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Smash Review: Will NBC's Terrific Backstage Musical Make It Big?

Posted: 02/ 1/2012 12:32 pm

If "Smash" (Monday at 10 p.m. EST on NBC) doesn't live up to its title, or at least deserve to be renamed "Moderate Hit," it'll be a sad day for television.

But don't watch this show because an ailing NBC desperately needs a win. Don't watch it because the network swung for the fences with this exciting, well-crafted chronicle of backstage life with Broadway types. Don't watch it because if it failed, that would plunge me into a black depression in which I would wander the house with dirty hair, muttering expletives and grumbling about how people just don't know quality when they see it.

Just watch "Smash" because it's terrific.

Created by playwright and TV writer Theresa Rebeck and with some notable Broadway names writing tunes for it, "Smash" is an astute exploration of big-city aspirations and showbiz dreams from people who very clearly know their chosen topics intimately. If the rich, well-constructed universe these writers have come up with isn't enough of a draw, "Smash" also has music, dancing, lots of entertaining backstage bitchery and a very talented "American Idol" runner-up. It also features Kardashians, wacky shenanigans at a pawn shop, Brad Pitt and cats playing the piano.

All right, the previous sentence is a complete lie; but I really want the American public to at least give this show a chance, and isn't it in the grand tradition of Broadway musicals to lay it on a little thick? In all seriousness, though, having churned out so much questionable crap in its decade in the wilderness, a desperate NBC has doubled down on quality with "Smash," and if the network is rewarded with a big flop ... Well, do you want to live in a world full of "Harry's Law" and "Whitney" clones? My fellow Americans, do your part to prevent that potential future hellscape.

But I shouldn't get ahead of myself -- maybe NBC's gamble will pay off. Maybe people are dying to see "Idol's" Katharine McPhee as a naive Broadway hopeful, angling for a part in a Marilyn Monroe musical; the tremendously versatile Debra Messing as half of a witty musical-writing team; Anjelica Huston as a deliciously imperious producer; and Jack Davenport as a sexy, manipulative director. Those are the "Smash" standouts (especially Davenport, who has finally found the perfect American TV role for him), but there are a lot of things to like about this show. "Smash" elegantly and energetically draws you into the orbit of a dozen dreamers and schemers at various stages in their Great White Way careers, and, like a true pro, the show makes it all look easy.

Don't take my word for it -- NBC has made the first episode of "Smash" available online. But if you've seen it and enjoyed it, you may still be wondering if the show stays good beyond the pilot. It does. The next three episodes are generally quite solid, and the second episode, which juicily chronicles the callbacks for the lead role in "Marilyn: The Musical," is almost as impressive as the first.

Truth be told, I got a lump in my throat at the end of that second episode -- an achievement for any show so early in its run. And if the next two episodes of "Smash" are merely good instead of terrific, that's no knock on the New York-set show, which has a generally strong sense of pace, place and character. (I could quibble about its rather weak handling of pop hits, as opposed to the sure hand it displays with the original songs written just for "Smash," but that is a mere quibble, not an outright complaint.)

Given how much "Smash" has going for it, why am I trying to beat back my fears about this Broadway soap opera, which astutely combines song and dance with character journeys that, for the most part, have drive, coherence and emotional resonance? Because I'm afraid that being the anti-"Glee" might not be enough for "Smash."

Let's face it, "Glee" has doled out messy portions of snark and spectacle for some time now; it doesn't take much in the way of intelligence or effort to churn out acerbic one-liners and a seemingly endless array of generic, auto-tuned pop hits. Though "Smash" is clearly entertainment aimed directly at the mainstream, its scope and themes are more ambitious. Given its loyalty to concepts like sentiment, craft and hard work, the whole enterprise is a little bit square ... endearingly square, in my opinion, but the darkest part of my soul wonders: Will those qualities and ambitions doom the show? Is "Smash" simply too smart to make it on a broadcast network?

Don't get me wrong -- I don't think "Smash" is off-putting or difficult to digest. Far from it -- what could be more mainstream than people with shiny hair bopping around to songs about Joe DiMaggio and baseball, for heaven's sake? But I wonder: Do viewers want the superficial, scattershot approach of "Glee," or are they willing to keep track of the shifting and intersecting ambitions of the hoofers, writers, actors and producers of "Smash"? I think "Smash's" best stories -- which involve a producer clawing her way back to the limelight after a breakup; a director whose manipulations are both selfish and perceptive; and a Broadway veteran and newcomer from Iowa squaring off in a drafty rehearsal hall -- are well worth paying attention to. But there aren't a ton of shameless attempts to play to the cheap seats, Sue Sylvester-style, so we'll see.

Not all my doubts about "Smash's" chances stem from the show's ambitions; some arise from the show-within-a-show. Even characters on "Smash" debate whether a musical about Marilyn Monroe will be of interest to anyone under the age of 40. Add that to the fact that many of the show's musical numbers have a retro flavor, and you wonder if this is going to be the oldest-skewing show on NBC.

And though the show is generally well cast, Megan Hilty, who plays the actress in competition with McPhee for the lead role in "Marilyn," seems a little too generically perky and vocally efficient to give off much of that smoldering Monroe heat. A lot rides on the shoulders of McPhee and Hilty -- they have to carry not just "Marilyn," but "Smash" -- and the show's success may ride on the degree to which the drama can deepen and complicate their characters.

In the end, all my fears about "Smash" may be unjustified. Maybe the public will go wild for "Smash." Maybe this nicely calibrated tale of ego, ambition and 11 o'clock numbers will capture the public's imagination. Maybe there's room for more than one smart, ambitious, yet popular character-driven drama on the broadcast networks (move over, "The Good Wife"!). Maybe the kid from Iowa will take the stage an ingenue and come back a star.

A girl can dream, right?

"Smash" airs on Mondays at 10 p.m. EST on NBC. Check out my colleague Maggie Furlong's interviews with the "Smash" cast. And Ryan McGee and I will discuss "Smash" in this week's Talking TV with Ryan and Ryan podcast, which will go live Thursday or Friday here.

 

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