All That Glitters is Gold? NBC’s Pilot Episode of its New Musical Drama “Smash”

Grade: B-

A television pilot can be a tricky thing. For the creators, they have 45 minutes to convince networks that their characters, story lines, and overall premise has enough meat to it to withstand 23 episodes and properly timed cliff hangers during sweeps week. But it’s only 45 minutes. What if your characters start out as clichés but will be shaped later? What if your premise starts out simple but will be complicated by the fifth episode or the sixth episode? Exposition has to be told in a pilot, but exposition typically is dull, it’s the paragraph of the story that’s brushed over on the second reading, it’s the aspect of a screenplay that if forced is completely off-putting. A pilot, for the most part, is all exposition, it’s all introduction, and it’s hard to know if the rest of the show is worth watching based on a measly 45 minutes.Smash

So to judge one, to determine if a pilot is worth your time or money if you’re the head of a network, you have to not so much judge on the material presented, but on the potential for that material to flourish into a hit, or a dud, or a cult classic that will make money in merchandise and will have outlandishly costumed fans who’ll show up at Comic-Con, but will only rake in 3 million viewers a week.

But with TV, especially network TV, it’s not so much about the material anymore, it’s about the hype, it’s about that one twist that’ll get viewers watching.

NBC’s Smash, which premiers on February 6th, glitters with countless bells and whistles sure to guarantee a big initial audience, but does the glitter distract from the substance?

Following in Glee’s footsteps, Smash is also a musical television show, set to premiere after the Super Bowl like Glee did, with songs available on iTunes and an incredible marketing campaign. Not only is NBC making the pilot available online before its televised premiere, but there are also countless TV ads, spots, and billboards all over New York City. The show’s stars Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty both sung songs from the show at major televised New York events this season—McPhee sung at the Rockefeller tree lighting, and Hilty at Times Square on New Years Eve. Additionally, Spielberg is attached as Executive Producer along with a long list of additional successful theater producers with numerous accolades, Debra Messing is back on TV with another gay-partner-in-crime (this time, her composing partner, Tom Levitt—played by Christian Borle), and the show comes in to the television ring hoping to bank on the success of Glee with a lot less comedy and more sweeping, and artsy, camera movements.

As I was watching the pilot, I couldn’t help but compare to Glee’s pilot. Despite Glee’s fame, awards, and perfectly positioned place on today’s pop-culture spectrum, I didn’t love the pilot—I found the premise dull, and the characters flat, but nearly all that was forgotten in the last five minutes when Lea Michele and Cory Monteith belted out “Don’t Stop Believing” with her perfect pitch and his awkward dance moves. Suddenly, I found myself jumping on the Glee bandwagon—the music had convinced me that I loved the entire episode.

The same happened for me with Smash. I watched the first episode, interested in some of the story lines, pleased with the style, and most of the acting, but I was never sold on the idea of it. But then, in the last five minutes, when Katharine McPhee opens her mouth and starts in on the ballad, “Let Me Be Your Star” as she prepares for call backs to play Marilyn Monroe in the next Broadway hit, I found my eyes opening wider as I settled back into the comfort of my couch. The last five minutes were perfect: the transitions, the musicality of the camera, the choreography of the characters fluttering down stairs and into taxis and through Times Square, along with the contrasting vocal styles of the two women—Karen Cartright and Ivy Lynn (McPhee and Hilty, respectively)—fighting for the same role.  The song is beautiful and catchy, with just enough Broadway flair to still be contemporary and sure to make millions in iTunes downloads. It has the feel of a Disney classic like “A Whole New World” or “Tale as Old as Time” without personified objects and Disney magic. Admittedly, I’ve watched the last five minutes of the pilot at least five times just for the closing number. And I recall doing the same with Glee’s pilot a few years ago.

But the point is that up until the number I wasn’t hooked. I’m still not hooked. I found that the characters were almost all clichés and the plot is entirely predictable. There’s the Midwestern girl (McPhee) living in the big city dreaming of success with parents who tell her that dreams get people nowhere. There’s her devoted boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) who you know without a doubt is going to be thrown under the bus, unintentionally of course, when fame comes a-knockin’. There’s the gay theater producer (Borle), the entitled theater director (Jack Davenport) who happens to be a British snob (because, let’s face it, thanks to Simon Cowell, any critique sounds meaner when spoken with a British accent) who will let any star get ahead just as long as they’ll sleep with him, and then there’s the workaholic mother (Messing) who must balance family as well as career aspirations. You know that the two girls vying for the role of Marilyn will battle every episode until Miss Monroe is cast, that Messing’s marriage will crumble under career pressure, that the director will get laid and the girls who succumb will feel bad about it when it doesn’t get them what they want, and that harsh lessons about the equally harsh world of Broadway will be learned. At the same time, we know that all that talent, hoopla, and struggles guarantee that in the end dreams will come true—at least for one of the girls.

So what about episode two? Is it worth watching simply because the glitter of the last five minutes got caught in my eyes and made me forget that I wasn’t really on board until the end? What does one more episode hurt? Although I’ve grown tired of Glee in general and its ubiquitous story lines about Sue Sylvester sabotaging Glee Club and one member quitting only to come back, I am still a fan of the episode that followed the pilot. The characters were allowed to be more complex, the writing was more nuanced, and the musical numbers were just as captivating. Maybe Smash will follow in Glee’s footsteps in this way as well, and maybe the second episode will be the one that will win me over, making the first closing musical number in the pilot simply the escalator that got me to episode two. I can commit 45 more minutes, and a several streaming commercials, in order to find out if the sparkle can last, but if the characters don’t grow beyond their clichéd shells, and the plot doesn’t begin to throw in some surprises, the show’s glitter won’t sparkle for too long.

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Posted on January 29, 2012, in Television, The B's and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. Hi, can I quote some of the content found in this entry if I provide a link back to your site?

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