Believe me, I know better, but after blitzing through all 15 episodes of the wildly inconsistent first season of Smash, I’m an unabashed fan. I know my fandom is not long for this world — the abysmal ratings for the season two premiere that just aired is just the latest in a long line of bad omens for the show — but I’m going to enjoy this crazy ride while it lasts. Sure, season one is almost a textbook example of how to botch a promising premise; the real-life saga of backstage drama surrounding the production is probably more interesting than what’s on screen, and the show itself has become one of the premiere entries into the TV hate-watching pantheon. It’s all true, and yet, while I hurled insults at stupid characters and scoffed at inane plot developments, I felt an affection for Smash I’ve never felt for Glee, a show that provokes similar reactions in me and which Smash has drawn many a comparison to.
One of Smash’s chief problems is the presence of Katherine McPhee as Karen Cartwright, a naïve Midwestern ingénue with big Broadway dreams and the show’s ostensible main character. McPhee is an aggressively bland performer whether she’s singing or acting, and it’s ludicrous that the season’s main point of conflict revolves around her competition with Megan Hilty’s Ivy Lynn for the lead role in a Marilyn Monroe musical. Hilty, an actual Broadway performer with bona fide musical theater chops (not to mention a far more Marilyn-like figure), would blow away McPhee’s flavor-of-the-month pop vocalizing in any real world scenario, but not in Smash, where supposed theater veterans ooh and aah over their discovery of Karen’s talent.
The Marilyn musical is the brainchild of writing team Tom Levitt and Julia Houston (Christian Borle, Debra Messing), a pair looking for their next Broadway success. The show doesn’t always serve these two characters well, heaping a load of melodrama on Julia (an alleged stand-in for controversial creator Theresa Rebeck) in the second half of the season, but they’re the unquestionable lifeblood of the entire enterprise. Borle and Messing have winning chemistry, and their interactions provide the show’s strongest element — an inside baseball account of the highly insular theater world and the struggle to create art within that context.
Rounding out the cast are Anjelica Huston as the unflappable Eileen Rand, the producer of the project who’s just struck out on her own after leaving her cheating husband and business partner, and Jack Davenport as Derek Wills, the prickly director who gets results, despite a long history of burning relational bridges. One wishes Karen wasn’t such a one-note character — an uncomplicated, prim, virtuous, soft-spoken pile of meh — and that someone more credible than McPhee was playing her, but overall, Smash put a lot of strong pieces together for its main ensemble.
Outside of this group, the show is filled with poorly conceived, poorly performed or just plain useless supporting characters, almost all of which have been thankfully axed for season two. Getting the brunt of the hate has been Jaime Cepero’s Ellis, a slimy assistant who spent nearly every episode snooping or eavesdropping in a series of increasingly ridiculous schemes, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a worse performance in a major television series than Emory Cohen’s stultifying Leo, Julia’s son. Less outright offensive but hardly necessary was Karen’s live-in boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey), whose repeated storylines about his job woes were just egregious time-filler.
Smash’s first season is stuffed with filler — a rewrite of everything after the first two episodes would have helped the show’s more interesting themes and foundational tale of ambition and competition become more fully realized, but as messy and ugly as this show can get, its charms still superseded for me. When Karen isn’t singing, the big production numbers are often fantastic, and much of the music for the fictional Marilyn musical by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman is good enough to anchor a real musical. With the firing of Rebeck, the addition of a number of new characters, and a stated plan to focus less on personal melodrama, Smash could be on better footing in its second season. But there’s part of me that kind of hopes not — this is never going to be great television; I’ll absolutely settle for an entertaining mess, as long as it manages to hold on for.
The season one Smash DVD set (no Blu-ray, sadly) spreads the 15 episodes across four discs. Extras include deleted and extended scenes paired with nearly every episode, two brief EPK featurettes, and a gag reel that really strains the definition of the term.