The Perils of the Extensive Post-Pilot Preview
January 16th, 2012
It is no longer uncommon for networks to post pilots online in advance of their premieres, with FOX most recently using this strategy to help launch New Girl to some very strong initial ratings (which have since that point slid considerably, but remain fairly solid). It gives the shows increased visibility within an online space, turning savvy consumers (those who will find it on iTunes, or Hulu, or OnDemand) into an additional marketing segment who will put the word out just enough that those 100 million people tuning into the Super Bowl, and tens of millions who will watch The Voice for two hours before Smash premieres on February 6th, will hear whispers of the show before it’s plastered throughout those NBC broadcasts (and, as Mike Stein pointed out on Twitter, a single person who has seen and enjoyed the Pilot at a larger gathering could spread the word quite easily).
Like many others, I sat down with the Smash pilot via iTunes this afternoon – I had not seen the pilot when it was sent out to critics last Fall, so I was more or less seeing this in the fashion that NBC intended. The difference, though, is that I’ve read a lot about this show, and have seen enough trailers to understand its basic premise (and the basic beats of the pilot) more than the average viewer. As a result, while I would say that the Smash pilot is well-made, and there were parts of it I quite enjoyed (mostly surrounding the musical numbers at the heart of the story), I didn’t get that thrill of discovery that you ideally want to have with a television pilot.
NBC isn’t particularly concerned about this, either: while they’re playing coy with the musical numbers themselves, they included an extensive preview of the remainder of the season at the end of the pilot download, providing viewers with a surprisingly comprehensive overview of what is going to happen in the show’s first season (although it is unclear just how many episodes we see scenes from). It’s a move that’s not entirely common in this day and age, but it’s a move that I find eternally frustrating as someone who tries to avoid spoilers at all costs, particularly with reality shows like Project Runway or Top Chef where the basic structure is already so apparent.
The question becomes, though, why a show that does seem to have a strong serialized component (represented by the behind-the-scenes soap component of the series) would be so willing to reveal their cards before the show even begins. While I don’t know the actual answer to this question, I want to suggest (while offering some basic impressions of the drama, and some spoilery details for those who haven’t watched it or the preview that followed) that NBC is admitting up front that watching Smash isn’t going to be about surprise so much as spectacle, mirroring my own experience with the pilot and charting an intriguing if flawed course for the series moving forward.
Technically speaking, the pilot to Smash ends on a cliffhanger: both Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katherine McPhee) give their callback auditions, and we conclude without knowing which one of them has received the part. However, on some level it’s a show killing cliffhanger, in that one of the actresses being given the part would complicate them being positioned as two separate narrative threads. While McPhee’s character is obviously our central protagonist as the Midwest girl trying to make it in the big city, Hilty’s character is more sympathetic than early trailers seemed to suggest. While there is an effort to position Ivy as an antagonist, a ringer who gets in the way of Karen’s hopes to succeed, the fact that Ivy is the one who originated the role in the demo phase does give her a claim to the part, and that brief phone call back home to a disinterested mother does aim towards fleshing out the character.
At the same time, however, the show is equally predicated on the evolution of the musical itself, providing a structure with musical numbers, rehearsals, and everything else involved. If only one actress gets the role, they would either have to exit the narrative (which we know is unlikely), move into a different role within the musical (which was never actually brought up in the pilot), or start a new narrative entirely (which would seem to work against the structure being created, although the idea of the two actresses in dueling musicals would seem like a potential storyline for a future season, perhaps leading towards a Tony Awards showdown. But I digress).
In other words, while this cliffhanger creates a point of narrative interest, resolving it in our heads also creates a point of narrative conflict between the character arcs being drawn and the structure of the show moving forward. I wouldn’t say it’s impossible to imagine what the show might look like after that point, especially if you have any knowledge of how a musical goes from script to stage, but NBC operates here as though it is terrified of any potential confusion this might create. They want you to know exactly what kind of show Smash is after watching the pilot, and so you get to see that the battle between Ivy and Karen will continue on for several weeks, weaving back to the “Sleazy Director Seduces Young Starlet” trope with Ivy and creating apparently an infinite number of scenes in which the principal creative forces within the series weigh their pros and cons like reality show judges.
It’s a decision that I find confounding as someone who doesn’t like spoilers, but it also suggests that for NBC this is a show being sold on spectacle. The preview gives away one musical number, but it also promises countless more, and the sense is that plot is irrelevant when you have the promise of seeing Broadway come to life on your television screen. The purpose of the preview isn’t so much to whet your appetite as it is to satisfy your every curiosity, ensuring that there will be plenty of relationship drama, production challenges (often caused, it seems, by relationship drama), and the lights of Broadway shining brightly as the two actresses bring Marilyn Monroe to life as only a fictional musical could. Not comfortable allowing viewers to imagine what these storylines might look like, despite the fact that nearly every one of them could be easily predicted by anyone with any level of television literacy, NBC wants you to know that this is the show Smash is going to be.
My issues with NBC’s preview strategy aside, I do have a bone to pick with the show itself, something that muted the impact of the narrative if not the spectacle involved (as the musical numbers themselves were very well done). Specifically, it bugged me that the creative side of the musical happened almost entirely offscreen, and that the speed at which the musical developed suggested not a single creative struggle. I understand that the pilot is working overtime to rush the conceit into place, and the writers need to get to real, live “Marilyn the Musical” in order to preview the kind of musical numbers the show intends to deploy in the future. The problem is that it makes Tom and Julia out to be these musical geniuses who turn an idea brought up by a housesitting assistant (who is totally going to sue for a creator/producer credit later on) into a full fledged musical entirely off-screen, without a single creative hiccup.
It’s an idealistic portrayal of the creative process, or in some ways a non-portrayal of that process. We see the finished product of Derek’s musical number and a quick bit of rehearsal, but we learn nothing about his process, focusing instead on his genius as identifiable within his work. Even the business side of the scenario is largely elided in terms of any finances, with the only real conflict created by Eileen’s divorce proceedings as opposed to a poor economic climate or any number of normal ways a Broadway musical might become a complicated enterprise. I’m not suggesting these won’t become a factor in future episodes, but the preview suggested that the creative process will remain a largely stable entity that is impacted by the soap opera surrounding it, rather than an inherently complicated process in and of itself (without the need for external forces to act upon it). It’s a presumption that this will remain the case, as the preview may be misleading, but this feeling is so prevalent within the pilot that I worry it will spread into the series as well, a worry that the preview comes close to confirming.
There is a great deal of potential in this project, and the cast and the music will be enough to keep me watching even after having a number of storylines laid out for me as though I wasn’t capable of anticipating them on my own. At the same time, however, the detailed nature of the preview also perpetuates some of my early concerns, suggesting that the show’s desire for spectacle might lead them past the kind of storyline that would do more to humanize these characters than any “Leading Man has romantic past with Married Lead Writer” storyline ever could. In trying to provide as much information as possible, NBC has actually led me to discount the show’s ability to tell nuanced stories, so defining the show based on hype and anticipation that any more subtle narrative seems unlikely.
In other words, while I may not want to know too much, perhaps it’s possible that NBC shouldn’t want me to know too much either.
- Cory Barker has some thoughts on the state of NBC’s development slate at TV Surveillance that are worth checking out, while I have my own piece on NBC Thursday Night legacy up at Antenna. And, if you’ll believe, I might have more to say about NBC in the weeks ahead, so stay tuned.
- The preview suggests that Brian D’Arcy James’ character is going to go back to work, so I have to presume that he’s going to go back to work as a singer of some sort? Having him in a non-performing role is allowed, of course, but it feels like a bit of a waste.
- Curious to hear what others had to say about the pilot (you can read Kelli Marshall’s thoughts on seeing a live screening of the pilot last week), so feel free to chime in below.