Originally published in the Los Angeles Loyolan. For original, please refer to: NBC takes a musical gamble with ‘Smash’ – Los Angeles Loyolan.
The Super Bowl may be over, but for hosting network NBC, their big gamble happens tonight. At 10/9 central, the struggling fourth-place network will air the pilot for “Smash,” a new musical drama that has been in development for several years. Starring Debra Messing of “Will and Grace” fame, as well as “American Idol” runner-up Katharine McPhee and grand dame of cinema Anjelica Huston, the show is attracting a lot of buzz for being a very different kind of project for NBC.
The pilot has been available on NBC.com and iTunes for some time now, and after watching it, I can say with absolute certainty that “Smash” is pretty terrible. Yes, the music is fun, and it certainly has its moments, but make no mistake, it’s really rather bad on the whole.
Here’s the issue, though: It’s still more ambitious and interesting than half of what’s on network television today. So should “Smash” be applauded as a risk or bashed for what it really is, a flop?
Let’s start with a quick diagnosis of why “Smash” fails. First, the good news: the musical moments are actually pretty great. While one might wonder why McPhee suddenly can’t sing “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” her breakout song on “American Idol,” the other members of the ensemble, particularly Megan Hilty, are accomplished. Hilty is the only one who can act and sing in equal measure. The other principal performers, especially Messing and Huston, are hit-and-miss. Almost anyone who isn’t already a star in his or her own right on the show is borderline awful. Messing’s family might as well be played by pieces of plywood for all of their range.
Even the best actors are saddled with bad dialogue – Messing has to convincingly deliver a filibuster about revivals on Broadway rather than new material in the first five minutes of the episode, and the whole thing just arrives with a crash. Huston is chewing the scenery all over the place, which is a shame, because her wonderfully understated work in “50/50” was a highlight of the last year in cinema.
But the biggest problem with “Smash” is also one of its strengths: It is fully immersed in the theater world. Not the biggest fan of Broadway? “Smash” doesn’t really care about appeasing you – it’s going to continue talking about insider stuff, and expects you to keep up. That level of apathy for audience capability is rare to find on network television, but this isn’t exactly a cop show. If you live outside of New York City, some of this is gonna be flying over your head.
The nature of “Smash” is something more shows should try. So often, television series are weighed down by exposition to the point of never recovering fully – or they never catch up their audience. By the end of the episode, I already felt better about the show’s abilities to remain insider-focused but also attainable. The last song of the episode, “Let Me Be Your Star,” is an absolute home run, too. The finale was the only time I felt “Smash” could be a hit. But that was the end of the episode. It was just because of this column that I kept watching. Other viewers don’t have to stay tuned.
NBC was smart to release the pilot early – any fans that make it through the whole episode will be likely to stick around. As always, you can never count out musical theater nerds as an audience. After all, they’re the ones who keep “Glee” alive. But the next episodes just need to be better or else the show will never succeed.
Making such an ambitious, rare show is admirable on NBC’s part. However, the network just isn’t in the place to be taking such risks. More chances like this should be taken by CBS, the first-place network, because they can afford it. As far as “Smash” goes, it looks like NBC’s gamble just isn’t going to pay off.