I would consider myself someone who likes musicals, but I’m not really a fan. I think to be a fan you need to have at least a small element of obsession about something, it’s not enough to just watch and enjoy them, you need to really dig into them which is something that I don’t really do. So although I’d heard of Bob Fosse and could probably (at a push) have identified that he worked on Chicago and Cabaret, I knew nothing more of him and I had never even heard of Gwen Verdon. The latter I can at least partially blame on the long tradition of overlooking and burying women’s contributions.

The Fosse Verdon mini-series is an important step to rebalance that. Importantly it doesn’t just swing in the opposite direction and portray Verdon herself as a hero or a martyr, the series presents both characters warts and all, and there are a lot of warts for both of them. It clearly shows the unfairness Verdon encountered in the industry and in her private life, but it also shows her as manipulative and conniving, working within the system to get at least some of what she wants. The performances from Michelle Williams and Sam Rockwell are utterly mesmerizing, shining through the inevitably slightly strained age makeup. The relationship between them was fascinating, both using each other with varying levels of self-awareness, the relationship is at times toxic and at times beautiful. It doesn’t really change over time, it’s just the small adjustments in power that make things interesting, although the circular nature of their relationship does become frustrating at times, every time it feels like things are reaching a finishing point, they manage to produce something beautiful and the cycle starts again.

The series is very much about MAKING musicals, rather than the musicals themselves, in fact if anything I would have liked to see a bit more about the productions. The rehearsal process was really interesting, but the supporting characters came and went very quickly and it was hard to connect to them, or see them as anything other than a means to an end to drive Fosse and Verdon. The series never set out to do anything but tell their two entwined stories, but it felt quite a very blinkered view, one that continues the concept of isolated genius – jut a partnership of two, rather than an individual. I know enough from studying history that it’s a very regressive approach to look for individual stories, bound to ignore the many and varied contributions (particularly from ‘minorities’).

There are also some hints at really troublesome aspects of the story, that are not really surprising given what has gradually trickled out about the discrimination and abuses that have been inherent in the arts for so long. There are classic “casting couch” situations with Bob Fosse sleeping with young members of his cast who then get better parts, and those that refuse him pushed aside. The presentation of this is troublesome, it’s not exactly excused, but Fosse is still made a sympathetic character and plenty of people around him (including Verdon) dismiss his actions, or only feel about them from their own point of view, not the victims. While the series relishes in the complexity of Verdon and Fosse, it still in the end falls into the trap of celebrating their creations as troubled geniuses. The final moments of the series celebrate their creations, successes and impacts on culture, not of the people that helped them, or the people that were damaged by them – there’s enough subtext in the series to see it if you look, but it’s easy to overlook. Even the first draft of my review didn’t mention it and it wasn’t until I thought a bit more that I realised what I’d missed.

I think as a piece of entertainment the series works very well and the performances from Williams and Rockwell are something special. It starts to open a door on some interesting questions of artistic creation, and the fact that it does it in a mainstream way is very important. However, I was left feeling a bit frustrated that it didn’t push the door open further.


Smash: Season 2

smashThere are bad shows out there. Shows with bad writing, bad acting, bad premises, bad direction and on occasion – all of the above. But those shows don’t really have much of an impact on my life. They give me the opportunity to write a vitriolic review of the pilot and then I never have to see them again. At worst I’ll annually grouch about how they got picked up for another season while personal favourites didn’t. Good shows are similarly easy to write about, a nice bit of enthusiastic gushing, a recommendation to find a way to catch up and we can all move along happy. To a certain extent even the ones that are resoundingly mediocre are quite straightforward to watch and write about, you know what you’re getting and they’re a passable way to kill time while ironing.

The most frustrating shows however are the ones that do some things really well and other things catastrophically badly. They leave me ranting about how bad they are, while endlessly coming back for yet more punishment. They make you care and then disappoint you over and over again. You’ll have concluded by now that Smash falls into that category.

First the bad. Although they got rid of the most annoying characters from the first season (Ellis, Del, Julia’s family) not all the new characters were a substantial improvement. Jimmy and Kyle were way too unoriginal, the former the classic leather jacket wearing, mysterious bad boy with an amazing talent, the latter a gay Broadway wannabe with big dreams, big commitment and big hair. The two form an “unlikely” friendship and partnership (unlikely partnerships happen surprisingly frequently in TV land) and get to actually live their dreams. Mind you they were paragons of subtelty compared to the horrific guest turn from Sean Hayes as a character who somehow manages to be even more ridiculous than his previous role as Jack (Just Jack!) in Will and Grace!

Many of the other storylines for the series were pretty tired and unoriginal too, the director and the casting couch, the long standing partnership falling apart, an unplanned pregnancy, rekindling old flames and, most manipulative of all, a sudden death just to bring everyone back in to the game. The storylines weren’t just tired, they felt cheap. Purely based on driving plots not really having any coherence within the character stories. The biggest problem with many of those stories was that they broke one of the things I praised from last season – that the characters were competent at their jobs. People can screw up their personal lives, they can make isolated silly mistakes, but once it moves into professional incompetence, I begin to stop caring.

Maybe I was just a willing victim of the manipulation though, because I really loved the show and am going to miss it. When Smash was at its best it was about the characters, the relationships, the theatre and the music. The final episode started with a massive group sing-along, had some impassioned speeches about the power of the theatre, some beautiful moments between characters as they acknowledge what they mean to each other, and ended with a song all about ignoring the critics and going out on a big number. I laughed, I cried, I sang along and I went to buy the soundtrack.

Season 2 was better than season 1 I think. The addition of the second musical was a good choice, I wasn’t a big fan of the Marilyn Monroe musical (either in concept or in style) so the very different style of production was a nice change. It also took Karen and Ivy out of direct competition for the most part giving them both space to breath. The question of where the show could have gone in season 3 is interesting. With another year they could have continued to improve, but I’m not sure they hadn’t written themselves out of story (although the writing was on the wall in terms of cancellation, so maybe they didn’t care). Maybe it actually finished in the perfect place.

The fact that I care enough about Smash to say “I wish it was better” says a lot. It was a phenomenally talented cast with both familiar television faces and incredible theatre performers, able to deliver the drama, the comedy and wonderful song and dance numbers. Thanks to the generous budget they could shoot in actual New York, not LA-New York or Toronto-New York and
use some incredible locations and sets. There’s nothing else quite like it on television at the moment either in subject or style, maybe there’s a good reason for that, but I for one will miss it.

Nashville: Pilot Review

Two country music stars at opposite ends of the their careers are thrown together.

There are three stars in this show – Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) and the music. I adore Connie Britton, and she is the heart and soul of the show, the most believable and the most likeable of the characters. Without the humour and the passion she brings to the role, Rayna could easily be something of a spoilt rich girl, whining about the fact that her star is waning and unable to accept that times have moved on. But Britton plays Rayna as a woman who’s just trying to do the best she can for her dreams, her family and her friends and she does so with humour, warmth and passion.

Hayden Pannetier is the other side of the coin though. Her character is mostly a manipulative, unpleasant little bitch. Where Rayna is talent and hard work, Juliette is manufactured and demanding. She uses flirts and sleeps with who she needs to get where she wants. There are only the briefest flashes that there’s something more to her (a difficult mother and a genuine emotional connection to certain songs), but the character herself brushes those aside. It’s not Panettiere’s performance, she’s actually surprisingly good in the role, but the character is an unlikeable cow, and without a realistic and strong character to balance Britton’s, the show won’t work.

The other thing that just didn’t work for me unfortunately the music. I have pretty eclectic taste but I struggle with country music, it seems to only have two extremes, whiney, or overwhelming ‘yeeha’ enthusiasm. The songs in this episode did little to alleviate me of this opinion, and rather than the musical numbers being high points for the energy of the show, they left me cold. The fact that T-Bone Burnett is responsible for the music suggests that it’s probably pretty good, just not my thing.

Surrounding those three stars are a cluster of supporting characters and plots which didn’t really jump off the screen. I really struggled to distinguish between Rayna’s husband, guitarist and producer for most of the episode, although on a second viewing it was easier and they were far more interesting, the chemistry between Rayna and the guitarist/former boyfriend was particularly intriguing. There’s a subplot involving politics that I was frankly bored with before it started not least because Rayna’s father who engineered that plot is a completely over-the-top cliché of a wealthy Southern businessman, using money and threats to control everyone around him. Similarly the story about a love triangle of young singer/song writers practically wrote itself.

I’m a bit on the fence about this show. I’m not a fan of country music, but there is something interesting there about how the music business is changing and how that effects the lives of the people within it. But the second half of the pilot was overwhelmed with the political storyline and the family feud elements and that was a lot less original. The characters that feel real were interesting, but that only accounts for about half the cast; the others were bordering on pantomime villains at time.

I will watch this show for a few more episodes, largely on the strength of Connie Britton’s performance. There were some flashes in the pilot of a nice sense of humour behind the writing, just little asides and remarks that acknowledge the ridiculousness of some of the situations and characters. A bit more of that, a bit less of the hammy characters, and this might turn into something fun. Even if it is about country music.

Nashville is “coming early 2013” to the UK

Other Reviews
Huffington Post: Perhaps “Nashville’s” most surprising accomplishment is that it sort of invents its own genre: It’s a high-class entertainment that takes its locale and its characters seriously and treats the audience to some enjoyable music along the way

CliqueClack: ABC’S ‘Nashville’ is a solid show with a great lead performance by Connie Britton. Whether you are a fan of country music or not, if you like soaps that aren’t too campy, you should give this a try come Fall.

Glee: Season 3

For the past two years I’ve been obsessed with Glee, it just made me happy. In fact it made me sufficiently happy that I could forgive the not inconsiderable problems it had. Season 3 however broke through some kind of barrier and I suddenly found myself completely unable to ignore the terrible writing. I was not just irritated, I was so angry that I really had to force myself to keep watching, and only made it thanks to a commitment to watching the whole thing for this review and enthusiastic use of the fast forward button.

This was always going to be a difficult year for Glee, as with any school based show it had to decide what it was going to do now that its original stars were coming up on graduation. For the characters this meant growing up, saying goodbye to school and friends deciding what to do with the next phase of their lives; for the show it meant deciding whether to say goodbye to those characters and introduce new ones, or saying goodbye to the school setting and following the characters along.

The problem is that Glee was so busy looking towards season 4 that they completely forgot season 3 had to be coherent and enjoyable too. Everything about the season was aimed at getting characters where they needed them, regardless of whether that made any sense or not. I realised the show was doomed in the first episode of the season when it’s revealed that half the characters aren’t the ages you think they are. If there’d been decent writing in previous seasons they could have planned for graduation, but instead because of a lack of forethought the writers are forced to sacrifice continuity, consistent character development and coherent storytelling to get characters where they think they need to be.

The stories they tried to tell and the way they did it, were at best clumsy and often just plain awful. The most offensive were those that tried to deal with serious issues, but came from out of nowhere and disappeared almost as fast. The domestic violence storyline was particularly stupidly done, but the story of Finn’s father, or Quinn’s accident were also ineptly done. Then there was the ridiculous congressional race with heavy handed soapboxing about the importance of the arts, and ‘blink and you’ll miss it’ looks at issues of what it means to be poor, mentally or physically disabled, transgender or gay. None of these stories were well enough written to make their inclusion anything other than downright insulting.

I’m surprised the teachers unions aren’t boycotting Glee for their presentation of teachers. Will and Emma (‘teacher of the year’ and guidance counsellor respectively) utterly fail to notice or care that two of their group are failing the year, that most of them have no idea what they want to do and that those that have are pinning all their hopes on just one option. I don’t want to sound like a grouch, but the key message of “don’t be afraid to dream” is one thing for 15 year olds, but when it’s leading to 18 year olds pursuing unrealistic paths that may seriously affect their lives, it would be nice if some of the grown-ups were at least challenging if they’ve thought everything through.

Even the music couldn’t save the show this year. I don’t know whether the playlists changed, or whether I did, or whether the bad writing somehow polluted the whole experience, but I found myself fastforwarding a lot of the pieces, particularly anything without a dance number going on. Too many of the pieces were wallowy ballads and the direction that accompanied them featured far too much staring into the distance. That said, I did still find the big choreographed dance routines kept the magic of the previous seasons, and had me smiling along with them. I’m not faulting the performers in any of this. The last couple of episodes highlighted just how good much of the cast were, capable of delivering some heart breaking scenes as the kids say goodbye to each other, but also incredibly talented singers and performers.

Maybe I’m just very late to see the light and I’ve just been an idiot the last couple of years. But to me the first two seasons of Glee were just what the title said – gleeful. It was fun to watch, silly and cheesy but also full of positive messages about being yourself and supporting each other. This season I don’t look back and remember the great musical numbers, the fun camaraderie or the moving acts of friendship, I remember all the stupid stories and clumsy character development. Glee just wasn’t fun to watch, it made me sad and frustrated – the very opposite of why I used to love Glee.

Smash: Season 1

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.

Smash: Pilot review

Broadway’s hottest musical writers, producer and director are coming together to develop a new musical about Marilyn Monroe. Everyone is a buzz about it, but the big question is… who will play Marilyn?

Marilyn the Musical was the hottest thing in town the minute that word got out about it, and the same is true of Smash in the real world. As soon as it was announced it was tagged as either “Glee for grownups” or “jumping on the Glee bandwagon” depending on the cynicism levels of the reviewers.

While Smash and it’s gushing fans may try to distance itself from Glee I think they’re a lot more similar than it would really like to admit. While at first glance the only similarity is the fact that there’s a tendency on both shows for people to burst into song, there’s a deeper seated link between the two – neither is set in the real world. While Glee is an almost-fantasy high school, Smash is an almost-fantasy New York. While it’s nowhere near as silly as Glee, neither is it anywhere approaching gritty realism. This is a New York where struggling actresses can still living in large apartments and eat in nice restaurants and talented young things from Iowa can be catapulted to stardom.

I’m not saying that’s a problem – this is a musical show both in that it’s about a musical and in that it’s built like a musical with all the smoothed edges and stereotypes that implies. But the cliché characters really push the boundaries of my acceptance at times, from the dazzlingly gay song writer who’s gushing over his new assistant and checking out the dancers to the sleazy director who invites actresses to his apartment for private sessions. The biggest stereotype of all unfortunately is the waiting-to-be-discovered Karen who’s come to the bright lights of the big city with a dream of being a star.

The plot is just as cliché as the characters – they need to cast the perfect Marilyn and who should fall into their laps but this completely green newcomer with talent and soul? But there’s a rival, Ivy, the more experienced and more obvious choice who completely embodies Marilyn. In one of the few examples of elegant writing however the writers actually pass on the obvious choice of making her an ambitious evil cow and present her as just an actress who wants the part, knows that she has the talent to do it and has paid her dues working her way up. I’ll be honest, by the end of the episode, I was actually rooting for her, not Karen.

The other saving grace of the show is Debra Messing (of Will and Grace fame, get it? Saving grace? Sorry.) who is the central normal point of the whole show. She’s like the linchpin that all other characters balance off of and because she’s talking to them, they all seem more real. Even the massively over-the-top Anjelica Houstan almost seems to exist in reality when she’s sharing a scene with Debra Messing. Hopefully that’s an indicator that characters will tone down a bit in future episodes once the desperation of the pilot is out of the way.

Despite spending several paragraphs describing what the problems are with the show, I still really liked it. Just like Glee, it can have all technical problems in the world, but because it made me smile and made my foot tap I’ll tune back in. Finishing the pilot with a couple of minutes of trailer for the rest of the season was a genius touch, because it reinforced all the things that I’d enjoyed – great music, a talented cast, and just something a bit different to everything else on tv.

Smash will be airing on Sky Atlantic in ‘April’.

Other Reviews
Huffington Post – Nevertheless, there is the possibility that Smash will catch on. Viewers could decide it neatly fits the So-Bad-It’s-Good category. Otherwise, Smash might have the bad fortune to close just as quickly as the above-mentioned Marilyn: An American Fable did. The great American musical– experiencing something of a resurgence now with the broader public — deserves a lot better than this.

TV Addict – While it remains to be seen as to whether or not a compelling drama pulled off by an all-star ensemble is music to an audience’s ears that may not know the difference between a pilot and a playbill, we’re here to implore you that it should be. In a world of generic doctor/lawyer/cop shows — each more interchangeable than the next — SMASH dares to be different. Which in itself is reason enough to give the series a standing ovation.