Entertainment Television

NBC's sensational 'Smash' deserves ratings triumph

Everything about NBC's wildly ambitious "Smash" sings underdog:  Set in the rarified world of Broadway, it's a musical soap opera about the making of a musical about Marilyn Monroe. It uses mostly original songs as opposed to "Glee"-like covers, and is totally, completely and thankfully unapologetic about its celebration of the musical theater world.

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. 

Yet I won’t stop trying to convince them that they should tune in and start tapping their toes. “Smash” lights up the small screen in so many gloriously entertaining ways it deserves to be a hit.

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.

Copyright © 2015, RedEye
Related Content
  • Aldermen looking to stop stores from getting around plastic bag ban

    Aldermen looking to stop stores from getting around plastic bag ban

    Chicago's ban on plastic bags starts to take effect at many big stores Saturday, but an alderman who helped craft the law already is talking about changing it in order to thwart a few large retail chains that he says are trying to skirt the new rules.

  • State police: Man shot while riding in van on Eisenhower

    State police: Man shot while riding in van on Eisenhower

    A man was shot multiple times while traveling in a minivan on the inbound Eisenhower Expressway on Friday morning, authorities said.

  • Lollapalooza liquor gardening: fact or fiction?

    Lollapalooza liquor gardening: fact or fiction?

    It may sound like an urban legend: Music festival-goers bury bottles of booze in Chicago parks, plot a GPS location for the goods and uncover them days later when the festival comes alive.

  • Chicago plans to cut O'Hare noise by rotating runways at night

    Chicago plans to cut O'Hare noise by rotating runways at night

    The Emanuel administration on Friday will propose an experiment at O'Hare International Airport to rotate the runways used late at night, possibly on a weekly basis, to spread out jet noise, the city's aviation chief told the Chicago Tribune.

  • Almost 6 acres of land added near Fullerton Avenue Beach

    Almost 6 acres of land added near Fullerton Avenue Beach

    Along Chicago's lakefront at Fullerton Avenue Beach, cranes rolled along a causeway that only a few months ago was part of the lake itself. Every day this summer, roughly 40 construction workers are filling in Lake Michigan with dredged material and gravel, which will eventually add up to 5.8 acres...

  • Doughnut panic

    I'm not ashamed to admit that for the past several years, I have mapped my walk to work around which doughnut shop I'd like an excuse to stop at on the way. There's nothing like the thought of a crunchy, craggy old fashioned doughnut or the sweet, yeasty chew of a classic glazed doughnut to help...