Review: ‘Smash’ Season 1 Pilot

One of the most highly anticipated releases of the winter TV season is NBC’s ‘Smash.’ Produced by Steven Spielberg and featuring household names like Debra Messing (Will & Grace) and Katherine McPhee (American Idol season 5 winner), ‘Smash’ is a behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway musical blossoming into life. The show is officially due to make its big debut on Monday, February 6th at 10/9c. For those who can’t wait a whole week I’ve got your hookup. Hulu is doing a special full-length preview of the pilot episode in advance as well as an extended look at the upcoming season following the episode. Yes the Hulu that is partners with NBC so you don’t have to worry about downloading viruses or pondering your new life as a pirate although I bet you could pull off the eye patch.

So we open with Karen (Katherine McPhee) belting out “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” before a panel of disinterested producers, trying out for a role in the latest Broadway upstart. One of the judge’s phone rings and the veil of disinterest covering their faces cuts her short…next. We bridge over to Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) as they are enjoying a break from their recent Broadway hit “Heaven on Earth.” You can tell this self-imposed break will last about as long as it takes for a promising idea to start pinballing around in either one of their heads — or as it turns out Tom’s assistant. As he is shelving a Marilyn Monroe book he says why not cater a musical on the screen icon’s life. Its met with a wall of derision and resistance, but the idea just won’t go away.

We shortly find out the real reason for the self-imposed break is Julia and her husband are planning to adopt a child and she has vowed to devote the coming year to their family. Needless to say the news of a possible production invading their newly discovered tranquility gets met with a barrage of daggers by Julia’s husband. Tom, who is putting together the musical score, grabs an extra from “Heaven on Earth” Ivy (Megan Hilty) to flesh out a song for Marilyn to see if this fledgling idea has any chance to sink its roots into reality. Ellis, the fore mentioned assistant, secretly films the performance and before nightfall the theatre media are devouring it like filet mignon.

The pilot unfolds like the usual plot setup — introducing our core characters and setting up the struggles that will play out in the weeks and months to come. The production value on the pilot is quite high, the cast is top notch and New York radiates from every pore of the film. You knew with the Spielberg name attached to this project it wasn’t going to be second rate.

‘Smash’ plays more like a drama that drives its plot with the musical accompaniment over ‘Glee’ who seems of late to string together songs and try to find a plot buried somewhere within the soundtrack. The only place ‘Smash’ seems to overstep its musical bounds is in the final song “Let Me Be Your Star” which doesn’t seem to have a place in the otherwise cohesive pilot. Our vocal leads Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty (Broaway’s ‘Wicked’ & ’9 to 5: The Musical’) have the vocal range and power to really carry the musical pieces. The dichotomy of styles — the hourglass blonde versus the girl-next-door brunette — nicely sets up this inevitable clash of talents.

Overall, ‘Smash’ is a very well done look behind Broadway’s curtain. It isn’t always pretty and rarely easy, but this take seems very authentic and true to the art it emulates. I look forward to seeing where this cast and crew of ‘Smash’ take this musical drama. The bigger question is will ‘Smash’ be a success with America at large? That one is a little more hard to peg. ‘Glee’ seems to be the loose formula ‘Smash’ has built itself off of. ‘Glee’ was a surprise hit for Fox but one whose audience has waned in recent seasons due to a departure from their character driven storylines and an over reliance on the soundtrack to relay the story. ‘Smash’ doesn’t seem to dabble in ‘Glee’s’ fatal flaws, but we’ll need a larger sample to say for certain. ‘Glee’ also caters to a younger audience whereas ‘Smash’ appears to target the older arts crowd. It should be interesting to see how things turn out, and I look forward to tuning in each week to see if they can find that audience.

— Troy Christian