In other words, my family in Nebraska will never watch it. Like most risky shows on network TV, “Smash” (9 p.m. Feb. 6, NBC; 3.5 stars) is a difficult sell to viewers who won’t venture beyond doctor/lawyer/cop procedurals.
Creator Theresa Rebeck’s central story follows Broadway songwriters Julia Houston and Tom Levitt (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) as they toy with the idea of creating a musical about Marilyn Monroe. Tom’s opportunistic office assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), secretly records a video of Julia and Tom’s first crack at a Marilyn ballad, which sets chins a wagging in the theater world.
Next thing they know, Julia and Tom are meeting with Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), a producer going through a nasty divorce that has tied up so much of her money she starts selling jewelry and her treasured Degas sketch to raise cash for the show. She sets them up with Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), a demanding director whom Tom can’t stand.
With the team assembled, the search for a “Marilyn” begins. And that’s when “Smash” really soars. Tom wants his friend, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), an ambitious actress in the chorus of his and Julia’s other smash musical. Ivy has the right hair, look and curves to play Marilyn. But a young unknown named Karen Cartwright ("American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee) captures the imaginations of everyone else during early auditions.
The competition between the two Marilyns anchors the first two episodes and continues—complete with bitchy sabotages, dancing duels and hurt feelings—even after a decision is made. If you think the making of a musical is all about rainbows and unicorns, think again. Intrigue and drama roil around the production in delightfully soapy ways.
Even viewers who say musicals are not their thing can relate to the basic theme shown in the Karen-versus-Ivy storyline. Who hasn’t dreamed of doing something big, and who hasn’t had their hopes dashed at some point? (Not to mention, who can’t relate to sex, competition, ambition and a will to succeed?)
If you do happen to love musicals, you’re in for a treat. Broadway veterans Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (“Hairspray: The Musical” and so on) have created wonderful original songs for the production. The executive producers (among them are Steven Spielberg and the “Chicago” team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron) don’t hedge their bets, however, and each episode includes a few popular songs that are mostly well integrated into the story (although some of these performers seem to spend a lot of time at karaoke bars).
The cast is generally outstanding, with Davenport and especially Huston being the standouts of the non-singing types. As for the musical performances, both McPhee and Hilty are brilliant. They’re also good in the roles. Hilty’s Ivy isn’t a one-dimensional mean girl—there's a scene in which Ivy tells her obviously unimpressed mother over the phone about her callback that just broke my heart. And McPhee gives Karen just the right amount of naïveté, spunkiness and luminosity.
“Smash” isn’t without its problems. A dull adoption subplot and a casting-couch cliché didn’t do much for me. The thrid and fourth episodes to hold the momentum of the initial impact of the first two episodes. And although I love the deliciously sly homage to “All About Eve” with the Ellis-Julia hostility, I’m not quite sure what the assistant’s motivation is.
But I quibble. All those situations can be worked out, and every shows suffers from a weaker episode here and there. Any time a series so triumphantly breaks the chokehold of procedural dramas on TV I’m going to root for it.
Like the two actresses vying to play Marilyn, “Smash” tries mightily and mostly succeeds.