TV Review: NBC’s ‘Smash’ is Best New Network Show of the Season

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CHICAGO – After months of hype and expectations that increased with every creative and ratings failure that NBC trotted out this season, the premiere of “Smash” is finally here. Is this the show that saves NBC? Is it the next “Glee” or the next “Cop Rock”? I’m not sure enough people will tune in to turn this into a hit but it absolutely deserves to live up to its title and it will have a loyal fan base that should keep it alive at least for awhile. It’s fantastic television with just the right mix of details about the process of making theatre magic and character-driven drama. And a few spectacular tunes don’t hurt either. Television Rating: 4.5/5.0
Television Rating: 4.5/5.0

The premiere of “Smash” opens with Katherine McPhee singing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” which is more than just a clever nod back to “American Idol” (where she sang the song to much acclaim) or a loose association with the smash hit “Wicked” (Broadway’s most notable and widespread success of the last decade) but also an instant impression maker for the character. Here is our Dorothy in the perfectly-named Karen Cartwright, the girl come from the heartland trying to find the Oz of Broadway. When her audition is interrupted by a casting agent answering her cell phone and then dismissing the poor girl, it’s clear that her trip down the Yellow Brick Road won’t be without a few speed bumps.

Photo credit: NBC

But this is not just the story of a dreamer, a girl trying to get her parents to believe that her visions of Broadway fame are more realistic than others. Karen is merely one character in a fascinating ensemble that may come from expected character archetypes (the sleazy director, the emotionally-troubled writers, the financially-strapped producer, etc.) but that breaks out of those predictable roles through the talents of the cast and the stellar writing in all four episodes I’ve seen.

Photo credit: NBC

The “Betty” to McPhee’s “Veronica” is Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), a more accomplished and experienced actress who rivals Ms. Cartwright for a role in the most anticipated play in pre-production — a musical about Marilyn Monroe (serious theatre nuts will know that they tried this once with miserable results…something that’s referenced on the show). The first two episodes are largely about whether or not Ivy or Karen will get the game-changing role (and I won’t spoil that for you at all), but neither character will disappear in episode three. Don’t worry about that. In many ways, these two are like Norma Jean and Marilyn. McPhee’s Karen is the sweet girl from the heartland without much experience. Ivy Lynn isn’t exactly as troubled as later Marilyn but she’s willing to use her sexuality and larger-than-life personality to get what she wants.

Karen and Emily may be front and center but most of the key players in “Smash” are behind the backstage curtain. Writers Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) and Julia Houston (Debra Messing) have a writing partnership that is also clearly a loving friendship. Tom has a connection with Ivy that may make him blind to her problems down the road while Julia has a number of domestic issues, including an in-process adoption with husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James) and a secret affair with someone who later joins the cast of the Marilyn musical. Tom also has an assistant (Jaime Cepero) who casually tosses off the idea of the Marilyn musical but may not-so-casually want credit for that down the road. His antagonistic relationship with Julia won’t help.

Photo credit: NBC

We’re not done. There’s the slimy-but-talented director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), Karen’s supportive boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey), and more characters who come and go. This is a spectacular ensemble, the best on network TV with perhaps the rare exceptions of “The Good Wife” and “Parenthood.” Almost everyone works here. In particular, McPhee, Borle, and Huston steal nearly every scene they’re in. Huston has a one-line scene late in episode four that is an exercise in acting all by itself as she says goodbye to a part of her life. Borle is natural and likable in every scene he’s in (and so is Jaffrey for that matter). But the show really belongs to Katharine McPhee, who is simply great here. She is genuine, believable, and she totally demolishes every song she’s given to sing.

Let’s talk about those songs. There’s a healthy mix of familiar songs and new ones written by multiple award-winner Marc Shaiman (“Hairspray,” “South Park: Bigger, Longer, & Uncut”). And what’s most remarkable about the music in “Smash” is how seamlessly the two are blended. The show is not overly musical (nowhere near as much as “Glee”) and most of the music is in context (an audition, a performance, a rehearsal) but there is the occasional straight-up musical number, such as the one that perfectly ends episode one. Songs you know like “Beautiful” (which McPhee nails), “Grenade,” and even “Redneck Woman” are given life next to songs that are supposedly being written for the Marilyn musical. And most of Shaiman’s compositions are fantastic, the kind that you would love to actually see on Broadway or in a feature film musical.

Photo credit: NBC

Any complaints? There are minor ones related to production decisions and a few minor characters that aren’t as well written. An example of a production decision — when McPhee is belting out “Beautiful” in an audition accompanied by just a piano, it’s silly to go into a fantasy where she gets a full band back-up. Why not let her KILL it with just the piano as she would do in that room in the real world? It’s these little choices. And, to be fair, Hilty takes some adjusting to on an acting level. She’s notably less wooden by episode four, but she’s a better singer than an actress.

A lot of people will compare “Smash” to “Glee” simply because they both have soap opera elements and feature music. But they’re going for very different things. “Smash” is deeper on every level. The stakes are higher, the music is better, the characters are stronger. “Smash” is to “Glee” as Broadway is to community theatre. You can enjoy the latter and have a blast seeing it, but it’s not the same as a production like this one that really hums on every professional level.

“Smash” is good enough to make all flaws and all melodrama easy to overlook. How easy? The fourth episode features one singer (Nick Jonas) of which I’m not a fan at all singing a song by another singer (Michael Buble) that I like only a slight bit more and yet I still love this show. I love that scene. I love the arc of that episode. Great musicals push you through the cheese, beyond the melodrama, and into a state where people break into song and dreams can come true. Miracles can happen on stage. And apparently they can still happen on network TV too.

“Smash” stars Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Jack Davenport, Megan Hilty, Razy Jaffrey, Jaime Cepero, Brian d’Arcy James, and Anjelica Huston. It was created by Theresa Rebeck and premieres on NBC on Monday, February 6th, 2012 at 9pm CST. content director Brian Tallerico

Content Director

Linda Lee's picture

Loved it!

I felt like I was watching a movie. I loved it. I was not even going to watch this show since I have been turned off by Glee and all the constant hype.
But I read a glowing review today and wow am I glad I did. I am hooked and looking forward to this series. Excellent, wonderful production values, and it is shot like a film which I loved. The music was wonderful. The actors are stellar. Seriously excited to have a decent new show to watch.

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