Liz Tells Frank What Happened In “Smash” Season 1

Dear Frank,

Smash Season 1Here is a list of things I really enjoy:

  • Broadway musicals.
  • Jack Davenport.
  • Shows where people throw martinis in other people’s faces.
  • Marilyn Monroe, in all her complexity.
  • Jack Davenport being super-snarky-smug-sexy.
  • Young women being assertive and going after their dreams.
  • Older women being total badasses.
  • Dance numbers.

Frank, there are few shows on Earth I have wanted to like more than NBC’s Smash, which technically includes all those things. And yet by the end of the first season, it had evolved into one of today’s best hate-watching experiences.

However, hate-watching is fun when the show starts bad and doesn’t get any better. (Sorry, Millionaire Matchmaker wait I don’t really mean that.) Hate-watching something you had high hopes for? Always a bit heart-breaking.

Here is what happens in the first season of Smash: Producer Anjelica Huston, who gets to do the bulk of the martini-throwing, teams up with super-sexy director Jack Davenport and musical-writing team Debra Messing and Her Partner Who Is Very Gay And Talented (Whose Name I Cannot Remember) to create an original musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe.

You might, Frank, question the choice of telling this story in the format of a big-budget peppy Broadway musical, given the tragedy of Marilyn’s later life.

They eventually figure that out — in the second-to-last episode of the season, it doesn’t really come up before then — and have to write a last-minute finale about how as long as everyone doesn’t forget about Marilyn, it’s totally okay that she committed suicide? I’m not really sure what this last song means. But I sure know that it’s intercut with another actress emptying a bottle of pills into her hand, because Smash is a master of subtlety.

The major dramatic hook is that there are two young women who want to play Marilyn very very much. One of them is Megan Hilty, an experienced Broadway performer playing an experienced Broadway workhorse who from Day 1 is clearly the correct choice, and not just because she is blonde and curvy (though she is, in fact, blonde and curvy).

Damn, girl, you got dem thaaaaaaaaangs.

Damn, girl, you got dem thaaaaaaaaangs.

But Jack Davenport, in the pilot, gets this massive boner for ingenue Katharine McPhee, who Smash liked to say was “introduced” by the show even though American Idol NEVER FORGETS.

McPhee is brunette and skinny, but she has a “private audition” with Davenport where she wears one of his dress shirts and sits on his lap while singing “Happy Birthday Mr. President” and thus Davenport is super-into her.

To be fair, if alone with Jack Davenport, I would be tempted to do the same.

To be fair, if alone with Jack Davenport, I would be tempted to do the same.

Over the next 15 episodes, we go through the workshopping of a new Broadway play, from the business aspects to the creative process, which means getting to see at least one or two almost-fully-staged musical numbers from the production each episode.

The musical numbers are written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who know a little something about writing musicals, and while the lip-syncing isn’t great, it’s a vast improvement over Glee.

The part of Marilyn bounces back and forth between McPhee and Megan Hilty for the bulk of the season, until (giant plot twist!) the production decides to cast a movie star played by Uma Thurman for the big Boston preview. Unfortunately, Uma’s not much of a singer — or stage actress — and eventually chickens out on opening night in Boston.

McPhee, who at this point had been cast as the Marilyn understudy while both she and Megan Hilty also performed in the chorus, should be stepping up. But she doesn’t know the show as well as Hitly does, because Hilty’s been fucking Davenport for a good half of the season and working with him on it along the way.

So Hilty expects to go on — however, due to the afore-mentioned Marilyn boner McPhee gave Davenport that one time, he decides to stick with her.

McPhee gives a triumphant performance, Hilty (who’s had a Marilyn-esque problem with pills over the course of the season) cradles a bottle-full of happytimes in her palm, and SEASON TWO ONTO BROADWAY.

I'm kind of sad that the play isn't just Dueling Marilyns, to be honest.

I’m kind of sad that the play isn’t just Dueling Marilyns, to be honest.

Sounds like a pretty good show, right Frank? It would have been, if that was all the show was about. BUT NOOOOOOOOOOOOOO. OH, DEAR GOD, NO. Let me break down for you just a few of the unnecessary storylines in this godforsaken show:

  • Debra Messing has a husband and son. Her son is the worst actor currently on television. Watch any episode from Season 1 and tell me I’m wrong. He’s so bad. Just the worst. If he’s capable of showing human expression, he sure can’t do it on screen. JUST THE WORST.
  • And Debra’s husband is mad at her for wanting to make a new musical because they’re supposed to be adopting a baby. This bullshit family drama goes on for FOREVER, including an entire storyline devoted to The Worst Actor On Television getting caught with drugs. WHAT DOES THAT HAVE TO DO WITH MARILYN MONROE OR DANCE NUMBERS YOU MOTHERFUCKERS!?
  • Also, the guy they cast as one of Marilyn’s love interests (Joe DiMaggio or Arthur Miller? I’m pretty sure Joe DiMaggio) is a guy Debra had an affair with awhile back, and they end up rekindling things during the workshop process, except that by “rekindling things” I mean “he basically forces her to have sex with him because according to this show seduction means ignoring a woman when she says ‘No’ over and over again whiel you unbutton her blouse.” He does not get any less rape-y over the course of the season. It is UNPLEASANT.
  • McPhee has a boyfriend. He works in the Mayor’s office. Despite the fact that the Mayor’s office has NOTHING TO DO WITH MARILYN MONROE OR DANCE NUMBERS YOU MOTHERFUCKERS, Dev’s position within the Mayor’s office and his flirtation with a sexy coworker or press contact or something, I forget, is super-important.
  • There’s a lot of “You have to choose between pursuing your dreams or being my plus-one at this fancy party!” back and forth between McPhee and Dev, and they break up, and then Dev sleeps with Megan Hilty, and then Megan Hilty tells McPhee about it while she’s rehearsing to replace the movie star, and McPhee freaks out, and as far as I can tell Dev is GONE FOREVER in Season 2 and god bless it.
  • Angelica Huston’s sexy somewhat-younger United Kingdom-born bartender boyfriend might have mob ties whatever MORE SONG AND DANCE NUMBERS PLEASE.
  • Oh, but while each episode features at least one song/dance number from the musical (entitled Bombshell), they pad whatever time they’re not padding with The Worst Actor On Television fucking up something with the cast covering recent pop numbers. It’s a transparent bid to boost iTunes sales, the context for these musical numbers is often flimsy-to-terrible (karaoke!) and also the production quality of these numbers — well, they’d fit right in on Glee.
  • Did I say I wanted more musical numbers? I think Switch from The Matrix said it best:

Easily my favorite-awful part of the show is whenever Debra Messing stares off into space and goes all writerly. “Something good… coming from something bad,” she’ll mutter. Because she is INSPIRED, Frank. So goddamn inspired.

You might have noticed that most of the above bullet points have to do with poor ol’ Debra (oh, I didn’t even mention THE SCARVES OH THE SCARVES, FRANK!), who was maybe based on the show’s creator, Theresa Rebeck.

(I will not draw any conclusions about this lady based on how rape-y she made a love interest on her show. I consider this an act of good faith. I also hear that she’s a pretty solid playwright.)

I realized there weren't enough Jack Davenport pictures in this post, so here is a picture of Jack Davenport being all Jack Davenport-y.

I realized there weren’t enough Jack Davenport pictures in this post, so here is a picture of Jack Davenport being all Jack Davenport-y.

The point is, Rebeck isn’t the showrunner for Season 2, the first episode of which is currently available on Hulu. I’m watching it now! The first song is called (I’m guessing) “Moving On” and I for one am relieved. So now we’re getting ready for Broadway. And everything’s coming up roses!

Fingers crossed, anyway. The Worst Actor On Television still lurks in the wings, Frank. Never forget.


About Liz Shannon Miller

Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She is currently Senior TV Editor at Collider, and her work has also been published by the New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of "X-Files" trivia.

Posted on January 29, 2013, in All the Spoilers, TV and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. It’s so cheap, but I honestly loved the running gag of Anjelica Huston throwing a drink in Truxton Spangler’s face every time she saw him. Sometimes I am distressingly easy to please.

  2. I’ve been a fan of Davenport ever since the great BBC series ULTRAVIOLET- and I love Huston- but the cons make this sound like a slog for me. If s2 works- I’ll check it out. For the drink-throwing.

  1. Pingback: Liz Tells Frank What Happened In The “Lost Girl” Pilot | Liz Tells Frank What Happened In...

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