February 06, 2012

TV: Smash (NBC, Mon 10)

Unless you've been in a cave for the last three months, you've seen the ads and billboards and posters for Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a musical about Marilyn Monroe. The show premieres tonight, but NBC has made the first episode available all over the internet, and I finally got around to watching it. It's a very strong hour.

The story is familiar enough -- a backstage musical about dueling divas -- but it's smartly written, with entertaining original songs, and (mostly) very well cast.

My major reservation about the cast is Katharine McPhee, about whom I remain slightly skeptical. She's a good pop singer, but doesn't really have (or at least, doesn't get to show in the first episode) a Broadway voice; and I'm not sure yet she has the acting chops for the role.

Megan Hilty, who plays McPhee's principal rival for the role of Marilyn Monroe, has a thankless role; she's playing the slightly older actress who has lots of Broadway experience, but has never landed the leading role that would make her a star. Hilty has to suggest both great talent and a lack of star power, and playing a character who lacks charisma while letting your own charisma hold the audience's interest is a hard thing for an actor to pull off.

There are a couple of subplots that already feel like they're going to get boring very quickly. Songwriter Julia (Debra Messing) and her husband want to adopt a baby; her partner Tom (Christian Borle) has an ambitious "All About Eve"-style assistant (Jaime Cepero).

But the main storyline is compelling, and the musical numbers are delightful. The lines between realistic presentations and full-on fantasy productions are clearly drawn, and it's always clear why we're switching from one to the other (messing up that distinction is one of my pet peeves about Glee).

The show doesn't take time to explain every Broadway insider detail; it's not quite as "throw you in the deep end" immersive as, say, HBO's Luck, but it does assume that you have a little bit of background knowledge and that you're smart enough to figure out what you don't know.

This is a very promising beginning. Please please please let the show live up to that promise.

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