A show about Broadway, with original music, starring Debra Messing in a charmingly co-dependent relationship with a fabulous gay man, and Anjelica Huston as a merry divorcée? It sounds like a no-brainer hit aimed squarely at the crowd that used to love smart comedies like "Frasier" and "Will & Grace." But now that the pilot for NBC's much-hyped "Smash" has finally aired, I'm still not sure it can live up to its title.
For one thing, it's not a comedy. Not that there's anything wrong with that, as the expression goes, but I did expect to chuckle, or at least crack a smile. Maybe I've been misled by the aphorisms coined by Noel Coward and Oscar Wilde, but I've always thought that people who write hit musicals -- not that I've met many of them, admittedly -- tend to be witty sometimes. But "Smash" is perilously low on humour. Not a single moment of wit, no instances of repartee, nary a double entendre, not even a lowly pun appeared over the hour.
Perhaps the show is taking a quote from its muse, Marilyn Monroe, a mite too seriously. "Don't make a joke out of me," Marilyn may have asked, but she was a fine comedienne and clearly loved to laugh. A script that had its character delighting in the possibilities of a baseball number could do with a few laughs for us, the actual audience, instead of limiting them to the fictional audience of the future musical.
That said, there is something here. The casting mix of seasoned Broadway, film and television stars means the performances are all strong, but the script -- which really was surpassingly stale considering the subject matter -- isn't giving them much to work with. The strongest element of the show is the tension between the two potential Marilyns, Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty. The pilot belonged to McPhee, who got to open the show with a rendition of 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow,' the song she pwned on "American Idol," She also rendered Christina Aguilera's 'Beautiful' well, beautifully. McPhee's character got more backstory, more screen time and was obviously meant to be the fan favourite at the end of the night, but don't count Megan Hilty's Ivy out yet. One thing the script handles well is getting you to change your mind about which actress would be best in the role several times -- a precarious postion it can hold onto for only so long, one imagines. Unless we're heading into an "All About Eve" situation, which of course, Marilyn did have a small part in.
In an earlier note on this show, I called it "Glee" for grown ups, but I freely take that back. "Smash" uses music with much more sophistication than "Glee," and the music is "sophisticated." By which of course, I mean not terribly catchy, and occasionally tuneless. Broadway fans, don't even front. Just admit that in any big musical (besides 'Les Miserables' ) there are bum numbers, ones you'd have to listen to the cast recording of eleven billion times before you'd know the melody. My question is, can that possibly work on TV? If it's not a pop song, tried, tested and moments away from being overplayed, do we even want to hear it? I hate most of the music I hear on "Glee," "Idol" and "The Voice" but at least I've heard it before, which somehow rivets me to the screen, to hear just how awful a Michael Jackson, Marvin Gaye or The Beatles tune can be made to sound. If I don't know the song, how am I supposed to know if it's being butchered? This is what all these singing competitions have done to me.
I will give "Smash" more time to win me over -- I appreciate that it's smart and upbeat, something NBC used to be really, really good at. If they manage to add funny and tuneful to the list, it might just be a smash.