IGN TV: Pilots are difficult, where so much has to be set up and put into motion, but Smash – which includes Steven Spielberg among its producers — stands out as one of the very best pilot episodes from this entire TV season, boasting a strong cast and an easy to invest in “Who will be chosen!?” scenario.
The story is centered on the conception of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, the brainchild of successful writing duo Tom (Christian Borle) and Julia (Debra Messing). The involvement of producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) – who has something to prove — gets the ball rolling very quickly, and like that, director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) is on board, looking to answer the crucial question: Who can play Marilyn Monroe?
And that’s where our initial drama stems from, as we meet the two women who will become the frontrunners for the coveted role: Seasoned Broadway performer Ivy (Megan Hilty), who’s tired of being part of the ensemble and looking for a more substantial part, and Karen (Katharine McPhee), a young ingenue type still working as a waitress.
Here’s the thing: I’m guessing many of you might read “Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe” and instantly think, “I’m out!” And while I am a fan of musicals (Thanks, Mom!), I wouldn’t necessarily think Smash’s plot would grab me – I certainly have no special appreciation for Marilyn. But Smash does a very good job of establishing the world these characters inhabit and their distinctive roles in getting this musical off the ground, and, in the process, investing you in their stories and struggles.
It’s extremely well cast, which is no surprise given the previous work of familiar faces like Messing, Davenport and of course, Huston, in her first ongoing TV series role. But the show centers on McPhee and Hilty and they’re both great. Hilty, an actual Broadway star, brings that natural stage performer presence, as someone who looks right at home dressing up and acting as Marilyn. McPhee meanwhile is very engaging as Karen, who’s obviously beautiful and talented, but has a lot to learn. The key element here is that you really are rooting for her, and hoping she doesn’t make some stupid mistakes… especially where the blatantly arrogant and potentially lecherous Derek is involved.
Some of the dialogue, especially as characters try to dissect who Marilyn is, can be too on the nose, such as a corny moment where Karen’s boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jaffrey), tells her, “Marilyn wasn’t about the sex. She was all about love.” But for the most part, Smash is witty and feels very knowing. It’s not surprising series creator Theresa Rebeck has a background as a playwright, as there is a believability to moments like Julia’s obsession (and fear) about a theater critic who, she exclaims, “Started going after Spider-Man before they were even in previews! Before they started maiming people!”
As for the music, Smash does include characters singing some familiar songs (McPhee gets to belt out both “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and Christina Aguilera’s “Beautiful” as audition numbers), but also will feature many original songs – the numbers written by Tom and Julia for their Marilyn show. In actuality, these songs are written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman. Their real life experience (Shaiman is the man behind the songs in everything from Hairspray to South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut) give Smash a lot of authenticity. You buy these as actual (and good!) Broadway musical songs. And wow do McPhee and Hilty bring the house down with the big number that closes out the pilot.
There’s no denying Glee’s success led to Smash’s existence on NBC’s schedule, but they don’t really feel similar at all besides the presence of people singing songs. Smash is more grounded and has an innate through-line to its storyline (as we’ll follow the progress of the show) and settings and characters that make it feel much more adult. More importantly, where Glee – a show I quite liked when it first began – has really collapsed as time goes on into a rather muddled, inconsistent mess, Smash is here as something bright, shiny and new… and making a very good first impression. Here’s hoping it can stay this strong going forward.