December 14, 2012 11:33am PT by Tim Goodman
Is 'Smash' a Musical? Behind the Golden Globes Shocker
A lot of people -- OK, let’s just say most people -- were shocked to find that NBC’s Smash is nominated for a Golden Globe. Nobody expected that. If they did, they’d be lying or delusional. Smash is a drama about trying to stage a musical (about Marilyn Monroe in season one) on Broadway.
But is Smash really a musical? Because it’s certainly not a comedy. There are two shows on television that play at being “musicals”: Glee is a hodgepodge of emotions but most clearly a comedy about a nerdy glee club trying to sing their way to being accepted and popular at school; the other is the aforementioned Smash, which is, to state it again, a drama about staging a musical.
On Thursday, Smash inexplicably was nominated for a Golden Globe. But not in the “best series, drama” category. No, it was nominated in the “best series, comedy or musical” category. The knee-jerk reaction was: “What the hell? Smash is not a comedy.” The reason for that shock is -- pay attention here -- that from 1977 to 2008, a span of 31 years, no series that even pretended to be a musical was nominated in that category.
In 1981, Barbara Mandrell and the Mandrell Sisters was nominated for a Golden Globe, but that was quite clearly a variety show. Nope, from 1977 to 2008, everything in the category, save the Mandrell family hootenanny, was a comedy. People in situations that were, in some way, comedic. If there was a song in any of those shows, it was for a laugh. In 2009, Glee was nominated -- and won. Glee, despite being funny pretty much only when Sue Sylvester (Jane Lynch) says something, clearly is a comedy. The nerdy glee club sings lots of pop songs. Part of the storyline is that they compete against other glee clubs. If you want to consider the show a “musical,” go ahead. In any case, Glee won again in the category in 2010. It was nominated, but did not win, in 2011.
This year, it was snubbed. Sarcastic gasp. That’s because the Hollywood Foreign Press Association went with Smash, against all logic and expectation. Real gasp.
Smash is not a comedy. Not even close. We can agree on that, right? If you demand that Glee be deemed a musical, there's no reason to waste our lives arguing because it's also clearly a comedy and landed in the "comedy or musical" category.
I took some backlash about my Golden Globes column Thursday for being outraged that Smash would end up in this category. Look, the Golden Globes historically have done a lot of stupid and nonsensical things, but this seemed like a real goof. And yet, some people thought I didn’t know the category name. Duh, they said, it’s not a comedy, it’s a musical. Look at the definition of the category! Well, yes, I was looking at it. Smash as a “musical” is, I believe, seriously debatable. Does that mean that Nashville is a musical? Most of Smash focuses on the drama of launching a stage musical. There's a lot more talking than signing. There are dramatic arcs everywhere, not all of them solved somehow or addressed in a song.
Smash struck people as an odd fit precisely because we’ve been conditioned, for decades, to view this category as home to comedies. (And, as an aside, putting what for all intents and purposes seems to be a drama into this category, knocked out true and deserving comedies such as Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and about a dozen others). Thus the outrage -- beyond the fact that Smash just isn’t very good and shouldn’t be considered for any award, regardless of category.
Now, instead of debating that element until we’re red in the face, let’s go further back in Golden Globe history. In 1976, Donny & Marie was nominated in this category. Would you call that a musical? Or a variety show? Back further, to both 1972 and ’73, you’ll find The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour nominated each time. Was that a musical? Hell, the title says comedy. In 1971, The Flip Wilson Show and The Carol Burnett Show both were nominated in the “best television series, comedy or musical” category. Would you call those two musicals? Or were they really variety shows, which almost always have music? The latter, of course.
OK, now let’s go back to 1969 (when “musicals” were grouped with comedies) and 1970 as well. Both years had Carol Burnett nominated again, and both years had The Glen Campbell Goodtime Hour nominated. Was the latter a musical?
It was not.
So, let’s revise the math. From 1969 to 2008 -- a robust 39 years -- there wasn’t a legit “musical” nominated in the category. Then, from 2009 to 2011, Glee was nominated three times. For the sake of not arguing, let’s just say that Glee qualifies as a “musical comedy.” Let’s also say that you truly and utterly believe Smash to be a musical. Surely you would agree, based on the structure of the show -- and even how the structure compares to Glee -- that Smash is a "musical drama." Right?
Well, let's break out the bubbly because it would be the first “musical drama” in at least 43 years to get a Golden Globes nomination. Can you see how people might have a hard time wrapping their head around that?
Listen, Smash was a very compelling pilot with lots of potential. After that? Not good. The show was sappy; it was poorly written and melodramatic. Worse, what was supposed to be an easily definable character clash elicited murky emotions from fans. Broadway star Megan Hilty played Ivy, a chorus singer and dancer incredibly desperate to be a star (partly because of her mother’s success on Broadway; her mother was played by Bernadette Peters). Ivy wants the part so badly she sleeps with the egotistical director. Ivy is mean, cutthroat, unlikable (you know, like poison ivy).
Her rival for the role of Marilyn is Karen (Katharine McPhee, a popular finalist on American Idol, who turned out to be a pretty good actress). Karen is from Iowa. She’s a hick in the big city. She’s nice and sweet – probably too much of both. She didn’t sleep with the director. She clearly was meant to be the white hat in this situation, the viewer favorite. But the audience was split. Never mind the details, but Ivy and Karen battling for that part was the crux of the drama.
Yes, drama. OK, fine -- "musical drama." You know, the first one in the category in at least 43 years.