To say that I haven’t been updating my blog lately is an understatement akin to saying that the Atlantic Ocean is vaguely moist. However, if anything was to break through my shell of real-world responsibilities and good old fashioned apathy, it would have to be another aborted attempt to bring musicals back to the small screen.

            Not that I have anything against the idea—in fact, my hope that a consistently good musical television show might finally become the next big thing springs, if not eternal, then at least for a few more years. Viva Laughlin, while noble in intent, stumbled in execution, and Cop Rock is such a legendary disaster that I almost feel bad beating it further into the ground.

             I said almost. Anyway, the only show to come close to fulfilling this dream in recent years was Glee, which had its moments but grew steadily more insufferable by the day until I stopped watching out of sheer frustration. Nevertheless, when I saw the announcement of NBC’s new series Smash, I was excited in spite of myself. Sure, it looked a little derivative, but if it was smartly written and well acted, I wouldn’t care.
            And then I watched the pilot, and my mood sank from hopeful to ambivalent to frustrated to genuinely furious.

I hate this episode, and I fully expect to hate the show just as much. It follows a group of people trying to produce a musical about Marilyn Monroe, as well as the struggles of two determined and vaguely desperate young ladies to secure the lead role, and if this plot sounds familiar it’s probably because you have seen a musical before. I don’t really expect anyone else to understand why I despise this show so entirely, but I will certainly try to convey the reasons for my resentment to the best of my ability.

1. Arrogance– I want to start with the big one just to get it off my chest; this show is full of itself. It keeps trying to sell its various show-within-a-show elements as brilliant and original, when in point of fact they are little more than tired, piddling excuses for creativity and taste. Take, for example, the show’s insistence that Katherine McPhee’s character has extraordinary star quality, which becomes utterly mystifying considering that the former American Idol contestant fails to do anything more on this show than belt and look pretty. However, it is only in the dramatic scenes that the McPhee-o-tron 3000 turns the acting meter down from “wood” to “Orlando Bloom.”

Megan Hilty, in direct contrast, has far more personality and star quality than McPhee but is consequently given absolutely nothing to do, presumably because the creators of Smash have a crippling phobia of good television. To take another example of the show’s misplaced arrogance, it also desperately tries to sell the audience on the idea that the musical itself is brilliant, from the choreography by Jack Davenport’s director character (perfectly decent, but nothing stunning), to the songs by Debra Messing and Christian Borles’ characters (intermittently amusing but hopelessly conventional), to the performers (again, perfectly decent, but not doing anything that distinguishes them from the dozens of equally talented people in the world). This is merely annoying until you realize that those numbers, that choreography, and those performances were all crafted for this TV show, which makes the dialogue’s in-built praise machine the writing equivalent of the creative team standing in a big circle and jacking each other off.
But I think that the instance of arrogance that best exemplifies what the show does so terribly wrong is its insistence that a musical about Marilyn Monroe is a great idea. To understand why I have a problem with this, you have to understand my feelings about Marilyn Monroe.

2. Marilyn MonroeA musical about Marilyn Monroe is a terrible idea mostly because it’s been done. No, I’m not talking about the bloody opera about her life. What I mean is that Marilyn Monroe was not a person or an actress. Now, Norma Jeane Baker was an actress, and a damn good one—the irony, of course, is that her greatest role was the same one that cursed her: Marilyn Monroe was a carefully controlled studio product as pandering and artificial as would be seen until the Star Wars prequels, and only iconic in the sense that her sex symbol status represented the infantilization of male sexual tastes from the largely mature, intelligent women of the 30’s and 40’s cinema to the deliberately dumb and unsettlingly little-girlish personas of the 50’s onward.
Now, a musical about Norma Jeane Baker, the foster-home girl who shot to success only to be dolled up to suit the fantasies of drooling man-children? That might be good. And while the show takes some feeble swipes at suggesting that the Marilyn musical might explore that area, this suggestion is completely undermined by the fact that on the show, the spark that lights the songwriters’ creative fires is—are you ready for this?—a baseball number! You know, those things that went out in the 60’s after Cabaret and West Side Story told Broadway to grow the hell up? A baseball number is not inherently a bad idea—see Damn Yankees—but it is definitely an idea that is several decades past its sell-by date. In a post-Sondheim world, it is no longer acceptable to shoehorn musical numbers into your story in such a clumsy fashion, it’s just bad writing and there’s no excuse for it. But the point I’m trying to make is that it is so incredibly typical of a show obsessed with appearance and surface gloss to be a card-carrying member of the imbecilic cult of Marilyn.

3. The Cast—I’ve seen all of these actors being good in other things (except for Katherine McPhee, but I think I’ve beaten that horse enough), but not since Cowboys and Aliens have I seen a production more intent on wasting the time of talented people. It’s nice to see Anjelica Huston, but she has nothing to do. It’s nice to see Debra Messing, but she has nothing to do. It’s nice to see Jack Davenport, but God did I hate his character with a burning passion. Davenport plays a misanthropic British-born theater director, and it’s blatantly obvious that the character is basically Gregory House with all traces of charm and intelligence surgically removed. As it is, Davenport’s character comes off as a complete jackass with recognizable but meager and easily replicated talent. Where Hugh Laurie’s House is indispensible, Davenport’s character is so thoroughly unpleasant and expendable that you want to push him in front of a moving train. Overall, the elder actors all seem like they want desperately to be elsewhere. That makes all of us.

4. The Story—In 1975, A Chorus Line premiered on Broadway, granting audiences a view from the trenches. The desperation, determination, and pathos of being a Broadway performer was laid bare for the first time. Now, A Chorus Line has not aged as well as it might have, but its greatest achievement has been its influence. From All That Jazz to Fame, the idea has been repeated, rehashed, tinkered with, and reimagined so many times that every backstage show from then on has been dappled with A Chorus Line’s fingerprints. So can someone tell the makers of Smash that it’s not original anymore? The backstage musical has been done to death and on into the afterlife, so if you’re going to make another of the bloody things then at least try to do something new with it!

5. It’s Boring as Mud—You’d think, with all the soap opera histrionics that happen but that I won’t go into because I’m afraid I might vomit, that Smash might at least be entertainingly bad, like The Cape or, if I may indulge myself, Cop Rock.
Never gets old. But no, Smash has all the sizzling Broadway razzle-dazzle of a stagnant puddle. This is largely because my feelings about the characters cover the spectrum from hate to indifference, so I honestly don’t give even the slightest hint of a damn what happens to them. At the end of the pilot there was a feeble attempt to tease the upcoming season, but unless they had dropped a hint that at some point the entire cast of characters would die in a freak accident, possibly crushed under the weight of the show’s pretension, then I think it’s pretty safe to say I wasn’t interested.

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