February 6, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full TV pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.
SMASH –  Midseason Mondays 10PM on NBC:   Potential DVR Alert

Cards on the table, I’m a native New Yorker who’s been going to Broadway shows since my age was in single digits.  So I’m not the the audience NBC needs to win over for their midseason musical drama SMASH to be a mainstream network hit.  That being said, and with just a handful of pilots left to be seen, Smash could be the show of the season.

Jumping to the obvious:  Smash is not Glee.  Theresa Rebeck’s script (she’s worked mostly on procedurals like NYPD Blue, Law & Order:  Criminal Intent and Canterbury’s Law, but her more notable credit may be the excellent play Mauritius) is unapologetically smart, and with the exception of a couple of characters, its protagonists aren’t lovable misfits trying to win your heart.  They’re theater professionals, good at what they do and not necessarily nice people.  The songs will largely be original compositions and not Top 10 hits.  The show’s tone is even and relatively realistic, without the wild leaps and broad humor of FOX’s hit.  (It’s not clear how often characters on the show will burst into song outside their professional context; in the pilot, there’s only one such scene, at the very end, and even that involves only the performer characters.) 
Smash is the story of the making of a Broadway musical, in this case a biography of Marilyn Monroe.  (There are supposedly plans to bring the actual show-within-the-show to Broadway once the TV series is on the air.)  In real life, the music and lyrics are by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, whose credits include Hairspray and Catch Me If You Can; Shaiman also co-wrote the hilarious songs for the South Park movie.  The pilot’s director is Michael Mayer, who has shaky film credits (A Home At the End of the World and–weirdly–Flicka), but whose Broadway work includes American Idiot and Spring Awakening
In Smash, the roles of composer and lyricist are taken by Christian Borle and Debra Messing, as the songwriting team of Tom and Julia (of course it’s not Messing’s first go at playing sidekick to a gay buddy, but to her credit she’s dialed it way down from Will & Grace days).  The show’s manipulative director is Derek (Jack Davenport), and while the TV series is produced by, among others, Steven Spielberg, Craig Zadan and Neil Maron, the musical’s producer is Eileen (Anjelica Huston), who’s going through a rough divorce.
The pilot sets up two potential Marilyns:  Megan Hilty as Ivy, a veteran of the chorus who’s the physically obvious choice for the part, and Katherine McPhee as Karen, the nice small-town Iowa girl who’s making ends meet as a waitress while trying to make it in the Big City.  (Both are series regulars, so Smash presumably has something up its sleeve.)  The Karen character is of course supposed to be the entry port for non-Broadway fans to find someone with whom to identify; she runs the risk of being a cliche, but at least in the pilot, McPhee and the writing are strong enough to overcome that.  (The pilot’s one misstep is the character of Ellis, Tom’s eager assistant played by [corrected] Jaime Cepero–he’s the one who has to deliver speeches about what a joy it is to work in the theater, and unless there turns out to be more to him, he’s already worn out his welcome.)
Smash is a pleasure to watch, with a fluid pace that carries you past the weaker scenes (Karen’s parents don’t really believe she’ll ever get her big break) and a fine ensemble feel to the dialogue.  Since the show-within-the-show is still in the process of being put together at this point in the series, they’ve come up with the visual device of providing glimpses during rehearsals and casting sessions of the way the characters envision the final show working, and that’s effective.  One could question why the Marilyn musical, which is supposedly being written right now, has to feel like it was composed before Stephen Sondheim picked up his pen, but the fact that I’m pondering the stage show’s real-life viability on Broadway means the TV show is working.  (And in fairness, Shaiman and Wittman provide one hell of an 11PM number for the pilot’s finale.)

NBC is holding Smash until midseason, when it’ll be given the one truly prime position NBC has to offer:  behind the return of their only real hit The Voice.  That should be as compatible an audience as the network is going to find, and with Castle and Hawaii 5-0 as the competition, Smash will have every opportunity to shine.  Does America want to watch singing and dancing that doesn’t take place on a reality series or in a wacky high school?  Has Glee given the country an appetite for actual musical theater?  Stay tuned.  

Read more about TV’s new shows at THE SKED PILOT REPORT.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."