February 14, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on SMASH:  No sooner does the Broadway songwriting team of Julia Houston and Tom Levitt (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) decide to develop a musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe than the whole town is battering down their door.  Before long, they have a producer (Anjelica Huston) struggling for funding after a tough divorce, a demanding director (Jack Davenport), and not one but two hopefuls competing for the lead role:  midwestern neophyte and part-time waitress Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee) and the more experienced chorus veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty).

Episode 2Smash was by far the most distinctive and promising pilot of the last development season, and it’s no surprise that the first regular episode–while still very worthwhile–doesn’t quite live up to the pilot’s level of accomplishment.  Written by series creator Theresa Rebeck and directed by pilot director Michael Mayer, the episode points up some of what may turn out to be problems as the show goes forward.  Most notably, it missteps badly whenever it steps out of its Broadway millieu.  The storyline with Julia’s husband thinking of abandoning their Chinese-baby adoption plan because it would take so long, culminating with his appearance at the prospective parents support group (that he wasn’t going to attend) exactly as Julia reads her incredibly eloquent letter to the birth mother she’ll never meet (come on, she’s a lyricist by trade–was the letter going to be illiterate?) was pretty much armrest-clenchingly bad from beginning to end.  Similarly, once Karen had told her boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey) five times over that she knew just how important the dinner with his boss was, did anyone doubt that she wouldn’t show up in time?

Even some of the Broadway scenes had their share of cliches, as when director Derek oh-so-earnestly tells Ivy “Don’t do Marilyn… Be her,” because that’s the kind of advice that really has any practical effect.  But Smash is generally on much meatier and more enjoyable ground when it stays in the theatre world.  The scenes of exhaustive, indecisive callbacks for the lead felt true, and so did the fact that even though the TV series all but begs us on its knees to fall in love with Katherine McPhee, the musical’s creators rationally decide–although just temporarily, one assumes–that they have to give the Marilyn role to Ivy. Like the show-within-the-show, Smash itself is blessed with two legitimate leading ladies who can carry its dramatic and musical heavy lifting.

The musical numbers this week were grouped at the episode’s beginning and end, and again emphasized McPhee, who got a fantasy rendition of “Call Me,” a reprise of the pilot’s power ballad, and the lead in the callback number, while Hilty did have the (literally) 11PM number at the episode’s close (which could have used a touch better lip-synching).  The original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman were excellent, and beautifully staged by Mayer.

Smash got off to a great start in the ratings last week, and we’ll find out in a few hours how much of that audience will settle in for the long term with a mostly smart, expert, unapologetic show about all things Broadway.  Like many real musicals, it has a book that could use some work… but it nevertheless earns its ovation.
Original Verdict:  Potential DVR Alert
Pilot + 1:  Still Tuneful

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."