NBC's Smash premiered Monday night amidst heavy promotional fanfare and high expectations from the network.
At best, Smash is an entertaining romp for armchair Broadway aficionados still mourning the loss of 'Will and Grace. At worst, it's an example of slipshod aggregated television intended to reach the widest possible audience with the least possible effort.
In many ways, Smash is Glee for grownups, but NBC clearly expects to pull from the established fan bases of musical competition shows like American Idol and The Voice as well (Smash was slated for a mid-season premiere in order to piggyback on Voice viewers). Casting both Katharine McPhee and Debra Messing assures interest from both ends of the 18-49 demographic, and the relationship between Messing's Julia and her writing partner Tom (Christian Borle) is direct from the straight woman-gay man besties playbook that has worked so well for NBC in the past.
McPhee may have been cast on the strength of her vocals and her fan base, but she's not a terrible actress: Her scenes were the most engaging among the non-musical numbers, and she does cornfed-Midwestern-girl-takes-on-the-big-city as well as anyone.
I spent the first half hour of the pilot wondering if and when Messing was going to take off her scarf. I'm told the distracting wardrobe choice may have been intended as a parody -- oh, theater people and their scarves! -- but if that's true, it went over my head. To me it looked more like she was trying to hide a tracheotomy scar.
It's nice to see Angelica Huston -- who plays a has-been-ish producer bedeviled by an ugly divorce battle -- commanding some space on the small screen, but mildly offensive to see the writers insult her with cliché lines like I'll see you in court! and Rumors of my death have been vastly exaggerated.
The superbly executed fantasy musical numbers are good enough to make you (temporarily) forget the weak script, and bode well for future episodes, where most of the action will presumably take place in rehearsals or on the stage. And while it's pretty obvious how the problem of choosing which girl to play Marilyn Monroe will be solved, the build-up was developed thoughtfully enough that you still care.
All told, you could do worse than spend an hour a week with Smashed. Still, the actors and viewers alike would be better served if the folks behind the show had spent less time on focus groups and more time in the writer's room.