Tune in to the Super Bowl tonight and the most desperate Hail Mary passes you’ll witness won’t be on the field, but during the commercial breaks. NBC is going to be pimping the hell out of its new show, Smash, which debuts tomorrow night, in hopes that it’ll be the comeback hit the network’s been wishing, hoping, and praying for.
Chances are, if you watch any shows on the Peacock net, you’ve already seen several Smash promos, where fresh-faced former American Idol candidate Katherine McPhee warbles an only-slightly-dated Christina Aguilera ballad about being beautiful just the way she is (which, uh, isn’t much of a stretch when you look like her) in hopes of making it on the Great White Way, while a bevy of Tony and Emmy winners (Christian Borle! Debra Messing ! ANJELICA HUSTON!) look on in shock and awe. The star-studded role call ends quite fittingly with a dramatic final bow—a title card proclaiming that the Executive Producer behind Smash is one Steven Spielberg (maybe you’ve heard of him?)
But even with that kind of firepower on and behind the cameras, Smash still seems like a bit of a gamble mainly because it’s about launching a Broadway musical. One look at the Tony Awards ratings will tell you that’s a tough sell. Plus, it’s being compared to Glee—which might have been a compliment eighteen months ago, but nowadays? Not exactly the kind of press you want.
Luckily, Smash seems to live up to the hype. TV critics almost unanimously raved about the show upon viewing early screeners and now that the pilot’s up online at Amazon, Hulu, Youtube and just about every other place you can think of, viewers can take a gander for themselves.
The ensemble drama packs a lot into its initial hour, introducing us to lovably frantic lyricist Julia (Messing) and contrary composer Tom (Borle) who get obsessed with the idea of a Marilyn Monroe musical, despite supposedly being on a break between projects. When Tom’s green assistant leaks a home video of a demo of one of the quite-good original songs (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the composers of Hairspray, have already penned 15 new tunes for the show—and producers are even hoping to bring the Marilyn musical to life on the real Broadway), it goes viral and suddenly their barely born musical is the talk of the town. They quickly acquire a freshly divorced financier in Huston, a difficult devil-may-care director (Jack Davenport), and two gorgeous and talented starlets, experienced chorus girl and Monroe ringer Ivy (Megan Hilty), and fresh-faced but self-conscious ingenue Karen (McPhee).
With a cast brimming with talent, and musical numbers staged with style and sophistication, viewers will likely forget all about those Glee comparisons in favor of some other shows. The song-and-dance sequences have more in common, staging-wise, with the lush fantasies from the recent movie musical version of Chicago, while its bare bones as a workplace ensemble piece—albeit with glamour, intrigue and sequins—brings to mind (for at least a few critics, so far, including the New York Times and Newsweek), none other than the esteemed drama, The West Wing. It’s a good comparison, as politics and show business can both get pretty down and dirty. Smash seems willing, in its pilot hour at least, to hint at some grit beneath the glitz. NBC’s betting we’ll keep tuning in to see if the show can balance the let’s-put-on-a-show fabulousness with both heart and heartache in equal measure.
For a theatre geek, like me? It’s an easy sell. For the large number of Americans who think Tony’s just the guy who runs their local pizza parlor? It remains to be seen.
But I know I’ll be turning to the Peacock on Mondays at 10 pm for the foreseeable future.
Or at least until Bernadette Peters shows up to guest star.
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.