‘Scorpion’ with singer Katharine McPhee may ease the sting of ‘Smash’
Since Katharine McPhee first sang her way onto the pop culture stage almost 10 years ago, music has been priority No. 1.
Though she just missed capturing the “American Idol” crown during the 2006 season, it hasn’t seemed to matter for McPhee. She’s far outdistanced that year’s winner, Taylor Hicks, as well as almost all other “Idols,” and has recorded several albums and performed all over the country, including Carnegie Hall.
Most notably, she was center stage for NBC’s highly promoted “Smash,” an ill-fated Broadway-based musical drama series initially embraced by fans and critics before winding up as a punch line during its second and final season.
This fall, McPhee is singing a different tune — which is no tune at all.
She’s part of the ensemble of “Scorpion,” CBS’ new drama that premieres Monday and is about a group of misfit geniuses recruited by U.S. Homeland Security to combat high-tech threats. Think of it as a heavier, more action-packed, less punch-line-driven version of “The Big Bang Theory.”
And McPhee’s new character couldn’t be further away from her one on “Smash,” where she performed intricate production numbers showcasing her chops and quiet beauty.
As Paige Dineen, a waitress and single mother of an introverted boy genius, she finds herself helping out the brainy Scorpion troupe, which is led by eccentric Walter O’Brien (Elyes Gabel). Though she’s a bit out of her melodic comfort zone, McPhee is singing the praises of “Scorpion,” calling it “a wonderful, thrilling adventure. “
“I’m really excited about the action stuff, which I had never gotten a chance to do before,” she said.
Still, the 30-year-old actress realizes some of her fans may be bewildered by her signing on to an action series.
“I do feel for the fans who know me as a singer,” she said. “That’s a part of me that’s never going to change. I had completed a record, then I got this pilot. My record got put on the back burner. It will take some figuring out as far as the music fits, some realigning. I’m letting the pieces fall where they may, letting the show settle a little bit.”
More important, she is hopeful that “Scorpion” will dim at least some of the recent spotlight on her personal life, which has brought her no shortage of embarrassment. Last October, TMZ posted pictures of the actress smooching “Smash” director Michael Morris. At the time both were married to other people.
The harsh light on her off-screen life was upsetting: “I’ve never spoken about my personal life, never specifically about relationships. It’s been a whole different thing to get used to.”
Without referring to specifics, McPhee became quieter when discussing the impact.
“I’ve had an interesting year a half,” she said with a small chuckle. “I made a lot of choices that are not reflective of who I am.” Getting cast in “Scorpion” “gave me the opportunity to focus on something good, and not on some poor choices I made in my life.”
“Scorpion” executive producer Nick Santora said he was ecstatic when he learned that McPhee might be available: “We looked at a lot of actresses, and a lot of young actresses don’t want to play young single moms. We knew Katharine was in demand. She just exudes accessibility. You feel you know this person.”
So far, starring in “Scorpion” is turning out to be a far less flashy experience for McPhee than “Smash,” a show she looks back on with mixed feelings. The ambitious NBC show focused on the drama surrounding the creation of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe. McPhee played Karen Cartwright, a small-town girl from Iowa who becomes a serious contender for the title role, putting her in fierce competition with seasoned Broadway trouper Ivy Linn (Megan Hilty).
The musical TV drama was “the perfect storm, of all the things that I love to do,” she said. But the warm glow that initially greeted the series gradually faded. The show’s creator, playwright Theresa Rebeck, was eventually let go and a vocal anti-"Smash” contingent sprung up on social media.
“I knew that people were ‘hate-watching’ us,” said McPhee about the second season. “That’s cool, it didn’t bother me. It’s not like I thought it was this flawless, perfect show. I have my own thoughts about it. But I just loved everyone there so much. It was flawed, but it all felt special. That kept me feeling faithful.”
Though singing is on the back burner for the moment, McPhee is still looking forward to returning to her first love at some point. And “Scorpion” producers haven’t ruled out her character singing a note or two down the line.
“Kat is a powerful talent,” Santora said. “And if we didn’t use that, it would be a waste.”
When: 9 p.m. Monday
Rating: TV-14-V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with an advisory for violence)
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.