A Brilliant Bomb: ‘Smash: Season One’

Smash, a musical TV show about a Broadway musical, inspired a legion of “hate-watchers” (myself included). Fans tweeted insults and laughed in unison at the show’s silly way of taking itself seriously. Season One followed a band of hysterics in their valiant attempt to mount a Broadway show called “Bombshell”. It would include a “baseball number” and dramatize the life of that famous blonde mysterio with the initials M. M.

Marilyn Monroe’s enduring iconicity is due, in part, to the ineffable quality of her stardom. Imitators abound, but no one has ever captured or recreated her effortless, incandescent charm. She is beyond simple magnetism. She appears on screen as fanatically watchable. She exists as a magic specter of photogeneity in which her every movement sizzles with triumphant charisma.

Which is one reason why it’s a bit trainwrecky to watch Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty and Uma Thurman try to be Marilyn-esque as they fight over who gets the lead role in “Bombshell”. Each has her own magnificent strengths as a performer, though none translate as Marilyn. McPhee and Hilty turn in accurate, but brief impersonations of Monroe’s singing voice. But none of the three can come close to recreating Monroe’s luminescence.

In that case, both Smash and its internal play “Bombshell” appear doomed for failure, which makes for extremely compelling meta-melodrama. The genius-artist director (Jack Davenport), fabulous-divorcee producer (Angelica Huston) and song writers/besties/musical masterminds (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) are pretty much in non-stop freak-out mode through Season One. They sometimes spiral into personal tragedies that seem to parallel Marilyn’s — only not that tragic or profound. When Messing’s songwriter character, Julia, watches the musical number “Mr. and Mrs. Smith”, in which Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio serenade about the bliss of small town married life (that they’ll never have!) we see regret and shame in her eyes as she ruminates on her own tattered marriage, due to the frenzied affair she had with the guy playing DiMaggio. Like I said, it’s meta!

The production itself was apparently plagued with its own backstage drama. Top tier players were fired and re-arranged and apparently executive producer/”humble master” Steven Spielberg wanted Hilty gone — a fate that parallels the emotional yo-yo’ing of the character she plays, Ivy. (You can have the part! Now it’s gone! Now it’s yours! Sorry! It’s yours! Go Away! Kill Yourself! Come back!) The show’s real-life producers were kinda hoping the show would be such a hit that it would actually reverse-engineer into a real Broadway show based on the TV show.

A similar ambition and certitude swirls around Huston’s (as Eileen) and Davenport’s producer and director characters. They’re merely waiting for the rest of the NYC theater scene to realize that “Bombshell” is a total masterpiece. It’s a rampant joy for the TV audience when we finally get to see a few of the glorious numbers we’ve been hearing about and seeing glimpses of. When we finally do, in the “Bombshell” preview, they’re serviceable, but dorky.

I vastly prefer the musical numbers that are not a part of “Bombshell”. The ones that spontaneously emerge out of the character’s dream life or circumstance. This aspect of the genre, that it’s natural, even instinctual, to sing and dance, makes the musical simultaneously joyous and ridiculous. Musicals, like flash mobs, obscure their choreography, the hours of practice and training it takes to stage a seemingly impulsive spectacle.

The “backstage” musical usually provides the motivation for the dance numbers as rehearsal or practice sessions. But when the numbers spill into the waking life of the characters, as when McPhee’s Karen and Hilty’s Ivy belt out “Let Me Be Your Star”, as they dash through a Manhattan afternoon on the way to an audition –- well, that’s when things really get good (and bad). In the preposterous nature of the goings-on.

Camp audiences have long recognized the pleasures of “bad”, of the delectably ridiculous. We don’t really hate bad shows at all, we delight in their extravagant nonsense. We get disappointed if they fall into realism or normalcy. We like it bad. In fact, amp it up, will you?

One of the most hated darlings of Season One, aside from Julia’s scarves, Eileen’s tossed martinis and the evil Ellis (I’ll get to him) was the “Bollywood” number. Karen and her boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey), eat dinner while a Bollywood film plays on nearby TV. In early episodes Dev was a supportive prince, but over the course of Season One he transforms into a cheating meanie. Though he works in government (or somewhere) he is blissfully given an elaborate dance number, via Karen’s dinner daydream.

Suddenly, the entire cast is transported to a land of cultural clichés. East Asian, Indian and Arab cultures smash together as Dev sings “One Thousand and One Nights” to Karen, who now wears a sari and sports rhinestones above each eyebrow. The best part of this insane mash-up is the sideline tableaus showing the other characters in similar garb, lounging on furniture and throw pillows from Pier 1 Imports while signifying Scheherazade folk tales. Or something.

The entire set-piece appears to be a cathedral with a giant goddess-y snow globe poised on its altar.

My favorite tableau features Eileen and her handsome, mob-connected, millionaire-bartender boyfriend (Thorsten Kaye). In leaps the inexplicably evil, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), who plucks a golden prop necklace out of a treasure box before dashing out of frame. He happens to be wearing an “Aladdin” style outfit. Poor Cepero (also rumored to have been at risk of being recast). His sole purpose seems to be to lurk, hope, steal, and poison as he works as the “assistant” for the higher-ups. The character is both black and bisexual, but rather than signifying a progressive identity, his minority status is branded as an Iago-style manipulator.

The show’s racial politic is as irrational as the rest of it. And this aspect strikes the primary off-key cord in the midst of an otherwise delightfully crazy spectacle. Smash is a cornball masterpiece. A beautiful fail that aims toward Monroe’s essence, but instead offers up imitation. This is what the hate-watchers lust for: a backstage glance at artifice.

Bonus features include copious extended and deleted scenes, a much too brief gag reel and two short “featurettes” about the real choreographers, producers, creators, musical minds and songsters all of whom are extremely talented and a total pleasure to work with.

RATING 8 / 10