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SMASH: How the Pilot Smashed My Dreams for a Quality Television Show



I really dislike pilots. I can only think of three that are honestly good (The O.C., Friday Night Lights, and Glee, and I’d add LOST to this list if the show weren’t so dumb), the rest of which sit in a range from passable to abysmal. (Remember the pilot for Pushing Daisies? I’m surprised the show got made.) Pilots tend to be overwritten and annoyingly expositive, like 43-minute indie films written by recent college graduates who have to include one out-of-place scene because it’s sort of autobiographical and profound and has been festering in their post-adolescent minds for years (see: Gilmore Girls and Lorelei’s stupid conversation with the bursar’s office for Rory’s school). Even when I think pilots are well-crafted, it usually requires the distance of an entire season of character development before I can forgive two-dimension characters shoved into contrived situations.

I’m saying this as an explanation for my lukewarm response to NBC’s new smash, SMASH, which aired on Monday to much buzz. Like the sucker that I am, I was drawn in by the impressive list of stars. Emmy-award winning actress, Debra Messing? Academy-award winning actress, Angelica Huston?! KATHERINE MCPHEE?!


I'm such a McPhan, you guys.



The idea of a process show about creating and producing a Broadway musical, complete with songs and dance numbers, solidified my desire to tune in. I imagined a process-type show about creating a musical, about watching this production unfold from its conception to its last performance. I imagined that characters would exist in separate worlds until they were introduced to the project slowly, allowing for character growth, intrigue, and drama. Unfortunately, this episode, like most pilots, disappointed.

The script was absolutely rabid in its storytelling. The amount of plot they crammed into a one episode could have filled an entire half a season. In the course of this single episode, the writers conceived their musical, wrote three songs, found a producer, auditioned a director, and whittled their audition pool down to two possible stars. It was established that writer Julia (Debra Messing) is adopting a kid and having marital woes, that producer Eileen (Angelica Huston) is getting a high-profile and expensive divorce, that writer Tom (Christian Borle) and director Derek (Jack Davenport) hate each other for reasons unknown, and that Karen (Katherine McPhee) is a girl-next-door Iowan transplant with the cutest boyfriend ever. The characters are all placed in easily-recognizable tropes (I’m eager to see if the homosexual character will have as advanced a non-professional storyline as have been established for the heterosexual characters, because, right now, he’s got nothing except being annoyingly nice, which is our new expectation for gay characters), which will hopefully be deconstructed as the show progresses. Nevertheless, despite its efforts to be exactly what you expected of it,
SMASH actually dealt an interesting hand with the two women vying for the lead role in the musical. While watching the promotions for the show, you may have thought that his was a homely-girl-next-door-underdog-battles-experienced-but-less-talented-vixen situation, but in actuality, both women are incredibly nice, and pretty equally talented, and trying to achieve their dreams despite unsupportive parents. There’s this air of ambiguity about who is going to get the part and, more importantly, who deserves the part, which could turn into really quality character drama. Are they going to destroy that ambiguity by having Ivy, the blonde, sleep with the director? Probably. Judging from the next-on teasers, I’m guessing this ambiguity is an oversight the show’s writers will be addressing. Which one will get it? Probably not the one who sleeps with the director...


So while what I had hoped for was an engaging plotline with characters unfolding slowly over the course of many episodes, what I got was an intense hour of slapdash, very punctuated story-telling establishing easily-identifiable character types with very little non-clichéd conflict. But such is the fate of pilots. Perhaps the show will slow down now. Perhaps less emphasis will be placed on spectacle and more on the logistics of writing, producing, and performing in a Broadway show. Or perhaps I’ll stop watching after 3 episodes and put my Monday nights to better use, namely, watching old episodes of Parks and Recreation and Mad Men or playing Zelda. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from my years of TV-watching, it's to never judge a show by its pilot.

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  1. Blogger jessica clayton | 8:42 AM |  

    The West Wing, another amazing pilot to add to your list. I have to agree with you on pilots for the most part though. Usually a big let down.

  2. Blogger Mark Waller | 5:34 PM |  

    I agree - generally pilots are expository-filled snoozefests with a few character moments thrown in for good measure to get the TV execs to bite. I would throw the Six Feet Under pilot in there as one of the best pilots I've seen - it tells a complete story in and of itself and is full of great character moments, and the characters come out pretty much fully-formed right away. Also, Dawson's Creek - great pilot.


    I recommend Cory Barker's TV Surveillance blog feature "Test Pilot" where he & other writers examine pilot episodes for a bunch of shows. Very interesting stuff. (Disclaimer: I'm writing about NYPD Blue over there in March.)

    http://tvsurveillance.com/test-pilot/

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