NBC's new musical series makes plenty of mistakes, but it still leaves the audience wanting more.
"It's Glee for grown-ups!" TV critics and news releases have been relentlessly chirping this line about NBC's upcoming musical drama Smash... as praise? As caution? To build buzz? The hope, one assumes, is that both fans of Glee and viewers who are turned off by Fox's once great, now middling song-and-dance soap opera would think of Smash as a more mature, serious alternative. But while Smash is certainly more sophisticated television than Glee—at least in the promising, though ultimately disappointing pilot—it's bogged down by the same problems that plague the kids of New Directions.
Smash has an undeniably impressive pedigree. A sort of how-the-sausage-is-made look at the creation of a Broadway musical, Smash was conceived by Steven Spielberg, who oversaw production on the pilot; written by superstar playwright Theresa Rebeck, who penned the current Broadway hit Seminar; and boasts original songs from the Tony-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray). Emmy-winning Will and Grace star Debra Messing and Tony-nominated Broadway star Christian Borle are the composer-lyricist team who have the fortuitous, if somewhat random, inspiration to pen a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston plays the musical's producer, while Broadway veteran Megan Hilty and American Idol alum Katharine McPhee (who, despite what Smash's relentless ad campaign says, has already been introduced to the American public) are the two actresses vying to play Monroe in the production. The DNA of the show, certainly, is very grown up.
So, in many respects, that "grown-up" moniker does apply to Smash. The characters, for one, are literally adults, saving viewers from episodes that portray prom dates and first kisses as life-or-death situations. Instead, these characters have realistic obstacles and goals, which are set up nicely in the pilot as relateable, slice-of-life plot alternatives to the razzle-dazzle outlandishness of staging a Broadway musical. Messing's Julia, for example, has a home life: She and her husband are in the process of adopting a baby, and he's not happy about her going into production on a new musical. The subplot shows promise—certainly more so than the attempts to peek at any Glee character's domestic life (ugh, Mr. Schuster especially). In the pilot, we meet McPhee's Karen's entire family: Her (often implausibly) supportive and dreamy British boyfriend and the Iowa parents who think she's foolish to foster acting ambitions. Ivy (Hilty) is a chorus girl who's paid her dues, eager for her big break, and absolutely terrified she won't get it. In other words, there are no outlandish fake pregnancies or found-religion-in-a-grilled-cheese-sandwich plots here.
Also playing into the pleasing naturalism of Smash is its lived-in cinematography. Whereas Glee (and Hairspray, Mamma Mia and nearly all recent musical theater efforts on TV or film) live by their cartoonish colorblocking, Smash uses dim, soft lighting (lots and lots of blues) and on-location New York City shooting to give the show a mature aesthetic, providing it with suitable gravitas. But—as should be no surprise with Spielberg on board—the show truly blossoms with its musical numbers.
The producers wisely take the classy Chicago route for the staging of its musical numbers. All them begin as real-life performances—audition songs, music rehearsals—before transitioning into fully costumed, choreographed, and lit fantasy sequences. They're beautiful, expensive-looking, and often thrilling, while Shaiman and Wittman's original songs—particularly the finale, "Let Me Be Your Star"—have a way of earworming into your brain despite not seeming too memorable at first listen. While watching, you find yourself anxiously tapping your foot waiting for the next musical number—very much as most of us do while watching Glee—and it quickly becomes clear that this is as much a symptom of the rest of the show's faults as it is a testament to their exciting staging.
Like Glee, Smash is riddled with caricatures and cliches. Smash panders to nearly every eye-rolling cliche about musical-theater artists, churning out an ensemble of Broadway cartoon characters. Borle's lyricist Tom is sassy and flamboyant in an almost degrading way. Jack Davenport's Derek Wills is a theater director plucked straight from a '90s sitcom: a gruff, egotistical, womanizing asshole who's notoriously "hard to work with." And one can only assume that Huston was meant to do her Jane Lynch-as-Sue Sylvester best to chew scenery and steal scenes as producer Eileen. But, as is, the character is flat and Matthew Morrison-as-Will Schuster boring.
Smash also shares Glee's dialogue problem. Perhaps in an attempt to raise the stakes, the show resorts to maudlin tropes and trite maxims about goals and struggles and—ugh—dreams that are so overly earnest they come off as stilted and forced: "Sometimes, dreams are hard," Karen passionately tells her parents. At one point while describing his love of theater, Tom's assistant (Jaime Cepero) is forced to say with a straight face," "Even just being backstage, I felt... I dunno... (long pause) whole." Messing is unfortunately saddled with the corniest of lines—"She wanted to love and be loved. She glows with it."—but actually elevates the material with a sincere, warm delivery and characterization that grounds the show despite the ridiculous dialogue.
That's not to say there isn't promise. The legion of Broadway nerds who tune-in will get a kick out of inside-theater jokes (particularly a wink to notorious New York Post theater critic Michael Riedel, who Tom refers to as a "Napoleonic Nazi"). And McPhee is spellbinding as Karen. It's easy to see why the Marilyn musical casting committee would be instantly smitten with her. Her pure, crystalline voice is stirring, as she manages to infuse new, raw emotion to her cover of the done-to-death Christina Aguilera ballad "Beautiful." She shows surprising vulnerability, too, single-handedly rescuing what could've been the pilot's most maddening scene—the director invites her over for a late-night "private audition" at his apartment&mdsah;and subtly turns it into one of the best.
Just as Glee has managed to hook an army of addicted fans despite its major flaws, the Smash pilot should deservedly wrangle a large following. Sure, it's messy, cheesy, and a bit of a letdown (those were some damned good commercials NBC showed). But it's more entertaining than it is disappointing. This is a show about putting on a show—a show produced by Steven Spielberg, no less. It's unsurprising then, that's it's a lot of fun to watch. Glee has a way of, on a weekly basis, absolving itself of its creative sins in any given episode by delivering an emotionally thrilling, rousing, bring-you-to-your-feet and make you shout, "I want more!" final number. With "Let Me Be Your Star," an adrenaline-pumping vocal pas de deux brilliantly belted by McPhee and Hilty, Smash does just that. For better or worse, I'm shouting, "Encore."