TV Land: Broadway or bust

jessica

You’ll have to excuse my writing partner, Sir Lester Butterfill XXIX, for the time being. He’s been called away on business of a most secure and delicate nature. The only facts I could glean regarding it were the words “apocalypse” and “Bono’s sunglasses are missing.” It sounds pretty serious.

But Lester’s opinion isn’t necessary here. His specialties are fairly narrow anyhow — ranging from the history of postcards to toothpick sculpture. He knows nothing of what I speak of here. And I speak of musicals! On television!
Okay, that second exclamation may have lessened the first, but gosh golly gee, it doesn’t diminish my enthusiasm, and that’s what musicals are all about. The flash! The panache! The ’stache? And, the smash. The hit smash. It’s what every showbiz guru craves — from the fictional producer Leo Bloom (not the flatulent “Ulysses” character) to “Glee” star Lea Michele — and what NBC hopes to have achieved with their new show, the not-at-all-desperate-sounding “Smash,” set to premiere in a fortnight’s time.

Within the first five minutes of this new, musical drama, Debra Messing proffers a poignant question: “Why doesn’t anyone do new musicals anymore?” Great question. I especially like the question mark at the end that almost makes it sound sincere. Substitute “television shows” for “musicals,” and you can guess at what she’s really asking. Why doesn’t anyone do something new with TV? Why not put a musical on TV? By jove, what a fantastic and novel idea!
But, it’s not. Even Lester knows this and the only television show he’s seen is “Dora the Explorer” — for the animals, not for pedophilic reasons. The flair and glamor of musicals are nothing new to the world of television. No more new than stodgy courtroom scenes or strained sexual tension.

In the 1980s, when sex god Mikhail Gorbachev was still in his prime, there was “Cop Rock.” No, I didn’t mistype and it’s not a crazed dream I once had. It was actually called “Cop Rock.” And, conveniently, the premise was built into the title. These were police officers who knew how to cut a rug and let loose a tune. Also, in one episode, there were hobos dancing.

Naturally, the show was canceled fairly soon after it began. But, the concept of musical-turned-TV-show has been reborn in our age with those plucky kids from “Glee.” God bless them, because I certainly won’t. Shows like “Glee,” “Cop Rock,” and the completely original “Smash” reflect a strange melding of two vastly different (and for good reason) mediums of performance that rarely works.

Live musical theater can’t be beat. The atmosphere is enchanting, the numbers are infectious and the smell from your neighbor’s smuggled-in burrito is simultaneously nauseating and appetizing (see also: the effect of eating a burrito).
A TV show couldn’t recreate that magical experience if it tried. And believe me, I have tried, being a fan of both burritos and smuggling. It just doesn’t work. The image of people singing and dancing is, frankly, too absurd for television.

In live theater, disbelief can be suspended because one, you’ve paid an exorbitant amount of money for it to be, and two, you’re engaged in the same physical space as the events on stage. There’s no disconnect.
But, on TV, there are miles of distance between you and the TV screen and ample opportunity to find characters breaking out into song completely ridiculous. That’s why “Cop Rock,” despite its angelic hobo hits, was cancelled. And now “Glee” faces the same dilemma.

When “Glee” began, it was refreshing. Not as refreshing as Mountain Dew (nothing can top that lemony-lime goodness), but pretty darn close. It seemed that for once, the pizazz of the musical and the long-story format of television had reached a pleasant harmony. The characters and the stories were just camp enough to match the oddity of the musical format and they suckered us in with Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’.”

Unfortunately, I had to stop believing in “Glee” because it believed in itself a little too seriously. Everything on that show is life or death or Barbra Streisand songs (which I consider a form of death).