Archive for February 7th, 2012
It’s safe to say that of the millions of viewers who tuned in last night for the premiere of NBC’s Smash, few were hoping to see a show about a couple of writers. The deluge of ads that aired during the Super Bowl promise an old-fashioned backstage melodrama, and on that count, the series delivers. (Perhaps a little too well—even given the disorderly nature of most network pilots, it has at least one personal subplot too many.) But I decided to check out the show for somewhat different reasons, which means that I’m going to ignore most of its other attractions, including the very fetching Katharine McPhee, to talk about a version of Smash that doesn’t exist yet, and probably never will. Because as farfetched as it might seem, this show represents the best chance we’ve had in a long time for a series about what I modestly think is the most interesting subject in the world, which is the creative process at work.
For obvious reasons, most movies or TV shows about writers aren’t very good. This is partially because a writer’s life doesn’t lend itself to visual storytelling, unless you’re going to indulge in frequent fantasy sequences—as Smash is clearly quite willing to do. It’s solitary work, without a lot of dramatic moments, and it doesn’t lend itself to neat character arcs. The movies like to pretend that there’s an intimate relationship between an artist’s life and work, but in fact, there’s often no correlation between the two. Writers can produce their best work on lousy personal days, and vice versa; most attempts to write biographies of Shakespeare (or, even less forgivably, the Earl of Oxford) based on clues from the plays founder on the fact that he didn’t necessarily write tragedies when he was miserable, or comedies when he was happy. A writer’s life, perhaps ironically, is doomed to frustrate most of our expectations about good storytelling.
When you have two writers in the room, however, that’s something else entirely. It’s no accident that the best works of art about the creative process often center on a collaborative relationship, which generally means some form of theater. I’m thinking of The Red Shoes, of course, which is my favorite movie of all time, but also of works as different as Topsy-Turvy and The Dick Van Dyke Show, the latter of which made writing for television seem like the coolest job around. And while it’s far too early to include Smash in that select company, there are some positive signs. We have a very appealing pair of writers in Debra Messing and Christian Borle, who, to my eyes, are the real stars of this show. If nothing else, Messing and Borle have real chemistry—which is more than I can say for McPhee and her ambiguously gay boyfriend—and in their scenes together in the pilot, I saw a glimpse of a show that I could learn to love.
Of course, this isn’t necessarily the show that creator Theresa Rebeck has in mind—although her recent interview with the A.V. Club was very promising. And we’re probably going to see many more fantasy musical numbers and karaoke scenes before we plunge any deeper into a writer’s inner life. But the producers of any television show are writers, first and foremost, and there are moments in the Smash pilot that feel like closely observed moments of what it means to write for Broadway. Messing is initially skeptical of the idea of a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, for instance, until she realizes that it will give her a chance to write a baseball number—and I suspect that all writers have been drawn to projects for equally random reasons. This leads to the truest moment in the pilot, when Messing confesses her real reason for wanting to write Marilyn: “I don’t want anyone else to do her.” That’s a sentiment that any writer can recognize. And if Smash can follow up on these hints, it could become something really special.