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TV review: Smash, the grown-up Glee
The cast of Smash
Co-produced by a certain Mr Steven Spielberg, Smash is the latest NBC, erm, smash to cross the pond via the ever-wonderful Sky Atlantic channel.
The show charts the trials and tribulations of Manhattan's beautiful elite, as they attempt to bring the life of Marilyn Monroe to the Broadway stage. It is, if you like, a show within a show.
The pilot received rave reviews when it debuted in the US earlier this year. That fervour cooled as subsequent episodes aired, and ratings haven't quite repeated the success of the opening show. Despite this, its US network NBC has already commissioned a second series.
Smash's A-list cast includes Debra Messing (of Will & Grace fame) as Julia Houston, co-writer of the Marilyn musical, and Anjelica Huston as producer Eileen Rand, a woman with hair like Darth Vader's helmet and a killer instinct to match.
Our very own Jack Davenport plays sleazy director Derek Wills, while the coveted Marilyn role is chased by Megan Hilty (as seasoned chorus singer Ivy Lynn) and American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee (as waitress-with a-dream Karen Cartwright).
The original songs are good enough to suggest that Marilyn the Musical might one day genuinely be developed for the Broadway stage.
For such a contemporary showbiz world - where an audition tape can go viral on the internet within seconds of being filmed - the show feels strangely old-fashioned.
Sex, sleaze and seduction underpin Sky Atlantic's all-singing, all-dancing extravaganza of a show, which takes the best bits of Glee, adds a pinch of Black Swan, and comes up with something just about interesting enough to justify its own existence.
In other words, Smash is Glee for grown-ups.
"Smash is Glee for grown-ups"
The pilot episode kicks off with a beautiful - albeit horribly clichéd - performance of Somewhere Over The Rainbow, and concludes with what can only be described as a singing 'battle' between the two wannabe Marilyns.
Indeed, anyone tuning in during the first or last five minutes of Smash could have been forgiven for thinking they'd stumbled on a late-night repeat of The Voice UK.
It's fair to say that, for anyone not particularly fond of TV shows that feature lots of singing, Saturday evening channel-hopping has become something of a minefield.
A page out of Glee's book
Once we get beyond the poorly selected opening number, however, the show quickly gathers pace.
"the show quickly gathers pace"
We're introduced to Julia (Debra Messing) and her gay writing partner Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), and learn that Julia is supposed to be taking a break while she and her husband Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) adopt a child.
Julia - a hugely successful businesswoman - finds it impossible to let her idea for a Monroe musical wither and die. And so the fun begins.
But it's fun that feels curiously dated. It's difficult to pin down exactly why this is. It could be the soft focus shots, or perhaps it's the proliferation of clichés; such as wannabe star Karen (Katharine McPhee) as a waitress with a dream.
Then there's high-powered producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) all 1980s power suits and divorce proceedings. "I'll see you in court!" she barks at her husband, as he refuses to release her assets from ESCROW.
Ergo, when a video filmed on a mobile phone goes viral on the internet, it feels like an anachronism. At this point I realised I was watching a series that's meant to be set in the present day, not the 1980s or 1990s. That can't be a good sign (and the less said about the overnight average of 75,000 viewers for this opener, the better).
Thank you for the music
Any doubts about the overall value of the show are, however, swept away by the quality of the original music, composed by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman of Hairspray fame.
Songs such as baseball-themed centrepiece The National Pastime - a cheeky nod to Monroe's marriage to Joe DiMaggio (which contains the line "a baseball diamond is a girl's best friend") and closing number Let Me Be Your Star - a sing-off between the competing Marilyns - wouldn't sound out of place in a real Broadway musical.
"this show could run and run"
Granted, they're not quite my cup of tea (I'm more of an Einsturzende Neubauten type of fellow), but it's these uber-cheesy numbers that make the show.
Without them, Smash would probably be just another soapy drama. With them, this show could run and run (to a third season, at least).
All in all, a reasonably promising start to Sky Atlantic's latest import, but it remains to be seen whether future episodes can hold the UK audience's attention.
- Lovers of musical theatre will flock to Smash.
TV quotes of the week - Smash
"You could have a baseball number." - And, with these words, a new musical is born.
"I hate the theatre, I really do." - There may be trouble ahead for Frank and songwriter wife Julia.
"Sometimes dreams are hard." - And, sometimes, waitress Karen's lines make it sound like she's about to burst into song.
"The guy's a nightmare... gay men p*ss me off." - Director Derek is quite clearly in the wrong industry.
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