Each Friday in The Televangelist, Richard Clark examines the met and missed potential of television.
Smash, NBC’s financially high-risk attempt at bringing back the prime time drama, is packed with generic flourish, founded on spectacle, and rife with low-key relational drama. An adult-centered answer to Glee, it’s half musical, half high-budget soap opera centered around the production of a Broadway musical. Conversations don’t crackle as much as they creak, forcing groans from the audience more often than genuine surprise and laughter. The music is recognizable, but covers of existing songs fall markedly flat because of a general noncommitment to any single musical theme or aesthetic. It’s a great show that too often settles for incredibly stupid. And yet here I am, watching this show every single week. I stay because of narrative desire, because I’m drawn in by the spectacle.
I can promise you it has nothing to do with a harmless crush I have on Katherine McPhee.
I absolutely will not indulge myself by waxing poetic about Katherine. That would be beneath me to write, beneath you to read, and beneath this esteemed Web site to host such nonsense. Still, that crucial factor — a vague attraction to an unknowable person — guides the viewing habits of many of us. It may not be the reason that guys watch Smash, or girls watch Twilight, but it’s there. Admit it.
Smash doesn’t so much acknowledge this fact as much as it exploits it and builds a foundation on it. The world of Smash, made up of creatives and their unenlightened satellites, is full of little more than power grabs and baseless crushes. It’s a show that casts every dark moral area in a shade of gray, encouraging us to glide along mindlessly as its stars act like grade schoolers, crushing on one another and bullying one another, then waking up the next morning and doing it again. The few struggles these characters have with these moral choices are merely pragmatic in nature. In a world of creative people with dreams, and family members and friends living vicariously through those dreams, all that matters is whether or not those dreams are achieved.
The show presents us with a series of illogical choices, of dreams that are built on the nightmares of others. Two girls ruthlessly compete for the part of Marilyn Monroe. One girl finds it reasonable to sleep with one of the decision makers. She and her friend discuss the decision as if it is a discussion about the artistic merit of Transformers. It’s not a value judgment as much as it is an issue of taste. Smash, in its commitment to the surface and its refusal to go deeper, fails to acknowledge casualties in any way that truly calls the root of this chaos into question. When a married woman admits to an affair she had two years prior, her husband and son sit in her house, unknowing and content. The only casualty is her free spirit — she struggles briefly with guilt. A desire to return to the man she encountered two years earlier lingers.
Meanwhile, Katherine McPhee (she might as well be playing herself) visits home, feeling frustrated that her parents don’t understand her attempts to become an actress. That is quickly remedied when her dad admits to staying out all Saturday night skulking around in a bar in order to finally catch a glimpse of his daughter performing karaoke. Her mom notes, “He missed church this morning too, apparently he was out late last night.” This so-called “church,” this “mother” and this “father” are about as real in this world as the car full of props posing as friends who drive up just at the right moment screaming, “Come on, Broadway baby! Got to get you back to the big time!” without any sense of irony.
Even Glee found ways to nuance these things in a way that seemed true to life. Smash, on the other hand, whether on purpose or otherwise, trivializes any other aspect of life beyond our ambitions. This is a show about our crushes and our dreams: projections of our perfect life, our perfect mate, our perfect friend, our big chance. They are glorified and codified into a simple mantra: If you want it bad enough, you chase after it. To hell with the naysayers and unbelievers. All those things in the way — people, belief, reality — those are merely obstacles.