Super Bowl weekend is just seven days away -- and with it the true beginning of broadcast’s midseason, heralding the arrival of a number of new scripted series that many critics believe to be collectively superior to last fall’s freshman class. Specifically, I’m talking about two on NBC -- “Smash” and “Awake” -- and two on ABC -- “The River” and “GCB.”
To begin with the biggest and the best, NBC’s “Smash” -- a drama with music that chronicles the making of a Broadway musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe -- might be the boldest broadcast undertaking since “Lost,” in that it is utterly unlike any other television series I can recall, including legendary ‘90s musical misfire “Cop Rock” and the currently tiresome “Glee.”
“Smash” is not a musical, although at times it briefly slips into that format, but not so much as to be a potential problem. Rather, its performance sequences are generally a part of the narrative – formal and informal rehearsals, spontaneous singing at parties, or stylish flash-forwards to what the show-in-development’s production numbers might look like in their final form. Almost all of the songs in this series are originals, the likes of which one would likely hum when leaving the theater, which brings up an interesting observation: After watching the first four episodes, I can totally see the songs and production numbers in them being linked together to form an actual Broadway musical. At the very least, “Smash” (premiering Feb. 6) will be one of those rare television series to produce a seriously entertaining soundtrack album. There will be much more to say about this wonderful show in the weeks to come.
I’m rooting for “Awake” (which has yet to be scheduled), a well-written procedural crime drama dressed up as an intense emotional exploration of family relationships. Or maybe it’s a meditation on the meaning of life. Jason Isaacs is terrific as a detective who apparently moves between two realities after surviving a devastating car accident in which, it seems, either his wife or his son was killed. In one world his wife is still alive; in the other his son survived. “Awake” won’t be an easy sell, because it’s somewhat downbeat and more than a little foggy: Isaacs’ character has either lost his wife or his son or, to get even more metaphysical, perhaps both. Or he may not have lost either and he might be experiencing this entire series in one of those all-too-convenient TV comas. That may be too much angst and confusion in these increasingly despairing times.
The supernatural thriller “The River” (Feb. 7) will remind most people of “Lost”: It takes place in a tropical setting, it piles mysterious thing upon mysterious thing, and there is even a menacing creature of some kind lurking in the jungle. It’s all about the search for a missing nature show host that takes his wife, son and a reality television crew into previously uncharted and apparently haunted waterways along the Amazon. Given the popularity of AMC’s “The Walking Dead” and FX’s “American Horror Story” the time certainly feels right for this show, because it is a genuinely scary affair, so much so that when it isn’t actually frightening it is still crazy-creepy. It will spoil nothing to note that my only problem with this show is the way the first episode ends: If I were on that boat, I’d grab the wheel and steer it back the way it came rather than continue down the terrifying title waterway. But then we wouldn’t have “The River,” and with “24” and “Lost” now fading from memory, broadcast television needs a serialized thriller to get us all happily worked up again. “The River” could be outstanding in that capacity.
In my humble opinion, “GCB” (March 4) isn’t nearly as smart or humorous as it thinks it is -- in fact, I found it strangely brittle and perilously predictable. This hour comedy about a woman who flees Los Angeles for her mother’s home in Dallas after her marriage ends, only to find herself at the mercy of the now-aging mean girls she knew in her youth, is supposed to be the heiress-apparent to “Desperate Housewives.” I say no way; “Housewives” was fitfully clever and surprising, at least in its early years. But I’m including “GCB” in this column because I seem to be in the minority, in that many critics I respect tell me they like it very much. It was originally known as “Good Christian Bitches,” but was changed to “Good Christian Belles” when ABC realized that it would have a public relations nightmare on its hands if it went with a series that referred in its title to even a few Christian women in so insulting a way. Now it is known simply as “GCB,” which will strike most people as confusing or nonsensical if they aren’t already familiar with this show.
But I suspect we’re still supposed to think of it by its original name. Imagine the fit-pitching that would result if the women in the title were involved in any other religion! Or would ABC have even gone there to begin with? Discuss.