Smash: hitting the right notes?

Before I begin this review I should admit that I am an avid fan of Glee, and after seeing it steadily worsen after an outstanding first season, I approached Smash with a mixture of interest and trepidation, half wanting it to give me a new favourite show, half wanting it to fail epically and leave Glee the queen of musical drama.

The cast of Smash ©NBC Universal

Smash follows two writers staging a Marilyn Monroe musical, enlisting the help of a sleazy director and a producer I initially believed to be Dragon Dens’ Hilary Devey (it was actually Anjelica Huston), as they struggle to choose between Broadway regular Ivy (Megan Hilty) and fresh-faced Karen (Katharine McPhee) for the lead role. It has been described, somewhat misleadingly, as “grown-up Glee”, although you can see where the comparison has come from: Smash is like Rachel Berry and co graduating and facing the real competitive world of musical theatre, where, as Karen’s father warns his ambitious daughter, “sometimes dreams just don’t mix with reality.”

But Smash would do well to distance itself from Glee, especially while it works out exactly what it wants to be. Despite this being a solid opening episode, I found that its realistic vision occasionally, confusingly, disappeared. The clever and arresting opening scene set what should have been the tone of the show: a rousing performance by a starlet glittering on a Broadway stage snapped back to reality to reveal a daydreaming hopeful auditioning to unimpressed producers. This is where Smash is at its best, achieving dark comedy and drama by undercutting the dreams of stardom voiced by Glee characters with harsh reality, leading to a gritty show occasionally brightened up by a dazzlingly slick Broadway number – the public face of all the hard work.

But at times Smash slipped jarringly into fantasy, with characters singing in the streets – standard Glee procedure, but odd in Smash. This confusion in tone was at its worst in Karen’s audition for Marilyn, which completely contradicted the opening scene. It felt contrived and unoriginal: the plain Jane turns up to an ultra-competitive audition, the producers sneer, but just by the sheer force of imagining she is singing to her boyfriend, she makes seasoned Broadway producers’ jaws drop as though they’ve never heard anyone sing competently before.

The excellent writing and strong acting that allows Jack Davenport’s sleazy director to escape the realm of cliché is nowhere to be found in this scene, perhaps because Katharine McPhee is not as convincing as Karen. Despite the contrivances of the show I couldn’t feel her challenging the phenomenal (and much more interesting) Ivy, and therefore couldn’t invest in one of the show’s central conflicts.

But this is not to detract from Smash’s strengths. The original compositions, particularly the baseball number, were superb, and an authentic world was built around the music, with a strong cast of characters driving the plot. As an embittered Glee fan I have probably been overly critical - I should emphasise that Smash has a stellar cast, smart writing and great music. I personally prefer the escapism that a sing-a-long with Glee provides, but for those not as easily pleased as me, Smash certainly fits the bill.

Catch the second episode of Smash next Saturday on Sky Atlantic at 10pm.

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