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A Dude's Defense of "Smash"

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Much like Jake's preview post, I was actually intrigued by NBC's Smash.  After watching the pilot, it's obvious that the show has two main problems.  The first is that Katherine McPhee is fully clothed throughout.[1] The second is that it’s a show about singing. 

The first problem won’t (and shouldn’t) actually be solved.  McPhee is gorgeous in sweats or a dress and anything in between.  It’s nice to see a fresh face on TV – although Kiefer Sutherland can be recycled at will and I’ll watch – and it’s even nicer to see one of these American Idol contestants prove they are something beyond a voice.

The second problem, however, is part of a pathology.  Shows based around people singing seem to have taken over the world.

I’ve never seen a High School Musical, nor will I.  I’ve seen parts of Glee and wished I hadn’t.  I even watched an entire season of American Idol.  (Go Ruben!  Wait, what?)  Now, with X-Factor and The Voice and Sing For Your Supper Or I’ll Kill Your Mother[2] we’ve gone on overload.  Why?  Because there is a sinister yet brilliant way these types of shows fulfill our desires as an audience.

Singing is a talent much more than it is a skill.  I have an unbelievable control over three notes, that’s it.  Hell, I do a better job parodying songs as Cartman than I do actually singing.  I have a limited range and I know it.  There is a definite physiological component that combines with inherent talent to produce a great voice.  This is not to say that there’s not much skill to being a great singer, there is.  But for every delusional girl that breaks out into song at a bar or watching Glee and gives a completely underwhelming performance, there hides somewhere in that crowd someone who can hit some impressive notes that never had training nor a desire to sing crappy showtunes.  This doesn’t happen with writing or playing the piano.

And that, in essence, is the key to the survival and rampant growth of shows like American Idol.  If you buy into the came-from-nowhere-all-they-ever-wanted-to-do-is-sing-covers-of-shitty-songs back-story of every contestant you watch, because you’re an everyman, and you could certainly hit (closer to) every note of Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” than that girl could. The sinister thing is that we are actually pretty good judges of talent as a population when it comes to singing.  Because we can all do it to some degree, we know, inherently, what is good and what is bad.  And that dichotomy keeps shit like The Voice on the air. 

More problematic is Glee, which is High School Musical in weekly episodic format.  Sure, the glee clubs of the world have been alienated endlessly, but cliques are cliques.  Being in a clique that gets picked on is an integral part of high school, right up there with getting your first terrible minimum-wage job.  When Glee attempts to teach us lessons (I’m trying not to laugh just as hard as you) it fails miserably because the show isn’t about being different and celebrating that, it’s about being accepted and popular.  If they wanted to be “different” the glee club would actually sing good music, not Rihanna’s mind-numbingly repetitive “We Found Love”.  The fact that the best character on a show attempting to destroy stereotypes and celebrate diversity is Jane Lynch’s hyper-stereotypical Sue Sylvester is an irony that is difficult to see through success and piles of money.

Smash is none of these things.  It’s not a procedural like Blue Bloods, it’s not remotely as imaginative as Fringe, and it’s not a cliffhanger-per-week like a 24 or Prison Break.  What it is is good fucking television.  Much in the vein of The Wire or Breaking Bad[3], Smash appears to be a visual narrative.  Its characters are complex; they put you in both empathetic and hostile situations in the span of a 46-minute episode.  The music is Broadway…but bearable.  In fact, one of the biggest numbers in the pilot is used (effectively!) for a montage.   As long as NBC has the sense to keep the music as an integral part of the show’s narrative development and prevents it from becoming the vehicle (X Factor) or the money shot (every crappy Glee number) Smash will be just that.    

[1] When that first marriage doesn’t work out, Katherine, I’ll be right here waiting.  Unless Emma Watson gets to me first.
[2] Okay maybe that show isn’t real.  But don’t tell me you didn’t just picture Jack Bauer threatening to kill an old lady unless some unkempt dude rolls out a real badass version of “Born In the U.S.A.”.
[3] I will murder the first person who comments “Pete said Smash was as good as Breaking Bad!!!”  Your inability to read makes my black heart hurt.  And you better believe I’ll know how to find you.  You’ll be the asshole belting out a testicle-popping off-key rendition of Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” at 1:45 on Saturday morning in some frat bar.

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