[Review based on "Pilot" (1.01) and "The Callback" (1.02)]
In a way, Smash is a balancing act, even if the different sides only battle inside the writers' minds. Because it shares some superficial similarities with other shows, it must deal with both the benefits and drawbacks from being compared to those shows. Its setting in an unfamiliar territory for most of its audience (Broadway) makes it necessary to be wary of alienating situations while still avoiding reliance on cliches. Broadway's natural tendancy towards melodrama must be tempered with realistic situations that don't feel too artificial. As the show matures, we will see if it can find a sustainable equilibrium for these forces.
"The Callback" continues to invite the comparisons to other shows that cropped up after last week's episode. In my review, I mentioned how the show has acknowledged Glee's role in opening the door for musical shows while also distancing themselves to a certain degree. This episode also underscores Smash's direct debt to American Idol, both in Katharine McPhee's pedigree and as Ivy sang the Carrie Underwood song "Crazy Dreams" in the closing minutes. The differences in genre between the two shows precludes direct comparisons, but Smash still has to be careful. Including songs reminiscent of Idol is used well to emphasize certain scenes (such as Ivy's impromptu performance at the end of the episode and Karen's performance of "Beautiful" last week), but can also distract the viewer who can't help but be reminded of the other show. Audience appeal is certainly a factor in these choices, but Smash will have to trust its audience to enjoy the original songs that make the show stand out.
Trust in the audience is especially important for the show's plot in order to create believable characters. In his review for A.V. Club, Noel Murray mentions that the episode tells the audience how to view the characters & developments (as many dramas have done over the years). This is especially dangerous for a show like Smash which deals with a naturally melodramatic subjects (Broadway) and plotlines (the baby adoption). Glee is a cautionary tale as it stretches and distorts some characters to act as cartoony villains (Sue Sylvester) or Mary Sues (Kurt). Smash can avoid this by creating more ambiguous situations, showing some of the other perspectives on the conflicts we've seen (such as Eileen's dispute with her husband). The shows most overt attempts to guide the audience's views are especially harmful as they challenge the viewers' suspension of disbelief: the excessive praise for Julia's letter to the biological mother just drew attention to its sub-par quality. Moments like these made me focus on what the show was trying to accomplish instead of staying with the story.
I think Smash tries to dictate its audience's emotions because it's aware of the dangers inherent in basing the show on a conceit that won't naturally appeal to a large audience. This also causes the writers to rely on cliches that they probably know aren't good for the show. I would guess that the writers know that most people can't identify with theater or some of the problems that main characters are going through, so they inserted overused plots, like Karen's failure to make her boyfriend's important dinner. Unfortunately, while there is a valid and necessary point to be made about the demands that Broadway takes on its performers, the show does it in a way that reminds viewers of all the other times they've seen this conflict. Instead, it needs to own the fact that its best plots will alienate a set of their audience and not toss in recognizable and tired stories to try to keep them interested (though that might be impossible with the way NBC seems to be treating the show as its big ratings hope).
The episode did continue to do some of the things that showed potential in the pilot. Again, I enjoyed the shot of Karen imagining herself singing in the club while she was actually waitressing. The original songs and choreography continue to impress, with this week's song "The 20th Century Fox Mambo." The drama about who would get the part created believable tension for the characters and I was glad to see that the resolution wasn't excessively drawn out. Smash has enough good aspects that I think it can become a must-watch show if it decides to embrace the idea that it will won't appeal to some of its viewers.
- The writing and acting for Julia's son was terrible. Not even slightly believable, incredibly distracting and easily my least favorite part of the episode
- Runner-up: the adoption lady putting her hands to her heart to indicate how touched she was, in case we didn't believe that letter was the most perfect thing ever written
- Like some other reviewers, I can't see Karen as a close competitor to Ivy for the part. The show tries to push perfection as Ivy's flaw, but I don't find it believable. Seeing McPhee in the blonde wig just reinforces this
- A somewhat better job than last week portraying Derek (the director/choreographer) as more than just a womanizer, but it seemed like quid pro quo when Ivy got the part after sleeping with him
- I really liked the moment when Julia gave Karen some words of encouragement before her audition - very human moment
- In contrast to most of the episode, the show did let the audience make up its mind about Karen's audition (doing "The 20th Century Fox Mambo"). It seemed a little forced and I felt that it probably wouldn't have been better than Ivy's (which wasn't shown)