Smash

6:00 AM PST 01/31/2012 by Tim Goodman
Will Hart/NBC

Bob Greenblatt shows his roots by bringing a cable-worthy singing show to NBC's big tent.

There are multiple ways to look at the very conception of Smash, the Broadway-musical-theater drama from NBC. It was originally developed at Showtime when Bob Greenblatt, now the head of NBC, was running the pay-cable channel. So the narrow constraints of the premise make sense -- it could have been perfect on cable. It also was an idea that came from Steven Spielberg, and nobody in the television business has been able to say no to him for, well, ever. Which means it was likely to get made no matter what.

The adorable part is Greenblatt bringing it over to NBC, walking it into the big tent and promoting the hell out of it (the show will air the night after the Super Bowl, no doubt with ad support, following one of the rare NBC hits, The Voice). It's almost like Smash was a remembrance of things past for Greenblatt -- a gewgaw from the gilded world of cable, useless in the brutal world of mass entertainment.

Then there is this other way to look at it: Smash is excellent, a bar-raiser for broadcast networks. It may be pigeonholed as "Glee for grown-ups," but Smash could be the first series to take America's fascination with singing shows (one of its main stars is singer-turned-actress Katharine McPhee, the beloved 2006 American Idol runner-up) and mix it with a well-written drama to create something of more substance than Glee.

Of course, Smash wouldn't shy away from Glee's ratings or attention, but its focus is loftier -- a behind-the-scenes look at casting and launching a show on Broadway and the ego clashes, emotional toll and dramatic battles that ensue before the curtain finally goes up. Where Glee is a tonal collision of styles that was admirably ambitious in its first season, the Fox show is a creative mess at this point, content to be pop culture candy haphazardly tossed together in the hopes of being passably funny, superficially dramatic or treacly.

Smash, on the other hand, looks and feels like a well-written, tightly focused adult drama -- NBC didn't tamper with its intellectual DNA. That doesn't mean it's going to be a hit, or even acclaimed going forward. But it's a hell of a start.

Smash focuses on Broadway writing partners Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), who have had enough success to take a break while Julia and her husband, Frank (Brian d'Arcy James), adopt a child. But the hectic life of Broadway beckons when Tom writes a song he wants Julia to hear -- for a potential musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, an idea both had dismissed as impossible or dumb -- and slowly the duo are lured into making it happen. Anjelica Huston plays producer Eileen Rand, who desperately wants the production to go forward even though she's in a bitter divorce with a husband bent on freezing her assets.

Rand hires the brilliant but egotistical and difficult director-choreographer Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), who creates drama wherever he steps. And soon there's a battle for the lead of the Marilyn musical between Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), the seasoned chorus performer obsessed with being the star, and recent New York arrival (via Iowa) Karen Cartwright (McPhee), who has the talent but perhaps not the conniving viciousness to make it to the top.

A well-worn theme, yes, but in the hands of the Smash creators, the drama has real vitality and the musical numbers are exceptional. That's because the talent in front of and behind the camera on Smash is gold. Borle, Hilty, James and Davenport have theater experience. All the songs are written by Tony and Grammy Award winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. The pilot was written by playwright and screenwriter Theresa Rebeck and directed by Tony Award winner Michael Mayer. The list goes on.

So the pedigree is there (and if you're dubious about McPhee's ability to play on this team, she's wonderful). The question then is, will anyone watch? They should. But musical theater isn't exactly mainstream fare in America, no matter how well it's wrapped in drama. On the plus side, it will have The Voice as a lead-in on Mondays and, theoretically, the audience would be interested in similar content.

Or it could be that Smash is just another niche show, something NBC has all too many of scattered about the schedule. And yet, quantitative performance is not your worry -- leave that to Greenblatt. Smash is a surprisingly high-quality drama and entertainment well worth your time and support, and that's the only thing a viewer needs to be concerned about.

Airdate 10 p.m. Feb. 6 (NBC)
Cast Debra Messing, Jack Davenport, Anjelica Huston, Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty

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