In the sweeping climax of Smash‘s premiere episode, Katharine McPhee’s Karen Cartwright and Megan Hilty’s Ivy Lynn duel in their callbacks for a Broadway musicalization of the life of Marilyn Monroe. “Let me be your star,” the two women belt out to show’s creative team. It’s not difficult to imagine NBC pleading these same lyrics to the American public. As a perpetual fourth-place finisher, NBC is desperate for distinction and a bona fide hit, and their marketing department certainly has been operating in overdrive, promoting Smash ad nauseum. But while this new series may not strike out for all audiences, broadcast network NBC deserves massive credit for taking on a creatively solid series with cable network ambitions.
Way more than just a Glee for grown-ups, Smash delivers higher stakes and a tighter focus than its messy auto-tuned relative of a series, bringing to life the ego-embattled and dramatically charged world of Broadway theatre. To be sure, Smash is still a network show executive produced by Mr. Steven Spielberg himself. This portrayal of the musical theatre world for the masses is light on its feet and serves up a heaping helping of showbiz polish, sanding off any rough edges and cutting corners on the real workings of the creative process, leaving that process off-screen or even making it a non-entity. So while the show may be a tad disappointing in its implausibility to those too into the theatre world, Smash can still commended for bringing these sudsy and entertaining stories to life in an accessible way.
If Smash comes off as trying too hard with its insider speak and musical theatre lingo, the emotionally rich and resonant characters give audiences a solid anchoring point. These are characters with a driving passion and motivation, with easily identifiable hopes and dreams of success and stardom. The well-crafted world of Smash follows the lives of the aforementioned leading lady hopeful Karen Cartwright (the dewy McPhee of American Idol fame), and the musical theatre veteran with a case of ensemble ennui, Ivy Lynn (the vivacious Broadway vet Hilty). The other colorful characters rounding out the talented ensemble, include Oscar-winner Anjelica Huston in deliciously fine form as a powerful producer attempting to stabilize her world, British actor Jack Davenport as the show’s director dripping with smarm and charm, and the buoyant songwriting duo of Emmy-winner Debra Messing and Broadway’s Christian Borle. The less said about the annoyingly plucky assistant, the better.
The theatrical pedigree of Smash‘s creative team positively sings, breathing new life into the well-worn nature of this backstage drama. The pilot’s director, Michael Mayer (American Idiot) integrates the compositions of the award-winning writing team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman (Hairspray) with a deft hand, spotlighting both the talent and the inner life of its performers. Series creator, screenwriter and playwright Theresa Rebeck (Seminar), also penned the well-written pilot episode.
The premiere outing is briskly paced and creatively strong, if not a tad over-reliant on showbiz tropes. But while we’ve seen it all before: the manipulative director, the small town ingenue vs. the hard-working chorus girl, the overprotective conservative parents, the All About Eve undertones, Smash is refreshing in its almost retro-like earnestness, all maudlin and cliched lines aside (“Sometimes, dreams are hard!“). A slight drawback is that Smash shoehorns in perhaps one too many plotlines in the premiere, barreling through exposition and character introduction with an Aaron Sorkin-like clip. Hopefully, future episodes will let storylines to breathe at a more established pace and allow for character development to happen more organically. Less telling, more showing.
The sheer creative ambition both on-screen and off-screen makes Smash a show worth watching and rooting for. While not a sure thing that the series will strike a chord with mainstream audiences, one thing is for certain: Smash gives hope for our television landscape littered with tired doctor/lawyer/cop procedurals.