It is often the case that networks in the most dire straits take the wildest swings. ABC unleashed "Twin Peaks" during a ratings downturn and NBC's early 1980s desperation allowed for the creative rebirth of the network with "Hill Street Blues," "Cheers" and "The Cosby Show."
Two of those four series became hits -- "Cheers" and "Cosby" -- and two were critical darlings that changed prime time but were never ratings successes. "Twin Peaks" lasted just two short seasons. Bringing up these past creative triumphs is a way of managing expectations for NBC's "Smash" (10 p.m. Monday, WPXI); this new series is not nearly as revolutionary as "Hill Street Blues," but still defies expectations in an era of diminishing quality across broadcast networks' prime-time schedules.
And heaven knows, NBC is swinging for the fences with "Smash," a drama about the making of a Broadway musical. That might fly on Bravo or when set in a high school like Fox's "Glee," but it seems like a long shot for mainstream success on a broadcast network. (Perhaps it's telling that "Smash" originally was developed by NBC executive Robert Greenblatt when he ran the entertainment division at Showtime, a network more willing to invest in series with niche appeal).
But even if the odds are lower than the usual 20 percent success rate that greets all broadcast network prime-time series, viewers with a love of Broadway and good ol' workplace dramas won't regret tuning in for "Smash," an entertaining drama that sucks you in and gets your toes tapping during several musical numbers.
Debra Messing ("Will & Grace") stars as Julia, one-half of a successful songwriting duo. Julia splits her time between her husband, with whom she's trying to adopt a second child, and her writing partner, Tom (Pittsburgh native and Carnegie Mellon University grad Christian Borle). The pair recently returned from launching a London production of their Broadway hit "Heaven on Earth" and they plan to take a break, in part so Julia can concentrate on her family. Julia's home life is the weakest part of "Smash" and seems like a calculated effort to draw viewers who might be more interested in domestic drama than Broadway process.
But then Tom's new assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), gets the pair thinking about Marilyn Monroe and writing a new musical based on her life story. Pretty soon they're penning songs, one track gets unleashed on the Internet to rave reviews and their next musical begins to take shape.
It all happens quickly in the pilot, so much so that viewers may wonder how the story of the making of this musical will be drawn out for a whole first season. (Producers say the first season will cover the stage musical's development through an out-of-town tryout; in success, season two will follow the musical as it moves to Broadway.)
Over its first hour, "Smash" evolves into a true ensemble as it introduces two actresses vying for the lead role. Karen (Katharine McPhee, "American Idol") is fresh from Iowa and comes complete with a New York mayor's office boyfriend (Raza Jaffrey, "MI-5"). Her Marilyn audition is poppier. Ivy (CMU grad Megan Hilty), part of the "Heaven on Earth" chorus and a friend of Tom's, seems a little more desperate but her audition feels more authentic for a Broadway show. The pilot ends before viewers learn which one lands the part (that's revealed in episode two), although both are series regulars on "Smash" so it stands to reason they'll both have some role in the new musical.
Conflict creeps into "Marilyn" when producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) suggests obnoxious, slimy director Derek (Jack Davenport), who has some bad blood with Tom that's not fully explained in the pilot and won't be made clear until midway through the season.
Because character nuance is often lost in the rush to introduce all the players and their relationships, Derek comes off as a bit of a mustache-twirling baddie while Karen and her boyfriend seem a little too perfect.
"Smash" benefits from terrific musical numbers with songs by Broadway composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, a script by playwright/screenwriter Theresa Rebeck and direction by Tony winner Michael Mayer.
No less a stellar light than Steven Spielberg, last seen on TV credits in Fox's "Terra Nova," has signed on as an executive producer of "Smash" alongside Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, executive producers of musicals for the big screen (Rob Marshall's "Chicago") and TV (Rob Marshall's "Annie").
So, yeah, "Smash" has a lot going for it both behind the scenes and on screen. But for all of that, there's no guarantee it will live up to its title unless viewers do one simple thing: Show up.
Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: email@example.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published February 5, 2012 5:00 AM