Right up front, NBC's Smash gives you a reason to feel good about yourself for watching. Broadway lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) bemoans the current crop of musicals to her songwriting partner Tom (Christian Borle): "Revivals and movies--why doesn't anyone do new musicals anymore?" she asks. Smash is the TV musical about the making of just such a show: the life story of Marilyn Monroe. And there you are, watching it! You get it! You're not part of the problem!
Julia's complaint reads as a kind of manifesto for Smash (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m. E.T.). American Idol, NBC's The Voice and, of course, Glee all piggyback on the power of existing pop hits. With its original music and urbane characters, Smash feels like an attempt to do Glee for adults: age-appropriate escapism. It's classy, not campy. (Instead of kids throwing slushies, Oscar winner Anjelica Huston throws martinis.) It's got a creative team with pedigrees to overfill a marquee: Steven Spielberg produces with theater vets Craig Zadan and Neil Meron; playwright Theresa Rebeck created and writes it; Tony winners Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman (Hairspray) do the music. It's polished, professional and reverent of Broadway--sometimes to a fault.
As a production, Smash is risky; Rebeck had to map out an actual musical while also planning the first season, and there's one original song for each of its 15 episodes. (Beyond those, Smash is as much a jukebox musical as Glee, featuring covers of hits like Christina Aguilera's "Beautiful." These characters do a lot of karaoke.)
As drama, though, it's a conventional showbiz story with familiar types. Vying for the lead in the early episodes are Ivy (Wicked's Megan Hilty), a sultry blonde worn down from years in the chorus, and Karen (Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee), a doe-eyed brunet ingenue with a patient boyfriend and worried folks back home in Iowa. Judging between them is snaky but brilliant director Derek (Jack Davenport), a caustic British lech whose casting couch has frequent-defiler miles. His producer Eileen (Huston) battles cash-flow problems related to an ugly divorce from a philandering husband (hence the serial cocktail-hurling).
Rebeck's eye for the backstage minutiae of theater should please Broadway fans. She has a feel for the give-and-take of creative collaboration, which can be tough to dramatize. The best relationship in the show is the work marriage of Tom and Julia. (He's gay; she's straight and married.) Other aspects are pat and expected--the affairs, the rivalries and the interpretation of Marilyn herself. (She just "wanted to love and be loved.")
Does it sing? Hilty is saucily convincing (refreshingly for TV, she has actual '50s curves, which helps the Marilyn impression), while girl next door McPhee is more persuasive singing than reading lines. "Let Me Be Your Star," the audition song that closes the pilot, is manipulative in the best way: as Karen and Ivy trade lines, Marilyn's hunger for fame becomes theirs. Other originals are weaker, like a forced Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio duet: "Call the justice of the peace/ But don't tell him our names/ Don't put out a press release/ Or mention baseball games."