Smash: TV Review

Smash, NBC

Premieres: Monday, Feb. 6, 10 p.m.

Former American Idol contestant Katharine McPhee leads an ensemble cast, including Debra Messing, Megan Hilty, Jack Davenport and Anjelica Huston, in the story of making a Broadway play about Marilyn Monroe. The show, which counts Steven Spielberg among its executive producers, will feature both original songs and popular covers, and has already landed cameos with Nick Jonas, Bernadette Peters and Uma Thurman.

Call it "Glee" for grown-ups if you must. But this behind-the-scenes look at casting and launching a broadway musical has more gravitas, excellent acting and an insider's knowledge of the competitive drive to stardom. A cable-quality drama that will be looking for viewers.

There are multiple ways to look at the very conception of Smash, the Broadway musical theater drama for NBC. It was originally developed at Showtime when Robert Greenblatt, now heading NBC, was running the pay cable channel. So the narrow constraints of the premise make sense – it could have been perfect on cable. It was also 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.

And the adorable part is Greenblatt bringing it over to NBC, walking it into the big tent and promoting the hell out of it (airing 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.

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And 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 American Idol runner-up in 2006) 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 clash of styles that was admirably ambitious in its first season, it’s 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 more likely to be found on cable (NBC didn’t tamper with its intellectual DNA) than anywhere else. That doesn’t mean it’s going to be a hit, nor even acclaimed going forward. But it’s a hell of a start.

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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, a drama with real vitality and the musical numbers are exceptional. That’s because the talent in front of and behind the camera on Smashis 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? For starters, 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 Tuesdays and, theoretically, the audience would be interested in similar content.

But it’s also possible that Smash is a niche show, something NBC has all-too-many of scattered on the schedule. And yet, quantitative performance is not your worry – leave that to Greenblatt. Smashis a surprisingly high-quality drama and entertainment well worth your investment of time and support, and that’s the only thing a viewer needs to be concerned about.

Airdate: Feb. 6, 10/9c (NBC)
Creator/Executive Producer: Theresa Rebeck
Executive Producers: Steven Spielberg, David Marshall Grant, Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Darryl Frank, Justin Falvey
Director: Michael Mayer

Cast: Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Katharine McPhee, Jack Davenport, Megan Hilty

Twitter: @BastardMachine