NBC’s SMASH: Not Exactly Smashing

January 27, 2012
By | 4 Comments

As a fan of musical theater, I’ve been eagerly anticipating the premiere of SMASH, the new NBC drama about the behind-the-scenes adventures of a group of people attempting to open a new musical on Broadway. Though the show is set to premiere after the Super Bowl, NBC has already released the pilot for free on iTunes, allowing curious viewers like myself to take a sneak peek. After watching the episode with admittedly high hopes, however, I found myself bitterly disappointed.

From the setup of the pilot episode, SMASH purports to be centered on a narrative trope I personally love – the rivalry between someone who has worked hard and followed all the rules, but never quite rises above mediocrity, and a newcomer who bursts out of nowhere, refuses to fit the mold, and sparkles with natural talent. I’ve written about this trope before, regarding comic book miniseries Mystic, noting its presence in celebrity media narratives (Britney Spears vs. Christina Aguilera, Evan Lysacek vs. Johnny Weir) and in fictional narratives like – appropriately enough – the musical Wicked.

The problem, however, is that Ms. Hard-Working But Mediocre is played by Broadway veteran Megan Hilty, and Ms. Natural Talent is played by American Idol alumnus Katharine McPhee. And while there’s no denying McPhee’s vocal talent, her voice simply can’t compare in power, vibrancy, and fullness with Hilty’s – a fact which becomes abundantly clear in the duet that closes out the pilot. McPhee is a pop singer, but Hilty is a Broadway star, and whatever the narrative setup, the competition (for the lead role of Marilyn Monroe in the new musical) in execution winds up being between someone who is hard-working and talented and someone with no experience and a weak voice. Given that reality, how is the viewer supposed to believe that McPhee (as a character who is definitively not a former American Idol contestant) would even be in consideration for the role?

This narrative problem could be chalked up to the perils (so familiar on the Broadway stage itself) of celebrity stunt casting. But I believe the issue goes deeper than that. This pilot implicitly urges us to believe that fresh-faced McPhee and her small, breathy voice are actually superior to Hilty’s singing-to-the-back-row style – not just for the sake of the narrative conflict, but for the sake of the show’s overall style. From High School Musical to Glee, musical theater in contemporary media has become a punchline, its songs and traditions reworked into airy pop confections that disdain their origins. The pop style itself is not inherently a problem, but the concomitant dismissal of classical musical theater styles creates a frustrating status quo for fans of the genre. And though the original musical numbers in the pilot (created by Hairspray composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) are by far the best parts of the episode, even the very idea of a “Marilyn Monroe musical” seems weak and uninspired – in an early scene, Messing’s character bemoans the popularity of revivals and movie-based musicals currently on the Broadway stage, but is a musical based on the life of a well-known public figure any more original than one based on a film?

Beyond this glaring problem inherent in the premise lies another, more insidious issue: despite the fact that most of the show’s main characters are women and gay men, the narrative relies on a number of tired sexist tropes for its forward momentum. When the egocentric director played by Jack Davenport calls McPhee’s character to his apartment late at night and demands she “do Marilyn” for him – implicitly by having sex with him – she’s horrified and runs to his bathroom in shock. But a moment later, she pulls herself together and decides to swap her clothing for a men’s dress shirt hanging in the bathroom and perform the infamous “Happy Birthday, Mr. President” for her potential director, complete with a seductive crawl into his lap. When Davenport leans in to kiss her, she turns away, telling him the dance is all he’s going to get, and we’re presumably supposed to applaud her show of backbone. But the real message comes through clearly: McPhee’s character is admirable because she gives into sexual harassment just enough, accepting this as “part of the process” but not slipping into promiscuity. This scene comes on top of Messing’s unfortunate storyline, which involves her husband (Brian D’Arcy James) repeatedly berating her for focusing on her musical-writing career instead of their attempts to adopt a baby. Casting couches and work-family balance are certainly topics that could be thoughtfully explored in feminist narratives, and I hope the series improves on both past the pilot, following in the vein of the much stronger subplot about the show’s producer (Anjelica Huston) and her contentious divorce. My expectations, however, are not very high.

Whatever the merits of the show, I’m happy to see Broadway stars (particularly Hilty and Christian Borle, who plays Messing’s writing partner) getting the chance to gain mainstream exposure. And as a scholar, I’ll certainly continue to watch Smash, if only to see where the series goes and what it does to influence the popular perception of musical theater (and musical theater television) in a post-Glee world. But after such a frustrating pilot episode, riddled as it was with narrative disconnects and troubling sexism, I find it doubtful that I’ll enjoy the experience.


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4 Responses to “ NBC’s SMASH: Not Exactly Smashing ”

  1. Paul on January 27, 2012 at 4:57 PM

    I think you misunderstand why Derek is choosing Karen. He’s choosing her over Ivy because of her innocence. I’m sure he thought Ivy’s voice was better, but that doesn’t mean she’s right for the part. In the previews for upcoming episodes, we see a clip of Derek and Tom arguing over Karen and Ivy. Derek says that it’s the experience that we don’t want. It’s the innocence that is, “very Marilyn”.

    Also, the scene where she goes to Dereks house is a cliche but her reaction at the end is interesting. The scene where she indicates that she might have sex, but then at that last 2nd, she says no. It shows that while she is naive, she is also a very strong young woman.

  2. Kevin Courtright on January 27, 2012 at 5:10 PM

    Jennifer Margret Smith’s Critique: Not Exactly Accurate
    This review is typical of critics — Well written, good use of the dictionary, and nothing more than opinion. The biggest problem of Smith’s critique is her glaring lack of knowledge about Katharine McPhee and her career thus far. Smith clearly has no idea that McPhee was once training for a Broadway career, that she is a HIGHLY trained vocalist with a classical background (amongst many other styles), and that her voice is extremely powerful. To speak of McPhee’s voice as “small” and “breathy” accentuates Smith’s unforgivable lack of research. Clearly she’s never heard McPhee sing live, with suitably “powerful” material. Other than that, the review’s great!

  3. Erin Copple Smith on January 28, 2012 at 2:39 PM

    Thanks for the review, Jennifer–I enjoyed reading it, and shared it with my students, also. We actually discussed the representations of gender in the forms of Karen & Ivy in class yesterday (it’s a gender/sexuality course), and there was a lot for them to talk about! Your post provides additional food for thought, and I appreciate it. I haven’t watched the full episode yet, but look forward to checking it out–in part because I, too, love musical theater!

  4. Smashfan on January 30, 2012 at 1:14 PM

    I have to be honest, I love musical theatre but it annoys me when people automatically assume that someone’s voice must be better because its more powerful. I think Megan Hilty’s voice is fantastic, but Katharine McPhee’s voice is superior in terms of purity, tone and just how beautiful it sounds. Of course her voice is more poppy, but that’s kinda the point isn’t it? 1. Karen isn’t trained, doesn’t have a stereotypical Broadway voice and that’s what Derek likes about her – her innocence to play Marilyn which shows through in her more pure voice. 2. Of course Katharine McPhee isn’t a Broadway singer, but it was a smart move having someone on the show who will appeal more to the wider audience. Guaranteed that if the shows focus was 2 leading ladies with powerful Broadway voices the show would crash and burn. Still might! But for this show to work it has to appeal to as many people as possible and I can totally buy into Derek being more keen on Karen.

    Also at no point does the pilot try and make out that Karen’s voice is superior to Ivy’s. It’s just a preference thing amongst the characters.