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TV Review: Smash – “Pilot”

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NBC’s Smash premieres today, though many have already had the opportunity to view it, as it has been posted online for some time. If you are coming across this review before watching the “Pilot” and do not want anything spoiled, please check back after watching the first episode.

In the NBC Smash “Pilot,” Julia Houston (Debra Messing, Will & Grace, The Starter Wife) is taking a break from Broadway to adopt a baby. That is, until her writing partner’s, Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) suggests that the two do a show about Marilyn Monroe. Caught up in the idea, Julia and Tom can’t resist writing a number, much to the chagrin of Julia’s husband, Frank (Brain d’Arcy James). But it’s soon out of everyone’s hands when Ellis posts that early recording session online, and it goes viral, putting the gears in motion for a full production.

Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston, Medium, The Royal Tenebaums) is first on board, looking for something to produce while her other project is tied up because of her nasty divorce from husband Jerry (Michael Cristofer, Rubicon). Eileen would like to hire Derek Wills (Jack Davenport, FlashForward, Pirates of the Carribean) to direct, but Tom hates him. Unfortunately for Tom, Derek puts together a fantastic rendition of a musical number from the show-in-progress, and Julia comes ’round. Which means, it seems, that Derek is in, too.

Now, the next challenge is to pick the girl who will be Marilyn. Tom argues for Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, Bitter Feast), a chorus singer whom he thinks has lots of talent, and looks perfect for the part. Ivy gets a leg up by recording the viral demo, and assumes that the part is hers. However, the others, especially Derek, are also entranced by fresh faced Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee, American Idol). Which will win out in the end? The question is left hanging as the “Pilot” culminates in the girls’ call back audition.

And, there are, of course, love stories. Will Julia and Frank work out their issues? Their marriage seems to have a solid foundation, despite this rocky time. Eileen and Jerry are definitely over. Karen gets supports from her beau, Dev (Raza Jaffrey, Mistresses, MI-5), who believes in her dream. But then, Derek seems like he’d be willing to cross the line with Karen. Will she reciprocate if her career is on the line? Instinct says no, but then again, one never knows how situation might change circumstance…

Any comparison of Smash to Glee is premature and pretty much dead wrong. While both involve singing, Smash has a much more serious tone, and isn’t about high school. Additionally, while popular music will be used in the series, every episode isn’t packed full of it, with the musical numbers spread out more, and only when the characters need to sing for the plot, at least in “Pilot.” Original music will be written for Smash (some is already in the first episode) as the characters work on the Marilyn musical. Unlike Glee, this means that some songs may be repeated many times throughout the show’s run. The basic difference can be boiled down to one thing: Glee is a musical, while Smash is about a musical.

Is Marilyn Monroe tired subject matter? Julia suggests that this might be the case, as she mentions recent books and movies. Yet, Smash takes the icon in a different direction. It’s immediately obvious from the “Pilot” that this show will not be like anything else in production. It’s why Julia and Tom agree to pursue it, and the new take should keep audiences from growing bored. And Monroe is an icon for a reason, so there’s plenty of substance to build upon.

The acting and singing in Smash is phenomenal. Right out of the gate, Hilty and McPhee carve out their place in the series. Which other characters may sing remains fuzzy, but these two will be the powerhouse voices that carry the show. And they are up to the challenge. What’s more, they’re good enough in the acting department that they don’t appear out of their depth alongside veterans like Messing, Davenport, and Huston. Yes, their characters don’t seem as experienced, but that’s the point, and the girls are good at making that feel authentic.

The staging is great. There is definitely a feel for the world of Broadway, at least, it appears so to an outsider who is not rooted in that culture. The characters and settings are very natural in this environment. Thus far, the musical numbers are presented in a bare bones style, but as Julia, Tom, and the others are just beginning to work on the show, this is appropriate. Hopefully the stage sets will grow with the rest of the series. All in all, “Pilot” is a very well orchestrated production.

There will be haters of course; those who don’t care for musical theater, or appreciate it on television. But Smash should have a broad appeal as a story, as well as a music-related piece. Time will tell if it works out, but the first episode has plenty of signs to promote optimism.

Watch Smash Mondays at 10 p.m. on NBC.

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About JeromeWetzelTV

Jerome writes TV reviews for and, as well as fiction. He is a frequent guest on two podcasts, Let's Talk TV with Barbara Barnett and The Good, the Bad, & the Geeky. All of his work can be found on his website,