It’s been happening for years, but never has the trend been more pronounced than it is right now: TV execs in Hollywood have figured out that Broadway is a talent goldmine. In fact, they sit in their high rise offices every single day, rubbing their palms together, thinking of ways to lure Cheyenne Jackson, or Raul Esparza, or Audra McDonald away from you, dear theater fan, forever.
The results are occasionally disastrous. (Does anyone remember an mid-90s Fox show called L.A. Firefighters that starred Jarrod Emick? I do, and so does my VCR.) Sometimes they aren’t so terrible, though. Kristin Chenoweth has won Emmys. John Gallagher, Jr. ate a pencil on Law & Order.
We had high hopes for two shows in particular this season, simply because they’re chock full of theater stars — Smash and A Gifted Man. We’re seen both pilots. Here’s our take…
Smash was bound to happen. It’s the Glee-for-grownups show that everyone knew would come eventually, the moment someone figured out that a major chunk of Glee’s audience was over the age of 12. Produced by Steven Spielberg and directed by Michael Mayer, the pilot shows us two women (played by Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee) duking it out to play Marilyn Monroe in a new musical. We see the two progress through the audition process, and performing for the show’s motley crew of creators, who disagree on who should play Marilyn. The songs are incorporated as they are in Glee — both within the context of the “show” at hand (in this case, the Marilyn musical), and outside of it. So yes, the characters do randomly burst into song while they’re in their bathrooms putting on makeup and stuff. It’s carefully handled, and works well. It’s like… a real musical. In fact, the show’s final moments have that familiar characters-on-the-brink kind of thrill, a feeling that isn’t easily found outside the theater. It’s fun, too, to watch Christian Borle and Debra Messing as the over-the-top writing team, and Angelica Huston as the sotto-voce producer, whose power marriage is on the rocks.
Disconcerting, however, is how easily the show falls into stereotype. The bubbly blond vs. smoldering brunette thing may hearken back to old Broadway archetypes, but the conceit itself gets old after about 15 seconds. Same goes for the very gay composer, and for his colleague, the librettist who’s torn between work and being a mom. (Can she really have it all? Dun dun.) If the show can add some nuance under those broad strokes, Smash could be pretty fabulous. Honestly, though, we’ll probably watch it anyway. God knows, we still watch Glee.
A Gifted Man
With a likewise heady pedigree (It’s directed by Jonathan Demme), comes A Gifted Man. You may also know this as “That show starring Patrick Wilson.” And yes, it does star the deeply handsome Mr. Wilson as a surgeon (believable) who reconnects with an old love (also believable), only to realize a couple of days later that she’s dead (wtf). I mean like, she was dead before he saw her. Yeah.
So, the concept is dumb. But. There’s something weirdly affecting about this show, and it’s mostly to do with the performances. Patrick Wilson does that miraculous thing here where he actually brings some real dignity and pathos to less-than-stellar material. (Barry Munday? Anyone?) He’s also perfectly cast, which helps. Dr. Michael Holt is a great surgeon, but he’s callow and superficial. When his dead ex turns up, his questioning feels panicky and real. And Jennifer Ehle, as the ex, doesn’t even need soft blue emulsions of light to be resplendent, in this show or anywhere else. All she has to do is smile and you get why Dr. Holt is freaking out on six different levels. And hey, if we can’t have these two on Broadway, turning on the TV once a week doesn’t seem like such a sacrifice.