Recently, the series finale of the short-lived NBC musical drama Smash aired, sending the series into television history with a glamorous and glitzy Tony-inspired celebration. While the series has had a turbulent history with critics and fans alike, at its core were two confident, competitive, and talented female characters.
Over the course of the series, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) went from a chorus girl paying her dues to the Tony Award winning star of Bombshell. Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) transformed from a musical theater wannabe to Tony nominee and the star of her own Broadway musical, Hit List. These two characters spend much of the series competing for the leading role in Bombshell, an in-the-works musical based on Marilyn Monroe’s life.
The fantastic pilot episode of the show, which premiered in the coveted post-Super Bowl spot in 2012 after a huge amount of hype from the network, ended in this original number, which both characters sang for their callback audition for Marilyn. Although Smash owes its existence to Glee*, this song introduces the show as something completely different, focusing on stories and on originals rather than on monetary value.
The show never quite lived up to the pilot, descending into a mess of peanut smoothie sabotage, catfights, misplaced focus on family and relationship drama instead of on the making of a Broadway show, a horrendous Bollywood number (should I ask how much money was spent on a dream sequence here?), and other unfortunate missteps.
However, Smash kept its leading ladies undeterred from their Broadway dreams despite their jealousies and off and on rivalries. Karen begins the series in a serious relationship with Dev (Raza Jaffrey), which ends disastrously in a love triangle with Ivy, who sleeps with him. This incident heightens the rivalry between the characters, but it does not descend into a stereotypical, stay-away-from-my-man fight. Karen wisely breaks up with Dev and turns her whole focus to Bombshell and her career.
For the entire series, these two talented women focus their energy on the show, and despite their tumultuous relationship personally they never question or demean the other’s talents or abilities.
The two are not perfect and they do not have a wonderful friendly relationship with each other all the time; they are portrayed with flaws, but with confidence. By the end of the series, Karen and Ivy seem to have struck a very professional balance. Performing together on Bombshell’s opening night, and again later at the Tony Awards, we get the sense that the bitterness between them is all but gone.
The Smash universe has not limited itself to just two powerful and professional women, with Debra Messing as Julia Houston, Bombshell’s lyricist and co-creator, Anjelica Huston as Bombshell’s ballsy, drink-throwing producer Eileen Rand, Bernadette Peters as a Broadway-veteran and Ivy’s mother, and Krysta Rodriguez as Ana Vargas, Karen’s closest friend and fellow Hit List cast member.
The cancellation of the female-driven Smash means that we will be missing the incredible talents of Hilty and McPhee as well the other aforementioned ladies from our television screens each week. This show allowed women to be competitive and ambitious without inspiring negative judgment from other characters and showcased numerous women of musical theater. The finale of Smash has definitely left us wanting more, but Hilty and McPhee gave us the big finish we hoped for.
*This is not at all to say that I’m not a fan of Glee. I have never missed an episode. However, there is much criticism to be had about the way Glee presents its characters as stereotypes, especially their female and minority characters and the borderline offensive plotlines those characters get.
Written by Shelby Rosten