Smash launches on Sky Atlantic – Episode One Reviewed

by Matt D

Back in 2009 Glee debuted and through word of mouth and aggressive marketing it became one of the biggest phenomena of the last ten years.

However three years on and now the franchise is somewhat flagging – although there are a lot of Gleeks out there – and I don’t know how long they’ll be sticking around once the majority of the popular characters have left.

So it seems that the door is more than open for a comedy drama, which incorporates songs within the main plotlines and Smash, which starts tonight on Sky Atlantic, has crashed through that door with a vengeance. The opening scenes feature former American Idol finalist Katharine McPhee as Karen, singing ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’ on a stage, before we switch to a rehearsal room in which Karen is auditioning for a part by crooning her way through The Wizard of Oz classic, a part she ultimately doesn’t get.

Karen’s story is a fairly typical one, as she is a girl from small-town Iowa who has come to New York to try and make it as an actress but instead has ended up working as a waitress, however she has found love with Dev who works in the mayor’s office. I think we can all say that we’ve seen this plot played out in another film and instead before you know it Karen has a call-back for a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Thankfully Karen’s story is one of many that interlink through the Marilyn Monroe musical, which in later episodes is named Bombshell.

In fact we first see the Marilyn musical being created by songwriter Julia Houston and composer Tom Levitt, who are played by Debra Messing and Christian Borle, who are just coming off a successful run for their musical Heaven on Earth. Julia has promised her husband that she will take the year off from the theatre, which he hates, so they can concentrate on adopting another child after their older son has almost flown the nest. Julia seemingly has the perfect family in episode one, which probably means by the end of the series her son will be hooked on drugs and her husband will be having an affair with half of the chorus line. Tom’s creepy assistant Ellis suggests Marilyn Monroe would be a good topic for a musical and soon Tom is composing songs enlisting the help of long-time chorus member Ivy Lynn to sing her way through Marilyn’s first number. This scene is then filmed by Ellis, the video of which ends up online attracting the interest of Anjelica Huston’s veteran producer Eileen Rand. Ellis is briefly fired for his actions, however after he does a long speech on why he loves the theatre so much he is re-hired. Eileen has her own problems as she is going through a bitter divorce from her philandering but rich husband and after reaching a deadlock, all her productions are put into escrow, meaning she is after a new hit thinking the Marilyn musical will be just the ticket.

Eileen suggest Derek Wills, played by Jack Davenport, as director who is brilliant yet majorly sleazy as well as having a long term vendetta against Tom. Though Ivy seems the natural choice to play Marilyn, it is Karen who stuns the audition panel, after being the only actress not to turn up looking like Miss Monroe she also gives them a great performance of Christina Aguilera’s Beautiful. The difference between Ivy and Karen is seen in that opening scene, with Ivy also unsuccessfully auditioning for the same role, whereas Karen innocently sings from The Wizard of Oz, we see Ivy bending down showing off her assets to impress the panel. However her dream is similar to her new rivals, as both want to be the girl at the front of the stage and from Ivy’s perspective she has paid her dues by staying in the chorus for years. The one thing that I didn’t particularly like in Smash was the scene in which Derek lures Karen to his apartment and essentially tells her to sleep with him for the part, however instead she teases him a bit before leaving in disgust.

Smash is two very different shows one, which I have briefly discussed, is the new star being discovered which obviously appeals to a generation who has grown up watching talent shows such as the one on which McPhee made her name. However the more interesting story here is how a musical gets made and the ins and outs of who does what something that I feel we’ve not really seen before. Much of that is down to Debra Messing’s performance as Julia, a down-to-Earth woman with a talent for song-writing, who is torn between family life and her love of music. I think Julia is the character to have leading this show, as the others are other shockingly naive or very annoying with the exception of Anjelica Huston who does some of her best withering stares throughout episode one. Though I’m not sure how accurate the scenes of everybody standing around the piano looking awfully bohemian, there’s a lot of scarf-wearing going on in Smash, actually the natural progression from idea to casting is dealt with well here. Smash also has a script of two halves, there are at least three occasions in which characters perform monologues about why they want to follow their dream, or why they love the theatre which are so utterly unbelievable they are almost insulting however there are also some very witty lines. My favourite exchange is that between Eileen and Derek, after he has auditioned his services for Julia and Tom complaining about the latter he tells her ‘gay men piss me off’ to which she replies ‘that’s an unfortunate position to have in the American theatre.’

The original songs on display here, though not entirely memorable still feel like they’re from a real musical and more importantly they fit with the tone of both the TV show and the Marilyn Monroe musical. It’s no surprise then the songs come from Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman who previously wrote the original songs for the musical version of Hairspray. They are also delivered by professional singers because as well as McPhee we have Megan Hilty, as Ivy, who is a Broadway veteran having headed the casts of musicals such as Wicked and 9 to 5. What I don’t really like is the fact that the songs are performed half in the rehearsal rooms and half on a dream-like stage this to me is something that Glee would do. I would’ve much preferred them not to saunter off into to dream land instead staying in the rehearsal space, which would give these scenes a more realistic tone to fit in with overall feel of the show.

I’m not sure if Smash will be as mega-popular as Glee has been mainly because I feel this appeals to an audience that views the antics of school-kids as below them. The audience Smash is after seems to be the ones who regularly attend musicals and wonder how the backstage politics work, although I’m sure they’ll be some crossover mostly due to McPhee’s participation. I feel it is too early to say how successful Smash will ultimately be but I rather enjoyed the first episode due to the performances from Huston, Messing and even McPhee who improved as the episode went on as well as the songs and the production values of the piece. It’s certainly not perfect by a longshot as some of the characters feel fairly tired and I wasn’t a fan of some of the scenes at all but now all the characters and their backgrounds have been established it feels the path is clear to really prove whether this is a show-stopper or simply a one hit wonder.