of a decent prime-time drama; its cliché characters speak in easy platitudes, and its overanalysis of Monroe gets old fast (Karen represents Norma Jean and Ivy represents Marilyn, and this juxtaposition of virgin and vixen is supposed to seem deep).
And yet, Smash has got panache. It looks gorgeous, which helps, and the musical numbers have a dreamy, thrilling style that recall Rob Marshall’s magnificent film version of Chicago. The original songs, written by Hairspray lyricists Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, are catchy and polished, and the contemporary hits are nicely integrated (even overplayed-to-the-point-of-irritation fare such as Christina Aguilera’s cloying “Beautiful.”) Smash also does its audience the great favor of not making Ivy Lynn a villain. Karen’s nicey-nice naif is sympathetic to be sure, but Ivy’s got the chops—and juicier, more complex motives—on her side. While the agonized-over decision of who will play Marilyn is announced by the second episode, and the loser is sent to lick her wounds in the ensemble, it’s clear that the Karen-Ivy rivalry will define the season … perhaps resulting in a casting coup.
It’s too early to tell if Smash will be a success, although it’s already looking dicey, having dropped from 11.5 million viewers to 8.1 between its first and second episodes. But if Smash does survive, it’s only a matter of time before Marilyn: The Musical goes meta and becomes a real thing, with a nationwide talent search for its new star. (Perhaps it will even go meta-meta with something akin to Broadway’s casting call reality TV shows Grease—You’re the One That I Want! and Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods). I suspect, however, that it will struggle. Because the wave of momentum that Smash is riding seems to be receding. After all, The Big Bang Theory, a sitcom about nerdy physicists, threatens to usurp American Idol’s No. 1 ratings throne, and the once-mighty Glee is getting pretty pitchy in its third season.
I really like Smash—it’s a big, shiny bauble of a show that works as hard to please its audience as its fictional Broadway hoofers work to nail their mambo combos. Unfortunately, its predecessors have sapped the last of my will to watch earnestly sung power ballads. What Smash needs is a healthy sense of humor, an appreciation for its over-the-top ethos and almost parodical icon. Until it gets there, it’ll always be a little off-key.