Not much right now

actresses hung like slabs of meat

Steven Spielberg wanted Smashto be an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.

Epic fail.

I suppose we’re supposed to be happy that network television has finally seen fit to set an hour-long drama in our little world.  Just a few years ago, it was impossible to find any characters breaking into song on the little screen.  But I’m reminded of a lady who bitterly complained about the quality of the food at a Catskills retreat.  Could have been worse: there could be no food at all.

So let’s be grateful for the tasteless morsel we’ve been thrown, and spend a few moments picking on the bone.  It certainly could be worse.  They’ve decided to use an admirable quantity of original songs, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman rather than covers of old rock hits (with a key exception) and the cast includes Christian Borle and Brian D’Arcy James, guys I’ve actually enjoyed in Broadway shows.  Good moves, there, and, again, better than starvation.

Since seeing the pilot (I also read the script, many months ago), I’ve been wondering if I’m more upset than I should be.  I mean, of course it seems inauthentic to me: it’s the world I live in.  And does it really matter if NBC viewers are fed a false impression?  Suppose I knew nothing about how musicals are prepared and produced, would I find Smash so disappointing?  It’s a little like wondering if that Catskills harridan had eaten ground glass all her life, would she still have caviled on the buffet line?

There are worse things a network could do, sure.  And there are worse crimes than seeming ersatz.  For instance, being very boring, or riddled with the hoariest clichés.  But, given Speilberg’s publicly-stated ambition to hold up a mirror to our little world, you’ll pardon me if I mock the mock.

(SPOILER ALERT: If you haven’t seen this yet, consider yourself lucky.)

Feels a bit weird to be commenting on television.  I’ve merely seen the pilot, and a zillion things can change – for the better, I hope – as the series progresses.  While I have a lot of friends in the TV-writing business, I’ve no special insight into the making of meat for the small-box medium.  Maybe spinning out cliché upon cliché is, somehow, encouraged in Tubetown.  As you know, I’ve a sign on my desk that says “Eschew cliché” so naturally I sneeze at:

The set-upon spouse who pleads for the obsessed (and admirable) partner to forget their obsession, settle down and spend more time at home.  In a not-so-novel twist, the pleading one is the husband, Brian D’Arcy James.  It’s got to be a big let-down for him to go from his stage roles (Burrs, Sidney Falco, Shrek) to a cliché kvetch.

A divorcing couple, where one spurned spouse is itching to show the other up with a public triumph, pronto.  Even Anjelica Huston’s hair-do screams 1930s Hollywood.

A more modern rendering of the “skyrocket to fame” idea is the viral video that’s so popular, it actual exerts pressure on the business world.  Reluctant songwriters collaborate on a song for a musical about Marilyn Monroe, invite a friend over to learn it and sing it back to them.  Someone takes a video of this, which gets posted on-line and voila! there’s a producer green-lighting the as-yet-unwritten project.  I remind you of the Spielberg quote above: “an absolutely authentic depiction of an arcane world.

The main character, an aspiring singer who may win the grand prize or merely come in second, is played by Katharine McPhee, an aspiring singer who came close to winning the grand prize on American Idol but merely came in second.  Nice to see her stretch.  Her parents worry about all the rejection she faces in the city.  Her boyfriend reminds them she’s not a waitress, she’s an actress.  Is anything else on?  Is ABC running that game show in which ordinary people fall off slippery things into wading pools?  I’m there!

At her audition, McPhee transfixes the table with her rendition of the Christina Aguilera hit, Beautiful; and if you listen carefully to the lyric, which few do, it’s about seeing the true beauty in people, not the surface beauty.  Marilyn Monroe, of course, is the iconic embodiment of surface beauty.  Perhaps the Karen character wants the panel to see past her unextraordinary brunette good looks and find her inner Marilyn.  Are you following any of this?  The show insists you must.

But wait, there’s an immediate response from the director, in the form of a text message that says come over to my place.  Hold the phone!  Well, it’s the cellular age; I guess we always hold the phone somewhere on our person.  And poor Karen, like Pauline in The Perils Of runs off to this fabulous bachelor pad.  There, the lustful Svengali insists she reveal the smoldering sensual fire within her.  She considers fleeing, but, just before reaching the door, she steels herself, grabs his shirt, comes out wearing it and no pants, and coos Happy Birthday, Mr. President.

At the risk of sounding like an out-of-touch prude, I’d like to point out that children are going to watch this program and believe every word.  After all, some have read famous director Spielberg’s proclamation that Smash is “an absolutely authentic depiction” so it must be so, it must be, that the way to win a role on Broadway is to go alone to the director’s apartment late at night and act all sexy.  NBC, by the way, has helpfully launched a program to get school kids watching this thing.  Great to see a big corporation supporting arts in schools that lack performing arts, but it comes at the cost of spreading moral turpitude.  Does the good outweigh the evil here?

Young ladies: Should you find yourself the recipient of a “come over to my place” late-night text from a director, immediately contact the Stage Directors and Choreographers Society, ask “Is this proper?” and forward the text.  But why am I telling you this?  It’s not going to happen in real life.  Scenarios like this only occur in the creakiest of old melodramas, or, to put it in a word, “Smash.”

Warning: playing the drink-every-time Shaiman-&-Wittman-use-a-cliché game may lead to blackouts.

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2 Responses to Not much right now

  1. foxmancometh says:

    The lack of authenticity to the theatre world is hardly what holds it back; its trouble is, like Terra Nova (last year’s crappy Spielberg show), that it fails to even imagine a reality, and it certainly doesn’t depict it. It can be as inaccurate as it wants to be (see: any given Star Trek) so long as it strives to be specific and internally authentic.

    Why is Angelica Huston’s absurdly rich character walking towards the subway station during her conversation about the show? Wouldn’t this be more effective (and convey more of her power, and give some nice claustrophobia) if she were in a towncar? Isn’t a messy, chaotic backstage inherently more interesting than what’s on the stage, and doesn’t every Broadway theatre have crazy passages and hallways that would make for great, tension-building tracking shots?

    Anyway, this doesn’t even address the thing that bugs me the most. The best workplace dramas/comedies accept the fact that your job becomes what you do, and that the majority of us are only occasionally reminded of how awesome or stressful what we do is. It’s part of the appeal of task-driven reality shows – watching people talk about what inspires them is never as interesting as watching them be good at what they do. Scrubs is a great medical show because people rarely talk about how much they want to fix people or freak out when someone dies – it’s their job, they’ve been doing it for years, they’re used to it, and their coping mechanisms and celebrations are more subtle and dramatically interesting (say, one character’s alcoholism, or another’s blind religiosity). The West Wing was better than Commander in Chief largely because the former treated its setting as a building where people go to work, while the latter was always inflated with its own “THIS IS THE WHITE HOUSE OMG” attitude. Past the age of 19, I’ve never in person heard anyone say “ever since I was a kid, I’ve been inspired to do this thing I’m doing right now that everyone underpays me for.”

    Broadway is a place where millions of dollars change hands among some extremely powerful people, all the while employing a great number of interchangeable, faceless, underpaid chorus people, and often failing to adequately recoup for the extremely passionate, often very jaded creative types who write and create for it. Can you imagine how amazing this show would be if it took the perspective of all these kings and powerplayers shuffling dollars and people around these vast art-making factories? As it stands now, meh.

  2. Mike Bencivenga says:

    Great article, Noel. A little prickly but many points well made. But you shouldn’t be so surprised about TV reaching to the cliche self so readily. As a person who works in television news I’ve endured years of insane, wrong headed depictions of how a newsroom operates. Let’s hope Aaron Sorkin gets a little closer with NEWSROOM. And I’ve long given up on Steven Spielberg trying to do anything authentic after he rewrote the ending of SCHINDLER’S LIST to make it ‘more dramatic.’ So it’s good for you to shine a healthy light of truth onto a pile of clap trap. But Spielberg and NBC are like William Randolph Hearst. When confronted with whether to print the truth or the legend his quote was, “Print the legend. It’ll sell more papers.”

    Lastly the old joke about the lady complaining about the food in the Catskills, I believe, goes like this: “The food in this place is horribe. Just HORRIBLE. And the portions are so small.” The problem with NBC is that their portions of SMASH will be so ‘large’ as to mislead folks as to what the world of Broadway is like for many weeks to come. And that’s too bad. Too bad for the next generation thinking about joining the ranks.

    Mike B, NYC

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