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NBC’s ‘Smash’ is Great Fun for Musical Fans; But Will It Survive?

NBC's 'Smash' is Great Fun for Musical Fans; But Will It Survive?

The best new TV show of the season is on network television, and may not survive there. NBC’s musical soap “Smash” is yet another case of a well-mounted show that is too smart to be populist and too expensive not to be. What inevitably occurs if a show like this doesn’t catch fire with audiences is that the network starts to dumb it down in an effort to reach more viewers. This rarely works.

Theresa Rebeck’s behind-the-scenes look at a Broadway musical in the making (“Marilyn”) reminds me of that great “A Chorus Line” doc, “Every Little Step.” It  boasts Debra Messing as a writer, Anjelica Huston as a producer and Jack Davenport (“Pirates of the Caribbean”) as a director, plus a sexy young cast who can sing and dance (Kat McPhee and Megan Hilty are duking it out to play Monroe), terrific songs (by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman) and plenty of backstage intrigue. Of course it requires that you like musicals.

Fortunately, things are looking up in the ratings as of the fourth show. Vulture’s Joe Adalian writes that “Smash” is not only getting a boost from lead-in “The Voice” but:

“There are also early signs, according to NBC insiders, that suggest Smash is doing particularly well with high-income viewers — a group advertisers pay a premium to reach, given their added purchasing power.”

Look at what happened to NBC’s “Prime Suspect” and ABC’s “Pan Am,” two floundering network shows that showed increasing panic as they kept trying to find the happy medium between sharp storytelling and accessible entertainment. One was shut down; both are still in limbo (word is “Pan Am” may end up on cable, which couldn’t be a better outcome).

On cable at least, intelligence is a badge of honor. Which is why, post-Oscars and “Downton Abbey,” I am happily back to catching up on both AMC’s “The Walking Dead” (see Terry Curtis Fox’s Sunday night TOH reviews) and FX’s “Justified,” two of the best-written shows on TV right now. 

And I am happy to welcome to Indiewire critic Alison Willmore, who will be covering TV here (critic Caryn James also covers television, here).

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Though I really like the work of most of the cast on Smash, the writing on the first three episodes has been below par. Nothing on the show seemed surprising and the idea that anyone would think Karen would be cast as Marilyn bordered on ridiculous.

I thought the fourth episode showed improvement. It was written by David Marshall Grant, a playwright who has worked on Brothers and Sisters. It had one really good musical number, staged at the party honoring TV star Lyle West, played by Nick Jonas. There are times when some of the musical numbers have been awkwardly staged–I think there have been at least four numbers staged in bars as if every bar in town has a cabaret act every night.

I want the series to do well because it employs a lot of talented New York actors.


I think it will survive and continue to increase in ratings. For a niche show it's not doing too bad and I'm sure the Emmy's will bite.

Anne Thompson

You make some good points, Mark, especially about the way the music is used. The karaoke number was trying to show Karen learning how to dance as a synchronized member of the team, but it certainly could have done more emotionally as well. The show's different from "Glee"; as I said, its virtue is to give a behind-the-scenes peek into the machinations behind a Bway show, more like "Every Little Step" than an excuse to belt out established pop songs. The originality and newness of the music may be part of the problem with grabbing viewers, but they are strong songs. This is a TV show, not a major Hollywood musical like Bob Fosse's "All That Jazz," which is worth reaching for but impossible to top.

Mark Horowitz

I disagree. I think the show is struggling because it's a big disappointment. It's filmed in NY, but it doesn't feel authentically NY. It's clearly inspired by the success of GLEE, but the directors and writers never seem to have actually watched an episode of Glee. There's none of the energy or joy, and there's not enough music and signing and dancing. The Smash team doesn't seem to really believe in the power of pop music, or even Broadway show tunes… which the worlds of Glee and American Idol and, for that matter, Broadway musicals are all about. The characters don't express themselves through the songs, the actors just perform them. The direction of the musical numbers is flat and lazy. Just look at the karaoke scene in last episode, singing and dancing to the monster hit country song Redneck Woman. Then compare it to any number in Glee! It was just dead. I think they basically thought the song was silly, so scene didn't focus on what it meant to the characters. And when they got up to dance… it never achieved liftoff. If you've ever seen a group of southern women respond when that song comes on, you'd know what they were missing. There are also subliminal moments that are clearly inspired by the behind the scenes world of All That Jazz, but again, they don't seemed to learned anything from that film. There's none of the electricity and danger. The direction feels like it's being done by a first-time director and cinematographer, rather than TV vets. It's old and tired, rather than young and fun. And most of the plotting is dumb, except for some of Debra Messing's dilemmas, which seem more realistic than anything else in the show. But that's just my opinion!


SMASH is an excellent show that gives me everything I like in each episode, but the sad part is that NBC is the panic button station known for dumping shows and not staying with them. My hope is that they will do to that show what they did to SOUTHLAND and let it go to cable where a smart well produced show like SMASH can blossom. I truly love the show, I love Justified so yes there are smart viewers out here, many of us lets shout it out!

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