Smash is an admirable risk for a network television series. Given that the size of the Broadway-show audience, if every ticket-holder tuned in, would probably fit into the bodice of The Voice’s Christina Aguilera, the notion of a weekly show chronicling the behind-the-scenes creation of a Great White Way musical about Marilyn Monroe is gutsy. And optimistic. And, let’s face it, Glee-fully, exhilaratingly over-reaching.
Smash, which will be plugged extensively during the Super Bowl and premiere on Monday, benefits mightily from the presence of Debra Messing as Julia, half of the songwriting team (along with Christian Borle’s Tom) that is the series’ key duo. Messing is funny and charming; her tempo here is dialed-back from her Will and Grace days. The other significant pair is American Idol’s Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty (who has wiggled on Broadway in 9 to 5: The Musical) as the actresses competing for the role of Marilyn. Hilty, a curvy, energetic bombshell, is so obviously superior to the blank-eyed, wan McPhee as both a performer and as an embodiment of Monroe that the show’s search for a star already, in its first episodes, feels strained. (As mediocre as McPhee is, she’s also very likable. For the life of me, I can’t understand why NBC has created all those ads that pop up on your screen during other NBC shows that display the heads of Anjelica Huston, Messing, and Jack Davenport, but leave out McPhee – doesn’t the network know that she’s the best-known face for their desired viewing demo?)
This is a series that wants to make viewers feel like insiders, and that’s a very attractive strategy for a TV show – it’s one reason why, say, The West Wing was a success: It made you feel privy to the workings of government. Smash wants to make you feel like a theater geek without having to feel geeky. Its difficult task, however, is to stuff the series with knowing references to actual Broadway stars, shows, and slang without baffling people who don’t read Playbill. From the pilot, you’d think the New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel is a make-or-break deity – but that’s presuming you’re even interested in knowing who Riedel is, something I’m not sure America is a-Googlin’ to find out. (And he’s worth being familiar with: He’s a terrific columnist who breaks stories with buzzsaw prose: He carves up producers, stars, and shows and serves them with relish.) But generally speaking – mass-audience-speaking – that’s a problem for Smash: Its awkward mix of the slightly arcane and the too-familiar.
As an example of the latter, the constant psychoanalyzing of Monroe by everyone from the songwriters to McPhee’s boyfriend (“Marilyn wasn’t about the sex, she was all about love”) is trite. I groaned when Messing’s Julia was made to say she was moved by “how much [Monroe] wanted to be loved. Reminds me of a saint.” A pro like Julia wouldn’t be saying that to a colleague – that’s the kind of thing that goes unspoken. It was the next line that cut to the nice, cold heart of the matter: “I don’t want anyone else to do her.” Yes! Ambition plus talent is what makes for exciting drama (with music and lyrics). And Smash has a big plot implausibility: the notion that Broadway pros like Julia and Tom would allow their new assistant (Jamie Cepero) to believe he came up with the Monroe musical idea: Hel-lo, lawsuit!
All that said, Smash is often enjoyable. Besides Messing, Anjelica Huston is terrific as a feisty producer going through a hostile divorce from a husband played by Michael Cristofer (himself a Pulitzer-winning playwright and co-star of the lamented, canceled Rubicon). And Smash has a lot of major talent behind the scenes… um, Steven Spielberg! The brisk pilot was directed by Michael Mayer, a Tony Award-winner for Spring Awakening. Some snappy original music is provided by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Broadway’s Hairspray. among others). That none of them are constructing a TV series that looks or feels like a TV series is what makes this a very interesting TV series. And it never, not once, stoops to the cutesiness, the pandering, or the designed pandemonium of Glee.
Break a leg, hell – I hope Smash breaks some ratings records. I don’t think it will, but I hope I’m wrong.