Once a titan of late night, primetime, and everything else, NBC has recently become little more than Hulu’s primary single-camera sitcom dealer and a retirement home for fans of Jay Leno. Smash, which features an attractive ensemble, art direction that looks like every dollar it cost, and original music by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, is meant to bring energy, youth, and big money back to a network that’s still getting over the last episode of Seinfeld. It’s just a little bit ironic, then, that the first couple of episodes of this starry-eyed, badly acted, occasionally stirring series makes it hard not to wish it had been put together by a different network.
As a matter of fact, Smash, which follows a scrappy band of millionaire Broadway producers and writers and a pair of starving actresses as they struggle to mount a Broadway show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, was originally developed by Showtime, from an original idea by Steven Spielberg. And despite the influence of Dreamworker #1, it’s easy to imagine a grittier, messier show that’s more willing to engage with the issues of class, sex, and power that occasionally peek out from the tightly bundled package of infectious optimism NBC has put together. Smash, in other words, is a great idea for a show, but NBC has focused so much attention on its presentation—the musical numbers, the production design—that it has yet to access the depth of the story it is telling.
It’s worth acknowledging that, with Smash, NBC has created one of the most instantly likeable pilots of the season. Written by creator and playwright Theresa Rebeck, the first episode, following the conception of and initial auditions for Marilyn!, is electrifying. Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing was a stated influence on the show’s producers, and you can feel that show’s energy as writing partners Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing) ping-pong ideas back and forth for their musical, or as producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston, practically dripping gravitas) tries to convince a seasoned, skeptical director (Jack Davenport) to helm the risky project. There’s a (wo)men-on-a-mission, getting-the-band-back-together vibe to these scenes that’s irresistible.
And then there’s the music. In this aspect, Smash has succeeded at an extraordinarily hard task: Shaiman and Wittman have actually written a credible show-within-the-show. To cite another Sorkin example, while any number of factors can be blamed for the thundering face-plant of his Studio 60 from the Sunset Strip, one of the most glaring offenses of that show-about-a-show was that the show the characters were all busy producing on screen—a vaunted Saturday Night Live-style sketch program—was preposterously bad, and so all of the drama Sorkin hoped to elicit from the circumstances of its production fell flat. Smash has something of the opposite problem. The songs are great, the musical numbers (which magically transition from rehearsal rooms to Broadway stages) are spectacular, and the vocal performers all have wonderfully expressive and distinctive voices, but the off-stage antics are considerably less compelling.
Indeed, while the pilot is busy whisking viewers away with its show-stopping numbers and sheer enthusiasm, what may go by unnoticed is how thin everything else is. Smash is filled with stock characters, cursorily developed melodramatic subplots, and a relentless, hysterical cheeriness that feels more like an aesthetic choice than any kind of earned emotion. All of this would be forgivable if Smash weren’t also vexed by a particular characteristic of Broadway musicals: Smash has an acute ham problem. Katherine McPhee and Megan Hilty perform their songs with devastating emotion and real range, and, indeed, some of the best moments of the series take place during auditions or demo performances that seem to encapsulate worlds of feeling. However, when they’re not singing, they’re telegraphing their lines like sprightly twentysomethings auditioning to play Peter Pan. And it’s not limited to the singers: Jack Davenport intones every epiphanic moment as if he’s acting in a silent film; Messing, who surprisingly turns in one of the few naturalistic performances here, is marooned in a clunky family-centered plot with two actors—including theater actor Brian d’Arcy James as her husband—who seem to think they’re in a public-service announcement; and the same goes for Jaime Cepero, playing an annoyingly stars-truck assistant, and Raza Jaffrey, as a gratingly supportive boyfriend.
If the world of Smash were wholly one of fantasy and frivolity, then none of this would matter. But it isn’t. Smash isn’t a musical, but a drama about the famously hard-knock, tough-luck world of the theater. And while the show needn’t go full-on Black Swan, it seems like there are some craggier psychological depths to explore in these characters than the cardboard the-theater-takes-over-your-life concerns at the center of every off-stage subplot.