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‘The River’ and ‘Smash’ Aren’t as Good as the Shows They Imitate

In the past decade or so, there were two outta-nowhere hit shows on network television, two programs whose success was so head-scratching that execs have wondered ever since how the hell they pulled that off, and how they can do it again. Those shows are Lost and Glee — neither should have worked, but for totally different reasons. Finding a replacement has proven… tough.

Lost was astonishing, an impossibly high concept show that seemed, for better and for worse, to be making everything up as it went along. It was a tripped-out opium blend of comic book plotting, sci-fi, noir, ’70s jumpsuits, and parallel timelines. When it missed, like it did for most of season two, it seemed, well, lost. When it hit, it blew our minds with what looked like a flick of the wrist. (I would still rank the season three finale — a.k.a. the WE HAVE TO GO BACK episode — as one of the most fist-pumpingly exhilarating moments in television history.)

Glee Nation” — I don’t say “gleek” and neither do you — feels like a confluence of pop history, the moment when American Idol, gay culture, the high school sitcom, and the fact that there were a hell of a lot of twentysomethings who were in college capella groups at one time, hit the American public like a slushie to the face. There’s no way in hell it should have been as a popular as it is.

So networks do what networks do, which is to try to bottle lightning by flying a kite. After catching an updraft or two, The River (a Lost knock-off) and Smash (Glee , plus serious drama) seem like they are both heading for the trees. The River sounds fine on paper. Dr. Emmet Cole (Bruce Greenwood, whom we are always happy to see) and his family were televised explorers. His son Lincoln (Joe Anderson, struggling with an American accent) and wife Tess (Leslie Hope, who will always be the late Teri Bauer to me) were crucial to the popular nature program. I never thought I would type “reminiscent of The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou,” but here we are.

Cole never came back from a solo trip into the Amazon. Six months later, his family gets a posse together to find him, only to discover a cache of videotapes documenting part of his (final?) journey. The
show is a mix of found footage, faux-reality show guff, fantasy and a whole mess of one-note supporting players. But it’s no Lost. Part of what made the latter work was the manner in
which they got off the island in every episode, a brilliant combination of mythology and anthology. The River needs to find a way to get off the boat. The stash of tapes sort of gets us there, but we’re
still in the Amazon — unless Cole found a lost city. (I am praying for a lost city.) We also need to find Cole, alive, and quickly. Greenwood can do Powerful Dad (he was underrated as Capt. Pike in Star Trek) and Flaky Dad — raise your hand if you like John From Cincinatti! Okay, raise your hand if you saw John From — never mind. Anyway, he can’t just exist in flashbacks.

Smash managed to undo what is most attractive about Glee, which is that it’s batshit insane all the time. Maybe people watch it for the music, but they watch it as much for the mid-fi soap opera zaniness. Smash thinks it’s Fame for the Glee generation, but it’s really Fame for the West Wing generation — it doesn’t share the latter’s policy concerns or Sorkinisms, but it does take itself as seriously, which Glee almost never does. There are grace notes here and there: Debra Messing is weirdly perfect as Julia Houston, the married-mom songwriter. And Katherine McPhee is actually perfectly acceptable as Karen, the innocent Midwestern chorus girl with the big voice for whom playing Marilyn Monroe is the proverbial Big Break. But the musical numbers feel forced and cold, which is not a good quality in a musical. I don’t mean this to be quite as mean as it sounds, but I keep expecting Smash to be on CBS, and when you are shooting for the energy of Glee, that sort of stiffness makes it the worst kind of showstopper.