‘Smash’ no creative smash, but close enough

Smash
Through its subject matter and NBC’s all-in promotional effort for its premiere tonight, “Smash” (reviewed by Brian Lowry of Variety here) is going to inspire a lot of passionate love-it-or-hate-it reaction. So let me be the one to stake out the territory of mixed feelings.

That ambivalence isn’t out of lack of interest in the show. This is a show that I very much want to like, set in a world that I’d be very happy to spend years being a part of. That being said, based on the first two episodes of the show, “Smash” is a program filled with winning moments one minute and clunkers the next.

The performances are strong across the board. As was clear based on the preview clips screened at last year’s network upfronts, “Smash” gives Katharine McPhee her Jennifer Hudson moment. This is the last time anyone’s going to call her “former ‘American Idol’ finalist” as opposed to “‘Smash’ star.” (Hopefully, as far as NBC’s concerned, “former ‘Smash’ star” doesn’t come for a while.) But it’s not just McPhee — in the large ensemble, there isn’t anyone who isn’t convincing in his or her role.

The storytelling, overall, succeeds in that each episode ends leaving you eager to see the next. But within in each episode, there are groaners. 

Smash2Category 1: Cliche. There are some characterizations and plot devices that you can see coming a mile away. They aren’t fatal to the show, but they’re disappointing. Some of them are too familiar, but at least ring true. Others are not only familiar but seem completely phony — that’s when you risk fans tuning out. 

Category 2: The music. The way that song is integrated into the show is first-rate. The songs themselves … I’m not so sure.

There are showpiece numbers in each of the first two episodes that I could see Mel Brooks parodying in the 1970s — in other words, they would have seemed dated 40 years ago. The show’s premise of a Broadway show on Marilyn Monroe makes total sense, but right now, the musical itself looks like it would be pretty bleah. (This is a milder form of the “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip” problem that NBC had in 2006, when the characters kept insisting how brilliant their latenight show was, yet could provide no evidence of that.)

It’s particuarly important, even as it celebrates traditional Broadway, for “Smash” to feel original and inventive. It’s in those moments that millions of viewers won’t be able to turn away, and NBC’s major investment in the welfare of this series will be justified. The first two episodes offer enough of this to keep viewers intrigued — at this point, “Smash” is a welcome complement or alternative (depending on your point of view) to “The Voice,” “American Idol” and “Glee.” And frankly, even if the show isn’t worthy of blind love, its qualified creative success should be enough to launch the show for a multiyear run, even on a network that has had as much trouble launching scripted hours as NBC.

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