TV Review: SMASH

Yeah, yeah, it’s exec produced by Steven Spielberg, stars Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, has big musical numbers…but is it any good? Well, it’s technically impressive, but after finishing the pilot episode of Smash (premiering Monday, Feb. 6 at 10/9c on NBC), I still had a hard time locating its heart.

The story revolves around the songwriting team of Tom and Julia (Christian Borle and Messing) trying to find the perfect actress to play Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway production about her life. We see a room full of wannabes and one bad audition and by the end of the pilot, it looks like it’s down to just two contenders: blond and curvy Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, Wicked) and doe-eyed brunette Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee, American Idol). Ivy is a chorus girl itching to strut her stuff in a lead role, while Karen is a waitress from Iowa who’s so green, she immediately jumps at the chance to go over to the director’s home at 10 p.m. for a one-on-one “coaching session.” Uh huh. That’s not just being a naive actress; that’s being a stupid female.


Both Hilty and McPhee have superb singing voices, but so far, neither Ivy nor Karen seems like a shoo-in to play Monroe. Ivy has the Broadway experience, is more dynamic while performing, looks more like the iconic actress, but there’s a been-around-the-block hardness to her character that wouldn’t be right for Marilyn, who’s softer around the edges. Karen has more of the innocence, but she’s so inexperienced as an actress that I, too, would hesitate to put my money on her to carry a big Broadway production. This is part of the conflict of Smash, since the creative team is having trouble deciding between the two. (Isn’t there a third choice? It’s New York!)


In the real world, though, Hilty is obviously the stronger actress. Putting McPhee up against her is like scheduling a fight between Jet Li and a kid who just started studying martial arts two weeks ago. The running gag in the show is that producers keep calling Karen “light” when rejecting her for roles and she doesn’t know what that means (she does eventually find out). The description is apropos, though, because McPhee is a lightweight compared to Hilty. Some of McPhee’s performance looks stilted, her movements are affectations, as if she’s not yet settled into the role.

Messing, whose work I enjoyed on Will & Grace, hasn’t found her footing, either, as Julia. She has a couple scenes in which she isn’t quite convincing as a workaholic taking on two new projects at the same time: trying to adopt a child and producing an original musical. The actress was playing Julia’s dilemma in a dramatic fashion, but it seems as if she just wanted to burst out and do something goofy. Anjelica Huston is formidable as usual, but her producer character is—as of now—secondary (she brings money to the table). It’s more about the dream and the passion and sweat and tears, and yes, some of it is kind of cheesy.

But there is a big, glossy baseball number (because Marilyn was married to Joe DiMaggio), and if you like peeking behind the curtains of a big theatrical production, seeing the training and rehearsals and possible catfights that happen along the way to opening night, this might be the ticket for you.

Note: If you can’t wait until Monday, the entire pilot is available now as a free download on iTunes.

Nerd verdict: Not quite Smashing but has potential

Photos: NBC



  • Reply
    February 2, 2012 at 10:46 pm

    I saw it, and I 100% agree with you.

    I love McPhee (or perhaps I just love her “Over the Rainbow” American Idol performance). But she has a lot of time left to find herself in the role. It somewhat works when she’s “playing” naive, but the rest of the time it just doesn’t work.

    But then, you said it perfectly: it’s missing its heart. While it may have the Smash, it’s missing the joy… the Glee. And yes, technically is absolutely fantastic. And amazing is Angelica Houston (or is it the other way around?… Nah, I’m sure I wrote it right).

  • Reply
    February 2, 2012 at 11:10 pm

    Damn, Pop Culture Nerd, you are RIGHT ON THE MONEY. Your writing is astute and your observations are spot-on. I’ve never agreed with ANY review that I’ve read as strongly as yours. I’m a little concerned about the show….it’s story line seems pretty linear…one that I fear myself losing interest in. 🙁 But, I DID love the Kristin Chenoweth reference (Hilty was a replacement for the role of “Glinda” in WICKED and the thought that her name was thrown out as a possible follow-up to Hilty’s Marilyn made me chuckle).

  • Reply
    February 3, 2012 at 8:58 am

    Well, I must say I sort of agree about the heart thing, but we have to remember this is the pilot which has to do a bit of everything rather than dig into anything. Of course, I would enjoy the whole concept more than someone who isn’t really into musicals and that, I am sure, is a lot of people out there (and in here!) But I did think it had potential. I liked the characters, I liked the actors, I liked the singers, production values and the whole over-all feel…I hope it doesn’t get boring since they are really playing the whole casting process very linear but I am going to watch the second episode and hope all the “cream rises to the top”

  • Reply
    February 3, 2012 at 10:22 am

    Well, I was lukewarm about this one to begin with and now I’m even more disappointed that it’s not a Friday Night Lights spin-off. Smash. Get it? You won’t, E, just trust me. 🙂

  • Reply
    February 3, 2012 at 10:23 am

    Glee really broke some ground by finally making a hit out of a TV show in which characters burst into song, however, it wears thin whenever the characters sing outside of the Glee Club room and under the guise of showcasing a song the actor or actress feels should be used in competition. Bursting into song in the middle of the hallway where I went to school would get you more than an ice cold Slurpee in the face. This is why Glee soon wore thin for me. Well, that and the butchering of some of my favorite songs. Then the creators became more interested in securing song rights than writing a decent plotline. That’s some of the danger this show seems to be heading for as well. Singing in an audition is fine, singing in your room is fine (in fact, I am doing that now), but singing while walking down the street in NY just doesn’t happen. The reality is that actresses would have their earbuds in and a concentrated look on their faces while trying to keep an eye out for anyone looking to take advantage of them. I hope the creators don’t have all the other characters who are not auditioning for the show burst into song during dramatic scenes. That would be a mistake. And when they finally cast the show, what then? On to the next show? Will they have the two actresses audition for that one as well and we will somehow have to believe once more they are the only 2 singing actresses in NYC who get callbacks? And I do agree with your assessment of Megan Hilty and Katherine McPhee.

    I don’t think the network thought this one through. But, since the Big Apple is on display occasionally, I will tune in for the next episode.

  • Reply
    Pop Culture Nerd
    February 3, 2012 at 1:56 pm

    Wow, thanks for the long comments, everyone! I thought I’d be in the minority for not loving it.

    Poncho—Your one sentence “While it may have the Smash, it’s missing…the Glee” could sum up the pilot right there.

    Bailey—I thought you might like that Chenoweth reference! And thanks for your very kind words about my review.

    Susan—Yes, pilots are often shaky, and series do go on to become much better shows. That’s why I’ll watch to see how the next ep is.

    Lauren—I have no choice but to trust you.

    EIREGO—I’ve always had a problem with anyone bursting into song anywhere in the middle of a story, especially a dramatic one. Within something funny like Mamma Mia! or Grease, I don’t mind so much.

  • Reply
    Shell Sherree
    February 3, 2012 at 11:19 pm

    I’m usually somewhat betwixt and between with musicals, whether on TV/film or live stage shows. My first instinct whenever they break into song is to get the giggles unless it’s done extremely well ~ but then again, it’s a musical, so what do I expect?! So I’m trying to get a better grip on that and Glee! has helped me to embrace it more readily. If they show this here, I’m likely to tune in and give it a chance. You are so darned astute, PCN. Thanks as always.

  • Reply
    jenn aka the picky girl
    February 5, 2012 at 4:57 pm

    I’ve been curious about this one for a while, which leads me to my question: Wasn’t this supposed to air forever ago? I remember being excited about it and then forgetting. So when they brought it up like it was brand new again, I was totally confused.

  • Reply
    February 8, 2012 at 10:51 am

    I finally saw this and must say that I am hoping for a smash as I am hooked already. I care about the characters and want to know how things work out for them. I love the back and forth between the reality and the “vision” of the possible costumes and staging and I was not at all annoyed by the bursting-into-song-scenes. Fingers crossed here…

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