Lately, I've been watching a show called Smash on NBC. It got a lot of comments when it was being advertised: "OMG, it's totally copying GLEE" and so forth. I was skeptical (which is pretty much every tv show these days - I've got "trust no network" tattooed on my face at this point), but we recorded it to dvr and watched the first episode. Since then, we haven't missed a single Monday.
Maybe I'm just not looking hard enough, but I'd love to see more conversation about this show, because it has SO MUCH to offer. It has a cast of several well-rounded and, for the most part, complex characters.
It features a deep, loving, platonic friendship between a gay man and a married woman who are song and script writing partners.
It has a canonically gay character whose gayness is not a pivotal plot point, yet he is show to have an active dating life that has its ups and downs.
It has a canonical gay character of color.
It has strong women, driven women, talented women, women who make good choices, women who make bad choices, women who own their choices, women who take responsibilities for their choices.
It has women who are friends.
It has women who are professionals.
It has women who are successful.
It has women who are rivals.
It has women who are rivals who are also friends.
It has women who are rivals who form alliances and their own particular kind of friendship.
It also has Anjelica Huston.
It has unwise relationships and sweet relationships and could-be relationships, budding romances, fading romances, hidden romances.
It has gorgeous voices and fun songs and sometimes silly song sequences.
It has cheese, and it has something that feels very real.
It has. so. much.
Let me tell you a little bit more about the plot. The two writers/composers - Tom and Julia have been taking a break from doing a job that they both love so that Julia can devote some time to her family and hopefully get through the process of an international adoption. Suddenly, an idea drops into their lap - a musical about Marilyn Monroe - and it proves too much to resist. Despite it probably being a bad idea, they launch into the project, meaning to keep it a secret.
Tom's new assistant, Ellis, uses his phone to record Tom and Julia singing one of the songs they wrote and emails it to his mother, who posts it to YouTube. Suddenly, everyone wants to know about Marilyn the musical, and Tom and Julia reluctantly put together a team.
Anjelica Huston's character, Eileen, signs on as a producer, despite being in the middle of a rather messy divorce. Derek, a cantankerous, been-there-done-that stage director is convinced to join the team, despite his and Tom's past differences. Karen Cartwright and Ivy Lynn compete for the part of Marilyn; Karen as an inexperienced ingenue, and Ivy as a girl who has been waiting a long time for her big break.
Everyone is passionate about the Marilyn project for their own reasons, and in putting together a workshop, it becomes the focus of their lives and intertwines them in some very intense ways. Ivy and Karen start out as rivals but form an uneasy friendship as time goes by.
This show is so big that it's impossible for me to hit every point of it, but here's a list of things I love.
- Karen (played by Katherine McPhee) and her voice.
- Eileen and her sassy, vulnerable way of handling things, and how she's willing to do just about anything to see this production all the way to Broadway.
- Tom and Julia and their relationship. Their dialogue is just filled with all the snappy, almost-inside-joke things that close friends say to each other, and when things go bad, they have each other's backs. They pick each other up and just hold on. Love it, love it.
- Derek. I haaaated him at first - because we're meant to hate him at first. But as you get further into the show, you see so many different sides of him. Where we are now with Derek - I absolutely adore him despite his faults. He's grumpy and brilliant and everything I love about people who have a passion for doing something well. I've also been loving the way he's sort of been losing his mind over the production, giving the show writers the opportunity to write these weird hallucinatory sequences that end in Derek with a "freshly kicked in the balls" expression on his face. Priceless.
- Ivy and Karen. The writers could so easily have made their relationship a catty, ugly mess, but instead have shown two women in the hyper-competitive, highly stressful world of stage acting who put aside their differences at critical times in order to help each other out. Neither one is a villain or an angel, and I love this portrayal of talented and complicated women whose lives cross in different ways.
- Julia herself. She's a writer, and I relate to that in many ways. She's intelligent and vulnerable and she makes a huge, life-shattering mistake, but she doesn't shake off responsibility or make excuses for herself. She owns it.
I could say so much more, but there would be massive spoilers. It's true that the show has its share of cheese - you can't have musical numbers without a little cheese. But it doesn't take the cheese to anywhere near GLEE levels. It just seems to me that this show offers a lot that fandom is often asking for - canonically gay characters whose gayness is not the whole point of their character; gay characters of color; strong women who have friendships (many, many scenes easily pass the Bechdel test). If you love music and great characters and storylines, give Smash a try! If you're watching it, I'd love to chat with you about it!