Last night was the third and worst episode of Smash thus far. Katherine McPhee got to sing some cover and look like a covergirl, there was a British-off by the show’s resident British dudes, Debra Messing got to where a few cardigans, Angelica Huston threw multiple drinks in her ex-husband’s face and so on and etc. Somehow an episode with multiple major plot developments felt like it went nowhere. At its worst, we now know, Smash feels like an hour-long trailer for the next episode. Yet in spite of, or maybe because of the episode’s lousiness, Smash’s bigness was on full display. There hasn’t been a show of this scale and production ambition in years.
Well, specifically, two years.
The first scene of the series was a glossy shot of Katherine McPhee, all sparkles and fake smoke, singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.”* It was arresting, simply do to how unlike anything else it looked. It instantly reminded me of Lost’s famous first shot, in which Jack opens his eyes to see the post-plane crash carnage spinning around him. Explicitly and tonally, both these scenes couldn’t be more different, but they do share the trait of being different from everything else that has come before it as well.
In addition to this—and that both have punchy one-syllable names—there are some genuine similarities. Both share an uncommonly large cast set in a large “foreign” setting (Is the business of Broadway inherently a mystery that people care about? The show surely thinks so, dropping the word “agent” last night more often than any show I can recall, including Entourage). The first episode established nine main characters, with the a tenth added last night. Ten principal characters, six of which could be considered leads, is so obscenely many that it sends a certain message, this is a “big” show.
So far this largeness seems to be the main goal—quality will come later. In that way, it resembles later Lost, when the mythology took precedent over keeping the dialogue sharp and characters evolving. It’s here where each show’s biggest similarity rears its respectively Jewish head; both started as broad visions by their heavyweight creators, who in turn put it in the hands of others. Lost was J.J. Abrams’s response to ABC asking him for a scripted version of Survivor—Smash is the result of Steven Spielberg having the idea of creating a TV show about creating a Broadway musical that would lead to the creation, and success, of the actual Broadway musical (the man is dying to EGOT). Leaving both shows with more successful sets that scripts.
So far, for Smash it has worked to garner popularity, just like Lost had. Both Abrams and Spielberg are known for being populist visionaries and their respective shows are designed for a big tent. Smash waters down its dialogue so it always goes down easily (That last sentence, if paired with a wink, would be perfect for Smash—you’re welcome, Mr. Spielberg). It focuses, probably rightfully so, on broad character types—the young Mid-Western performer trying to make it in the big city, the uptight working mom trying to have it all, the untrustworthy British charm machine, the sassy divorcee—instead of subtle explorations of Broadway. Just like how Lost was confined to the rules of science fiction, Smash accepts the trappings of musicals.
Smash is not Mad Men. Subtly is spurned in favor of every character always telling the audience exactly what they are thinking, through song or not. To the show’s backers, that’s exactly the point, Smash is hoping to do little more than accompany your weekly serving of popcorn, oohs, and ahhs. I’ll keep watching for that purpose alone. That and I want to see what happens when they get off the island, Manhattan.
*This was meant to be an allusion to her “famous” audition for American Idol, which I believe has since been added to the Library of Congress.