There's a broken heart for every light on Broadway. So goes the old song. And NBC's musical drama Smash seems bent on illuminating every one.
It chronicles the roller-coaster ride of Bombshell, a would-be Broadway musical that's had a dickens of a time actually getting to Broadway—creating plenty of fractured hearts and friction-filled plot points along the way. Onscreen writers Julia Houston and Tom Levitt squabble. Director Derek Wills canoodles. Producer Eileen Rand gets booted—sort of. The production itself, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, gets tweaked and fixed and reworked and trashed and praised and revived and reworked again.
And we haven't even gotten into the sordid stories of the show's stars. Or one-time stars. Or soon-to-be stars.
At the center of it all is Karen Cartwright, a small-town ingénue who in the first season shoved Broadway vet Ivy Lynn out of the buxom lead role. This wide-eyed Iowa girl proved her doubters wrong and found a bit of success on the Great White Way. Will she ever reign as queen? Well, maybe, as long as she makes personal sacrifices, and as long as the play's creators and its director don't kill each other, and as long as the financier doesn't go belly-up, and …
On the surface, Smash bears some passing resemblance to Glee, its popular musical compatriot on Fox. But aside from the fact that both shows' leads sometimes burst into song with little provocation, not much else sticks. Glee resides in a surreal high school landscape where one-liners sprout like dandelions, Sue Sylvester prowls the halls like a Vaudeville villain and feisty teens search for their oh-so-special voices, on and off the stage. Smash is an older, arguably wiser show populated by more jaded characters. Dreams still can come true, it tells us … but then it asks, are they worth it?
If Glee tells us that all we really need is a song in our hearts, Smash insists that no song—no matter how pretty it is, no matter how fervently sung—will pay the electric bill unless some big producer likes it. Thus, Smash sets up a grittier but more realistic narrative. If Glee uses stardom as a form of salvation, Smash insists that celebrity and happiness don't necessarily go hand-in-hand. As Tom says, "We are in an industry that's lousy with talent. Is it too much to ask for a little kindness too?"
But kindness isn't something this show excels at, especially when it comes to how it treats its audience. Sex is a subject that has a huge presence here—from racy, suggestive dance numbers to premarital rolls in the hay to the crimes of the casting couch. Gay and straight relationships (and the specific sexual interludes that accompany them) get lots of screen time and are frequently talked about.
Smash isn't interested in teen sex the way Glee is. But it's certainly consumed with grownup relationships, which are simply assumed to be sexual.
Julia worries that a script doctor may be trying to undermine her work. Meanwhile, Karen's hung up on pretty-boy composer Jimmy Collins—never mind that the musical he's been working on with his gay roomie, Kyle, is pretty horrible.
Women wear revealing dresses and costumes. In a musical number, Karen's Marilyn character answers a number of provocative questions (including whether her inhibitions go away when she poses nude). A comic actor mimics an erection with his stage cane and is shown in a "comical" compromising position while in rehearsals. When Ivy suggests he be serious and take chances with his character, the actor tells her the next day that he's decided to follow his advice—and drop all of his psychotropic medications. There's talk of a guy getting high.
We hear about failed gay relationships. An undercurrent of a pass at Kyle is made by an effeminate actor. A woman exits Jimmy's bedroom, suggesting that she spent the night. Characters say "a‑‑" (twice), "d‑‑n" (once) and misuse God's name about a dozen times.
"Let's Be Bad"
This episode takes its title to heart and gets down and dirty on a variety of fronts. The few moments spent in the wiggle-and-jiggle Marilyn show find Ivy struggling with her bombshell trill in a pill-popping musical routine. So Derek asks Karen to show Ivy how to sing. Ouch! Later, the blonde diva verbally slaps Karen down in retaliation.
Ivy and others get drunk before she marches up and sleeps with the director again. (As if to show him a thing or two!) And then Julia gives into her urges, kissing ex-boyfriend Michael while hubby is out of town. Meanwhile, Tom beds a new boyfriend, ending up naked in the sheets with him while discussing just how un-wow-worthy their first sexual tryst was.
For her mirror (and the camera, of course) Karen strips to bra and panties while grinding out a stripper-pole rendition of "It's a Man's World" to prove she's sexy too. Then she packs her smolder into a revealing dress to help her boyfriend out at a political shindig … before straddling him in the limo on the way back home.
Julia's son gets picked up for smoking marijuana.
Karen and Ivy square off as the two favorites for the plum role of Marilyn Monroe in a new musical. After Karen beds live-in boyfriend Dev (the two are shown in foreplay and later in bed together, apparently naked), she's called in for some private work with director Derek Wills. She goes innocently, but it's clear he's angling for more. Karen proceeds to tease him, showing off her bra and crawling seductively onto his lap. Then she shuts him down with, "Not gonna happen."
Tom ogles his new assistant, and he and business partner Julia debate whether he's gay or not—the assistant, that is. Tom's sexual choices have already been well established. The director spits, "Gay men p‑‑‑ me off," and is promptly told, "That's an unfortunate position to take in the American theater." Meanwhile, allusions to sex range from mysterious to vivid gutter talk. Onstage, a sexually charged baseball-themed number features a female actress pressing her (costume-clad) breasts and body against the faces of male dancers. And the song gives us even more allusions to sex and sexual body parts.
Folks drink wine. God's name is misused a handful of time. On the plus side, part of the plot revolves around how excessive devotion to work can hurt family.