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 V.21 No.8 | February 23 - 29, 2012 
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Idiot Box

Hit or Miss?

“Smash” on NBC

Given the continuing success of vocal talent competitions like “American Idol,” “America’s Got Talent,” “The X Factor,” “The Voice,” et al, Americans are obviously obsessed with people who can carry a tune. So far, though, Hollywood hasn’t been able to translate that into anything other than “let’s all vote on America’s next pop star.” FOX’s “Glee” briefly captured the drama of stardom-seeking in fictionalized form, but the show’s writing continues on a tragic downward trajectory. The movie industry, meanwhile, has yet to fully convince audiences they actually want to see a full-fledged musical. (Nine? Burlesque?) Hell, even Broadway has a hard time holding onto shows that aren’t “jukebox” musicals filled with pre-popular songs by well-known groups like ABBA or Green Day. So what’s next?

According to the creators of “Smash,” it’s a making-of-a-Broadway-musical series that marries the competitive tension of “American Idol” to the “let’s all put on a show” energy of “Glee.” NBC’s chaotic new backstage drama concentrates on the creation and casting (and one would assume the eventual opening) of a musical version of the life of Marilyn Monroe.

Fronting this vanity project is writer Julia Houston (Debra Messing from “Will & Grace”). She’s obsessed with the idea but keeps getting sidelined by assorted family dramas. Her schoolteacher husband and she have allegedly quit their jobs for a couple of years so they can concentrate on adopting a Chinese baby. This particular subplot is as illogical as it is uninteresting. I hope the writers figure this out sooner than later and move on to better things.

Slightly more interesting is the side story of the show’s producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), a rich New York socialite in the midst of a nasty divorce. Will she keep her money or will her evil ex steal it all? I’m guessing she keeps it, otherwise the show never happens—but it’s good to see Huston in some juicy, drink-tossing conflict.

Our next major plot thread wraps around longtime Broadway hopeful Ivy Lynn (Broadway baby Megan Hilty) and innocent ingenue Karen Cartwright (former “American Idol” contestant Katharine McPhee). Which one of these two ladies will land the coveted role of Marilyn? “Smash” has already milked significant drama from the “Idol”-like auditioning process, but eventually somebody’s got to bite the bullet and start rehearsals.

So far, the biggest question is where this is all leading. Will we spend an entire season casting each and every role right down to the chorus? What if “Smash” is a success? Two seasons from now, will the characters be fighting off boredom at their 100th Sunday matinee performance of Marilyn: The Musical? And since this is about the creation of one single Broadway musical, will our characters be singing the same songs week after week?

There are things that work here. The cast is well-chosen. The music (by Marc Shaiman of Hairspray and South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut fame) is catchy. There’s lots of dancing. Let’s hope the show can just avoid showbiz clichés and eye-rolling melodrama long enough to find its footing.

“Smash” airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on KOB-4.

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