Each year I seem to fall in love with a couple of shows, generally I can form eloquent reviews explaining why this particular show is so worthy of my adoration, but other times I’m left writing a review that’s full of criticism and yet inexplicably ends with a fuzzy waffly bit about how I love it anyway. The good news for Smash is I love it, the bad news for my poor readers is that it’s hard for me to explain why.
When I watched the pilot I complained that it was full of cliché characters and that remained 90% true through the series. The initial characters are joined by a supporting cast of stereotypes – a demanding an neurotic movie star, a phenomenally camp male dancer and his accompanying ditzy female counterpart, a gruff bartender with a heart of gold… they just keep rolling. None is quite so irritating as Ellis however, the smarmy assistant with delusions of being a producer who borders on pantomime villain at times, pushing the boundaries of the patience of both the rest of the characters and the audience. Having a villain is fine, having one that’s not the tiniest bit threatening, just really annoying – that seems rather dumb.
As I say, those stereotypes are true 90% of the time, it’s the remaining 10% that some of the magic comes from and the characters and relationships become fascinating. Ivy and Karen are constant competitors, but when the former isn’t conniving and the latter isn’t simpering, they have immense respect for each other’s talents and actually support each other. The cliché romance between the director and the star actually turns into an interesting look at how a real relationship can work between people working together in show-business. Tom and Julia separately are bordering on completely non-functional, but their longstanding friendship and professional partnership gives them grounding. Even Angelica Houstan’s over the top producer shows her humanity when she’s fighting for the show she believes in.
A big part of my enjoyment of Smash is that the characters are good at what they do. I’ve commented in a few reviews recently that I get frustrated when characters in shows are written stupid just to drive plots, if the show is supposed to be set in a world that requires people to be smart, you can’t cheat just to make a storyline work. What I loved about Smash was that although people made mistakes and have crappy personal lives, they weren’t generally stupid or unprofessional. The plots and troubles of the musical all felt like the sort of things that just happen, through natural circumstances or plain old bad luck. The exceptions to that were the aforementioned Ellis and Julia’s affair and subsequent flapping which was a bum note in the middle of the season that, just as you thought it was finally out of the way, staged an irritating comeback at the end.
It’s important to acknowledge that this isn’t a gimmick show, it’s not like Glee which is all about getting to a song and dance number at the end of the episode and delivering the message of the week. For the most part Smash’s fantastically choreographed and performed musical numbers are either from the show-within-the-show, or spontaneous sing-alongs which I chose to believe can happen if you’re surrounded by musical theatre actors. The plots don’t feel manufactured to get to a big musical number, they feel like natural stories that happen in the production of a musical and in the lives of some rather highly strung artistic types. In fact the plots around developing the musical were completely fresh and really did keep me guessing, I never knew what was going to happen, what issues would develop and how they would be resolved, nothing was predictable but it all fit together satisfyingly.
Smash isn’t exactly a challenging show, but neither is it one that you have to switch your brain off for just to enjoy it. I cared about the characters, I was intrigued by the stories and entertained by both the musical numbers and the snappy dialogue. All that comes from a talented and charismatic bunch of actors, good writing and fresh feeling direction (all helped by a hefty budget I’m sure). I knew nothing about how a Broadway show was put together and the story of its development was absolutely fascinating and I can’t wait to see where both shows go next season.