NBC’s released the pilot episode of Smash, its new (and quite good) drama about the making of a Broadway musical on iTunes, and while in many ways, it’s handsome without being revolutionary, there’s also something to just having a show based in a setting where the dominant perspectives are those of women and gay men:
Of the main characters, musical writer Julia (Debra Messing), scenery-chomping producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), ingenues Karen (Katherine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty) are all women, Julia’s writing partner Tom (Christian Borle) is definitively gay, and his ambitious new assistant Ellis (Jamie Cepero) is potentially gay. The only straight men are high-powered-and-he-knows-it director Derek (Jack Davenport) and Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), Julia’s husband.
They both feel varying resentments towards the dominant paradigms that govern their lives. “All that fawning over the actress,” Jack complains. “Gay men piss me off.” “That’s an unfortunate sentiment to express in the American musical theater,” Eileen deadpans at him. His solution to being a straight man in a gay man’s world seems to be to benefit from it, or at least to try. He calls Karen to his house at 10 p.m. the night before her callback, expecting her to show up to seduce him, and even when she’s visibly upset, talks her into proceeding with a sexy-Marilyn impression, if not all the way in to bed.
Frank joins Chris on Up All Night as the second major stay-at-home father NBC’s put on television this season. He’s upset when Julia dives into the Marilyn musical, breaking her promise to him that she’ll take the year off so they can focus on their adoption. And when it’s clear that she’s determined to move forward, he decides he has to go back to work: waiting for the adoption to come through and tending their domestic life isn’t enough for them. There’s something very interesting going on here in NBC’s decision to put the emotional struggles of stay-at-home mothers in the mouths of men, and I’d be curious to know how much it’s resonating with straight male viewers — if any of them are tuning in.
I’d argue that even if you are a straight dude, Smash is worth a trying if you’ve been looking for some fascinating female characters on television. Julia’s clearly very creatively driven, sometimes to the point of neglecting her home life. She forgets to dress up for a social worker’s visit that’s a condition of their adoption, but charms the woman when it turns out they share a love of her subject matter. Watching her watch Marilyn movies in bed and light up while she’s doing it is wonderful — Messing may tend towards light fare, but there’s no question that she’s a delight to watch. And as a writer (though, of course, one of the representatives of the chattering classes who nearly give Julia a heart attack), the show has a sense if not for the actual process of writing, which we don’t see in the pilot, the itchy compulsion to do it.
Similarly, Huston is tough as nails: her production company’s in bad trouble, tied up in escrow while she and her husband fight out an extremely nasty divorce. It’s a nice illustration of how divorce can really take something away from a person. “I’m not out of the game and I don’t have to prove it,” she snaps at Derek as they walk through Times Square discussing their fledgling production. Sure, the competition is supposed to be between Karen and Ivy (at the moment, I’m Team Ivy, since the show seems to be trying awfully hard to get me to be Team Karen). But watching these big, grown-up women with big lives making things on television is lovely.