When “Smash” (airing Mondays at 10pm) kicked off a few weeks ago, the backstage Broadway drama was described by many critics as “Glee” for grownups. Now that the show’s a third of the way through its 15-episode season, that’s starting to seem as much a cautionary note as a nod to all of its song-and-dance numbers — like “Glee,” “Smash” has started to sacrifice the consistency of its characters in order to steer the plot in its desired direction.
The major question in “Smash” has become who, exactly, we’re rooting for. The first episode introduced us to the two actresses who aspired to become the star of a new musical about Marilyn Monroe — Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), who’s been working on stage for years and feels it’s finally her time to take the lead, and Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee), a newbie from Iowa who’s been waiting tables and auditioning.
Ivy has the experience and the chops to play Marilyn, but Karen has an essential innocent quality along with the voice — or so “Smash” wants us to believe. Problem is, the show is telling one story while struggling with another. We’re meant to cheer for Karen as the ingenue whose gifts can’t help but shine through and who struggles against the adversity of lecherous directors and catty co-stars, including a suddenly diva-ish and increasingly unstable Ivy.
But it’s Hilty who’s the actual talented underdog, a Broadway performer who played Glinda the Good Witch in “Wicked.” McPhee’s voice netted her a runner-up spot on “American Idol” and she’s got more fame, but in terms of acting and charisma Hilty blows her out of the water.
It’s funny to hear Anjelica Huston’s determined producer Eileen Rand get snippy when director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) talks about stunt casting a movie star like Scarlett Johansson for the role of Marilyn because name recognition feels like the reason McPhee’s there.
The imbalance in talent creates a narrative undercurrent in which, instead of this seeming like the story of an up-and-comer set to get her big chance, it becomes one in which a newcomer is “All About Eve”-ing her way into the lead. And the two actresses have been given a dynamic that’s reminiscent of another showbiz film, “Black Swan,” with Ivy jumping into bed with Derek while Karen remains the uptight good girl who needs to get in touch with her own sensuality.
The big Marilyn dance number, below, that came toward the end of last night’s episode draws parallels between the stress and insecurity Ivy’s feeling and the difficulties the film icon she’s playing experienced as her fame took off. But it really serves to highlight how much more appropriate a fit for the role Hilty is than McPhee’s wounded-doe Karen. “Smash” is inexorably heading toward a scenario in which Karen gets her chance to shine, but unless she’s capable of much more than she’s shown on screen so far, it’s going to sound more like the creaking of plot mechanics than a star finding her voice.