You have to accept the fact that I’m a sucker for a good Broadway musical to read this review. So, if the idea of melding song and dance with a dramatic story offends your very nature, don’t bother watching Smash.
First off, this is not another Cop Rock. That show (which I found mildly amusing) tried to be a musical-musical, to tell stories and have the characters break into song to propel the story. Smash doesn’t do that… at least not really. This show is more like (I hesitate to say this, because I hate Glee) Glee. The songs are actual songs, sung by actual people in the story.
The premise of Smash is that a team that writes Broadway musicals (Debra Messing and Christian Borle) hit upon the idea of doing a musical about Marilyn Monroe. The enlist a producer (Angelica Huston) and a director (Jack Davenport) and start holding auditions for Marilyn. The two contenders for the role are the long-time Broadway chorus girl (Megan Hilty) and the ingenue from Iowa (Katharine McPhee). All of that you get from the trailers. But what’s the pilot like? (It’s available for free on iTunes. I watched it on my iPhone.)
First of all, I loved the pacing. It doesn’t start halfway into the production with a million flashbacks. As much as I loved Lost, not every show requires a fractured timeline for engaging storytelling. It starts with the inception of the idea, and it moves at a reasonable pace through the initial ideas for the show, the decisions about who’ll be involved, and the first round of auditions.
All of the characters seem fairly fleshed out, though I do hope we learn a little more about the two rival Marilyns. What’s interesting about the interactions between the character is the built in rivalries that several pairs of characters have. No one character is portrayed as “the bad guy”. (Except maybe Huston’s prickly ex-husband.) Everybody is liked by somebody, just not necessarily liked by everybody. That’s a structure that seems new to me, and I like it.
Smash isn’t entirely about the incipient musical, though. There are little subplots to add some detail to these character’s lives: a potential adoption, a messy divorce, a pair of overprotective parents, etc. None of them feel like soap opera nonsense; they feel like the real personal dramas that play out everyday just out of sight of your coworkers.
Of course, since this is what it is, the big question is, how do they handle the music? Personally, I think they do a great job. First of all, as I said above, there aren’t any songs that are protestations of love between characters, or externalized internal monologues. They are (potential) songs from the show. They are sung as demos, or as auditions, or as rehearsals. To add to the glamor factor, sometimes in the middle of a rehearsal, the scene will shift from actors in tights in a dance studio to a fully costumed number on a theatrical lit stage. These might be flashforwards to the show itself, but I think it’s more likely we’re looking at the mental image the writers and producers and performers see when they’re building the show. This is what they hope Marilyn will be. The numbers are flashy and impressive. All the singing in the pilot is done by Hilty and McPhee, and they’re both excellent. I hope that when they start bringing in other players, they’re as good.
All in all, I’m really liking this show. It might be the best of the new season, as far as I can tell. I hope it sparks a fan base that’ll keep the show on for a while.