111.3 million people watched Super Bowl XLVI yesterday, a new U.S. record for the most-watched television program. Which means most of you saw how NBC shamelessly seized every opportunity to plug the season premiere of “The Voice.” So you probably saw the countless commercials for the debut of “Smash,” today on the newly prestigious “Super Monday” after. Whatever that means. “Hangover Day” may have been more appropriate. Believe it or not, a fraction of those people were not annoyed by “Smash” ads being smashed into their eyes during a precious sports event. This review is for them.
Forget “Glee.” FOX managed to repackage “American Idol” as a teen dramedy for a few seasons, and sap a franchise worth of movies, tours, holiday CDs, and more from it by stirring up controversy, counting down the top 40, and hosting celebrity burn-outs. (Ricky Martin, really?) But that dream is dying, especially once adults get a look at NBC’s “Smash,” where more-talented characters are passionate about a little more than sectionals. If the pilot is any indication, “Smash” is to “Glee” what NBC’s “The West Wing” is to “Saved by the Bell.” But enough about that show, lest I awaken Ryan Murphy.
“Smash” centers on the creation of a Broadway musical, from inception to production, and each aspect of this “terrible business” is represented, from writing to directing to starring.
First and foremost, “Smash” wants to be A Star is Born for the modern era. “Stars aren’t born, they’re made.” Says it right there on all those promotional posters. It achieves that goal, for what it’s worth, featuring one bright-eyed young singer in particular. One “made” mildly famous by somehow becoming only the runner-up on “American Idol” in 2006.
Katharine McPhee, who is apparently stunning visually and vocally, for the uninitiated. Wow. She’s also a surprisingly strong actor and dancer (which I somehow missed in Shark Night 3D), and capable of playing both vulnerable and sexy as new voice Karen Cartwright. She sells the backstage jitters and a rivalry with a blonde bombshell named Ivy Lynn (Broadway actress Megan Hilty), even though they share the same dream their parents don’t believe in.
Debra Messing and Christian Borle work well together as Julia and Tom, a veteran writing team that exchanges snappy banter a little like Messing’s “Will and Grace.” Julia is a stand-in for creator and Pulitzer-nominated playwright Theresa Rebeck, which explains why the series follows the drama to Julia’s home life with her frustrated husband and teen son.
In the midst of a brainstorming frenzy, Julia and Tom yearn for something new. It seems Broadway faces the same rehashes and remakes as Hollywood. But, despite the yearning, the session ironically begets the bright idea to do another saintly portrayal of the beautiful, broken Marilyn Monroe. The characters, and by extension Rebeck, acknowledge there’s a Monroe movie (Oscar-nominated now), a statue, even an iPad app, but they are dually lured by the promise of “a baseball number” that, admittedly, looks impressive in rehearsal.
Similarly, “Smash” is a familiar concept, but the cast is stellar. Messing is excellent, McPhee shines, and the song vocals are outstanding. The brilliant Jack Davenport plays Derek, a difficult Brit director who takes advantage of his dancers. Angelica Huston is the tough bitch producer in pitch-black pant suits who backs the production, despite a costly divorce looming. While newcomer Jaime Cepero plays Tom’s twink assistant. Plus the redemption of “Napoleonic Nazi” bloggers.
Songs and lyrics, like the baseball number, are written by series executive producers and composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, giving “Smash” the edge with original tunes. The Broadway setting also allows the freedom to introduce characters and complications without having to transfer a student into the school first. The issue is “Glee” is already a niche audience and “Smash” may only reach the same crowd, just narrowed and adult-only. (It was originally developed for Showtime.) Marilyn’s decades-old iconography is also limiting, even if she’s an easy source for breathy vocals and seductive scenes.
If you believe the pre-game hype, NBC has plenty riding on “Smash” becoming a… hit. Or a crash, or something. New York Magazine even broke down the possible scenarios — none of which bring “Community” back on the air. Essentially, this $7.5 million pilot could be a “referendum on” NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt, the scapegoat executive tasked with rescuing the Peacock Network from fourth place. It’s no coincidence that McPhee is belting Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” in the commercials, as a not-so-subtle cross-promotion with “The Voice,” where Aguilera judges and apes Paula Abdul these days. Billboards, bus ads, and Super Bowl spots culminate tonight in a gamble that could revive the network (and “Community,” somehow). Or it could be a massive musical disappointment, like “Glee.”