Smash pretty much had me at its first teaser preview. After all, an American Idol grad starring in a high-concept drama about a pack of theater types mounting a Marilyn Monroe musical is like Chicken Soup for the Gay TV Junkie’s Soul. But I didn’t commit to setting a series recording till the fictitious Broadway show at the center of the action delivered a showstopping number (featuring the non-Idol contestant, and embedded below) about Marilyn’s first encounter with Joe DiMaggio featuring this sublime lyric: “A baseball diamond is a girl’s best friend.”
In a nutshell, Smash focuses on Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle), a pair of successful Broadway writing partners planning a hiatus so the former can focus on adotping a baby with her hunky husband Frank. But when Tom’s sexually ambiguous new assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) mentions having read a copy of a Marilyn Monroe biography he found on Tom’s bookshelf, the seed of a new show is unexpectedly sown. Hey, they’re just working on a single song, okay? Riiiight. Tom recruits Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), an ambitious chorus girl in Julia and Tom’s current hit, Heaven on Earth, to record a demo for “Never Give All the Heart,” a gut-wrenching ballad that Ellis kinda sorta accidentally leaks on a YouTube-type Web site. Before you can say Seven Year Itch, a high-powered producer (Eileen, played by Anjelica Huston) and director (Derek, played by Jack Davenport) are sniffing around the project, a dazzling young ingenue named Karen (Idol grad Katharine McPhee) emereges (along with Ivy Lynn and possibly Scarlett Johansson) as the main contender for the title role, and all of us get treated to a show not quite like anything on television right now. Did we mention Karen has a smoldering hot, super supportive boyfriend named Dev, who works at the Mayor’s office, and overprotective parents who want her to move back to Iowa? Did we mention that even though the previews would have us believe Karen is the one for whom we’re going to root, that Ivy Lynn proves an equally magnetic and sympathetic presence?
The episode ends with a cliffhanger: Karen and Ivy Lynn arriving for callbacks — belting “Let Me Be Your Star” — at the exact same moment. And honestly, if NBC somehow — blashphemy alert — pulls the plug on Smash before we see how the entire Marilyn musical plays out, then producer Steven Spielberg should be required by law to bring the production to an actual Broadway stage.
What I especially loved about the pilot, though, is how every major character got a specific character trait or dilemma or line of dialogue that made me eager to see how his or her story arc will play out:
* Karen, for starters, certainly has some of the “scared bird” innocence that Derek scoffs at during her late-night “callback” in his apartment. But her three-word, five-star brushoff — “not gonna happen” — after her Marilyn-esque “Happy Birthday” prompts Derek to make his unseemly move, proves she possesses the kind of inner flint a central character requires. (That scene of Karen, shaken to the core in Derek’s bathroom, proves McPhee’s got the acting chops necessary for the gig, too.)
* Ivy Lynn, for her part, sold the fictional Broadway show — and Smash itself — with an extraordinary rehearsal of “National Pasttime” (that occasionally took flight as a fully blown production number in the minds of its writers, director, and producer). And that scene of Ivy Lynn, alone in her apartment trying to get her mother to take 30 seconds to get excited about her callback, was a thing of heartbreaking beauty.
* Messing’s Julia is perhaps the most complicated character thus far. She’s clearly a loving wife and mother, but she’s not willing to completely sacrifice her ambitions on the altar of family. When her husband reminds her she was supposed to take a year off to work on their planned adoption of a second child, she doesn’t talk about her own need to write, but rather, her almost scary committment to the character of Marilyn. I loved Julia’s factoid about Marilyn’s final interview — “She said ‘please don’t make a joke out of me.'” — but I’m not sure it bodes for serene sailing in her home life.
* Tom’s backstage encounter with a hot chorus guy whose name he can’t quite remember was a nice foreshadowing that he’s probably not 100 percent in the right in his past feud with Derek. A gay character who’s more than a neutered, saintly sidekick for his straight-lady friend? I say “brrrring it!”
* Okay, yeah, Derek clearly would’ve taken his late-night callback into casting-couch territory, but is it possible that a better performance from his choice for a leading lady was the real endgame in that scene with Karen? It’s an interesting thought, although my gut says to agree with Tom: “He is a terrible human being!”
* This exchange between Eileen and her soon-to-be ex (and Huston’s sublime delivery) is a hint that our not-dead-yet producer will probably be the most quotable character on the show:
Hubby: Bringing up love at a divorce proceeding is childish.
Eileen: Screwing every blonde who opened up her legs to you is also childish.
Honorable mention goes to Eileen’s response to Derek saying he has a hard time getting along with gay men: “That’s an unfortunate position to take in the American theatre.”
What did you think of the Smash premiere? (Take our poll below!) Will you tune in for the entire season? And which character was your favorite? Sound off in the comments, and for all my TV recaps, follow me on Twitter @MichaelSlezakTV!