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Dead Tree Alert: Smash: Broadway’s West Wing, or Its Studio 60?

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NBC’s musical-about-a-musical, Smash, debuts next Monday, but after the massive promotional blitz, you’d be excused for feeling like you’ve already seen the entire 15-episode season. (The pilot has been available for streaming and download for a few weeks now.) NBC has high hopes for the show–I’ll be surprised if it doesn’t do huge ratings, at least at first–and it’s already collected a lot of bouquets.

My review (subscription required) is in the current TIME, and while there was a lot I liked in the first four episodes of Smash, let’s call it a dissenting opinion. (There’s some plot detail in the review, but not nearly as much spoilage as NBC has put in its own promos):

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…

There are so many layers of meta in Smash that you need to review it on a few levels. As a business enterprise, it’s risky: it’s expensive, it’s a tricky genre for TV and it required sketching out a series about a musical and the musical itself (which supposedly could be produced on Broadway itself someday), with several highly produced songs an episode, including one original song per outing. As a musical, it’s polished but not really original: the Marilyn musical is straight-up old-school Broadway, while–for all the “It’s not Glee!” buzz–the series is still a jukebox musical, right down to Glee standbys like the heavily-promoted cover of “Beautiful.” (There’s also a dance number to “Rumour Has It.” Glee would never do that!) And as an actual network drama–for me, the most important test–it relies too much on conventional showbiz plotlines and characters for me to get invested in it.

Having said that, you might disagree, because a lot of my colleagues do: for instance, Jace Lacob, the TV critic for The Daily Beast and Newsweek, likens Smash to a West Wing for Broadway. It’s a fruitful comparison, but for good and bad reasons. Like The West Wing, Smash is a high-gloss, high-minded attempt to bring viewers behind the scenes of a rarefied world, and it tries to engage that world on its own terms. There’s also the vague sense that there’s something high-minded and ennobling about the show’s very existence.

But also like The West Wing, it tends to idealize its subject, sometimes at the expense of the realism of its characters, who could use a few more dings and nicks. I feel like Smash wants to do the kind of cable-show-on-network storytelling of a show like The Good Wife, but where The Good Wife complicates its characters and shades them morally, Smash deals much more in recognizable stereotypes: the Iowa ingenue, the sexy starlet, the sleazy director and so on. Smash is about sophisticated people, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s actually doing sophisticated storytelling. Which may be one reason that–much like with The West Wing–I find a lot to admire in Smash, but I don’t actually love it, on a gut level, as much as a lot of other critics I usually agree with (Lacob, Tim Goodman and Mo Ryan among them).

Another useful Sorkin comparison here, though, is to Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, which had some of the same Sorkin trademarks but the additional challenge of putting on a show-within-a-show. What we see of Marilyn: The Musical is definitely better than the sketch comedy on Studio 60; “Let Me Be Your Star,” the emotional closer of the pilot episode, is literally and figuratively a show-stopper.

But other glimpses of the production don’t seem nearly as good as the characters keep telling us they are. A duet between Marilyn and Joe DiMaggio literally had me unintentionally laughing, and songs like “The National Pastime” will depend on your taste for elbow-through-the-ribs double entendre. What concerns me most, though, is the way the show characterizes Marilyn: partly a made-for-TV-biopic “lonely girl looking for love” narrative, partly a hammy, boop-boop-be-doop sexpot performance that makes her into a character from one of her movies. (One lyric: “Here’s a lesson they should teach in school / When a girl gets curvy and the boys all drool / If math and science just ain’t your style / Just give that teacher a wink and a smile / For a passing grade you won’t have to wait / And you can thank him later when you graduate!” Ewww.)

Now, the musical-within-a-musical is much less important than the drama itself. But these issues sort of represent my issues with Smash itself: for all the talk of its ambition, it was pretty much exactly what I’d expect a middlebrow, adult-oriented NBC show about Broadway to look like, just as Marilyn: The Musical looks just like what I’d expect a mainstream Broadway bio-musical to look like. Some of this is probably a matter of personal taste: Marilyn is not the kind of musical I’d go out of my way to see, but you probably can’t make a network hit out of Sondheim and The Book of Mormon is cable material.

I’m harping a lot on the show’s negatives here, but that’s partly because I think Smash is being sold as something more groundbreaking and brilliant than it actually is so far. (Flame me, but I would argue that Glee at its best—however unreliably its best manages to show up these days—is more ambitious and original, lack of original music notwithstanding. Where you come down on the two shows probably depends partly on how important consistency is to you; I’ll take occasional brilliance over reliable competence any day.) But I’m a sucker for a TV musical–I wouldn’t have stuck it out with Glee otherwise–and if Smash actually became a kind of singing Good Wife, with writing that matched its technical slickness, I’d watch gladly. For now, I’m keeping an eye on it from the cheap seats.