Ellen Gray: There's reasons not to watch 'Smash,' but you should

"American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee (right) plays rival to Megan Hilty (left).
"American Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee (right) plays rival to Megan Hilty (left). (ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Posted: February 06, 2012

SMASH. 10 tonight, NBC 10.

I'VE SPENT months trying to resist NBC's "Smash," I really have.

Not only does that title - "Smash"! - lead with its chin, but as a show about show business, it has critically acclaimed heartbreak written all over it.

And I know my gushing about it isn't going to help, especially if you're already tired of hearing about it.

So I'm not going to gush. Much.

Instead, because I've considered all of them, I'm going to offer a few reasons you might not want to bother with "Smash," which premieres tonight after a two-hour episode of "The Voice," the singing competition that's currently the only decent lead-in NBC has to offer:

You're already sick to death of Fox's "Glee," and a show about the making of a Broadway musical sounds an awful lot like "Glee" for grown-ups.

Well, it is, and isn't.

"Smash," which sets out to trace the development of an original piece of theater about Marilyn Monroe, is more like "Glee" by grown-ups. The actors sing and dance, but whether singing or speaking, they're fully realized characters, not freakishly talented pawns, and their stories - and choices - reflect a real-life awareness I only wish "Glee" could muster.

Plus: No theme weeks.

You figure you've already seen this show, in which Debra Messing plays a woman whose best friend is a gay guy.

It says something about how different, almost un-Messing-like, Messing's Julia, one-half of a successful Broadway songwriting team, is from Grace that I almost forgot there might be a "Will & Grace" comparison. In any case, her writing partner Tom (Christian Borle) is no more like Eric McCormack's Will than I am like Madonna.

Successful, married to a stay-at-home dad and in the process of trying to adopt a daughter from China, Julia isn't quite as much in control of her life as she seems at first, but next to Grace, she's the Rock of Gibraltar.

You're tired of singing competitions. Especially "American Idol."

Much is made in NBC's sometimes spoilerish promos of the rivalry between "Idol" runner-up Katharine McPhee's ingenue character and Megan Hilty's Broadway veteran, but a considerable chunk of the magic of "Smash" is in its depiction of the creative process, not just the casting one.

It doesn't hurt that those catchy original songs Messing and Borle are pretending to write are actually by executive producers (and "Hairspray" collaborators) Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

What does hurt, a little: "Smash's" insistence that the novice played by McPhee, who - unlike many of her "Idol" counterparts - doesn't have the kind of voice that screams Broadway, would have a shot at being cast in the lead of a musical about Marilyn Monroe. She's far from bad, but audition rooms, I suspect, are full of far-from-bad, and may even boast a surplus of very-good-but-we're-going-in-a-different-direction.

In real life, I think McPhee's character might need the edge of being who the actress really is, an attractive singer who came to fame on a TV show. Why not use that?

You've heard it takes years to mount a Broadway show. Who has that kind of time?

It's a question the show's producers have clearly considered.

In fact, when I first saw "Smash," I was more concerned by how much plot it burned through in the first couple of episodes than I was with how long it might take to get the actors to a stage.

That was deliberate, creator Theresa Rebeck said at an NBC news conference last month.

"For a good six months you have writers writing, and who wants to watch a television show about writers sitting around writing?" said Rebeck.

(My answer: "Writers.")

"It was important to us to get to the first workshop more quickly so that we could see the community coming together," she said, before slowing things down a bit in subsequent episodes.

Now that I've seen those episodes I find I'm liking the show more, not less. (Drat.)

You're a cable snob and you don't really trust a broadcast network with a show that involves neither cops nor a studio audience.

"Smash," whose many, many producers include Steven Spielberg, the "Chicago" team of Craig Zadan and Neil Meron (and Germantown Friends grads-and-writing partners Elisa Zuritsky and Julie Rottenberg) began life as a project intended for Showtime, where NBC entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt used to run things.

Which maybe explains why its stars include Anjelica Huston, who plays a Broadway producer whose complicated divorce is used as an excuse to put "Marilyn the Musical" on an unusually fast track.

Or why Rebeck, who's written extensively for both theater (her latest Broadway play, "Seminar," stars Alan Rickman) and television ("NYPD Blue," "Law & Order: Criminal Intent"), found writing "Smash" allowed her "a better process" than most TV shows, where executives tend to want a lot of details up front before writing can even begin.

"They didn't really make me do that many drafts of a treatment for the pilot. I virtually had character descriptions and stuff and Steven said . . . 'Send her off to write it,' " she recalled.

But Rebeck isn't a snob about television.

"I actually think that television is a very good place for a playwright to work," she said, especially compared with film, "which is a terrible place. . . . You have no control."

As for movie stars who say they aren't ready to do TV, "I just find that very lazy thinking."


Send email to graye@phillynews.com.

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