So, I don’t really review television on my blog often. I think the last time I reviewed a show, it was the pilot of Glee. However, much like Glee, this new show “Smash” is something I feel compelled to weigh in on. This is especially true, because I have a slight bias to report. This show is not exactly the plot of my novel, but there are a number of similarities. So, I have some interest in it doing well. It would make pitching my book a lot easier.
So, with that bias admitted to, I have to say the pilot interested. Like all pilots it wasn’t exactly subtle, and much of the dialogue felt clunky and trite. I had expected that Megan Hilty (famous for playing the Dolly Parton role in the Broadway flop “9 to 5″ as well as her highly lauded performance of taking over for Chenoweth as Glinda in Wicked) to be miles and away better than Katharine McPhee. While McPhee was one of the two contestants of American Idol I ever cared about (and like Adam Lambert she came in second to someone who appealed to people from the south) I was worried that McPhee’s American Idol performance was some sort of fluke. Her two solo albums had nothing of the incredible voice she presented to the world in the singing competition, but from the first second of the show (where she reprises a few seconds of ‘Somewhere over the Rainbow’) it is clear her voice is still excellent. In addition to having a beautiful instrument, McPhee is better suited to acting on screen than Broadway’s Hilty. It is clear Hilty is wanting to make sure everything she does can be read by even the most visually impaired person, like most stage actors, which makes her come across as slightly cartoonish on screen. However, part of the reason for this is the script.
The script writers use McPhee to embody what actors trying to work in New York City are like. At dinner, she makes it clear that she fully understands she is in an industry that is soul crushing. While she is annoyed that someone answers a phone in her audition, she doesn’t cry about it. Hilty on the other hand, who should be thrilled to be having the level of success she is having, cries when she is rejected after an audition. The writing during Hilty’s pity party where she bemoans that she trained to be an actor made me want to turn the television off. I trained as an actor and a lawyer, I am barely able to get work in either world, and while I find this incredibly frustrating, I don’t really feel the need to cry about it.
To give her training credit, Hilty is a true delight to watch when performing. Although I found the “baseball number” incredibly distasteful, I enjoyed her in it. Hilty shines for me most in the final moments of the pilot where she and Katherine McPhee sing a new song “Let Me Be Your Star” while en route to a call back audition. In these last few moments all of my problems with the show completely melted away. The song flows from both of these women in such unique and delightful ways, that I was finally able to see why Hilty was even competition. Hilty’s voice is fuller, bolder, and when she sings as Marilyn, the very essence of that icon seem to flow out of her. McPhee’s voice is not as big, but as a result, her voice feels more nuanced and intimate. This appeals to the idea that Marilyn was more than an icon, but she was also a woman. In McPhee I see a portrayal of Marilyn Monroe that is less about the big moments we know about (although her incredible impression of the JFK Birthday song is pretty much perfect) and more about the fact that Marilyn was also a person.
The final song brings out that these two women are both primed to be an incredible Marilyn, but there is a difficult road ahead of them. For Hilty, she had the pedigree and experience to really relate to what Marilyn had to go through, but to connect to those experiences, she will have to rip down the walls she has erected to keep herself alive in the business. She has to stop “acting like Marilyn” and find the Marilyn within. McPhee, has the reverse problem. In her we see the woman, but not the icon. Can McPhee, who is as green to television as her character is to Broadway, really convince people she is also able to wear the mantle of Marilyn? Can she show us more than Norma Jean? These are absolutely engaging questions for me, and I look forward to seeing them explore them over the next few moments.