NBC's Smash a rare ray of quality in dismal season for NBC
Twenty-four hours after gathering one of the biggest audiences in TV history for the Super Bowl, NBC tonight unveils its own Hail Mary pass for the current television season.
That's when the network debuts what may be one of the best new shows of the winter — certainly, the best new show on NBC this season — the drama about the creation of a new Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, Smash.
To be fair, Smash is more than a drama; it's what I like to call a "dramusical," equal parts scripted drama and musical numbers, plunging viewers into the very specific world of Broadway performers with a Glee-style habit of morphing song rehearsals into glitzy, dreamlike production numbers.
Just the sort of thing guys might want to see a day after gorging themselves on smashmouth football.
Snarkiness aside, Monday's debut may be NBC's last chance to salvage a sinking season in which half of the six new shows they unveiled this fall have already been canceled.
Thanks to NBC's many months of promotion and publicity, some viewers and critics have already grown tired of the show, calling it "Glee for grownups" in a way that isn't necessarily a compliment.
But I enjoyed the way producers seemed to work hard at making the musical numbers connect to reality; in one case, an audition by a woman gunning for the lead role morphs into a look at how the number might unfold in its final version.
In another, producers check out a prospective co-star singing Bruno Mars' hit Grenade in an off-Broadway show.
And for those of us who left high school for college quite some time ago, it's a pleasure to see a music-based show with characters worrying about divorces, affairs, workplace romances and adopting kids — grown-up stuff for grown-up fans.
The series has a long list of big names backing the venture, including executive producer Steven Spielberg, Tony/Emmy/Grammy winning composer Marc Shaiman (Hairspray) and the godfathers of the modern musical, Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (Hairspray, Chicago, CBS' Gypsy)
In this case, at least the big names have brought some quality. Debra Messing (Will & Grace) is the headstrong lyricist who helps take a suggestion from her composer's assistant and develop it into Marilyn: the Musical.
Anjelica Huston is a producer divorcing the husband who was her longtime work partner over his infidelities. Now that she's on her own, raising money from the sexist, aging businessmen who control most Broadway financing becomes a humiliating challenge.
And, as much as some critics have snarked about it, Smash re-introduces us to Katharine McPhee, the American Idol runner-up who shines as an Iowa girl hoping to hit a home run in her first Broadway role.
McPhee is relatable and earnest, competing for the Monroe role alongside a stage veteran with a hidden "advantage."
More than anything, Smash shows how today's TV networks must fool viewers into watching the classic elements of variety shows.
In a world of iPads, video games and DVRs, it's no longer enough to let talented singers and musicians walk onstage and perform; their songs must be swathed in big productions, thrilling drama and well-placed pop cover tunes.
Here's hoping NBC finally connects with the long bomb and scores with Smash. Because, at long last, the fourth-place network has given us something worth talking about.