Set behind the curtain of a Broadway musical, the NBC drama "Smash" might have done very well on the network about 15 years ago. NBC was indomitable then among upscale 18-to-49 year-olds and home to smart, quality programming that might have allowed the show about the making of a Marilyn Monroe musical to find a large audience.
After all, a “Must See TV” comedy about wacky Upper West Siders, with loads of inside jokes, did very well in the Upper Midwest. “30 Rock” likely would have been a big hit then if paired with it. Clinton-inspired “The West Wing" had a nice run.
But so much has changed. Even as NBC is desperate for some ratings ignition, it still envisions itself as home to the kind of premium comedies and dramas that thrived in the 1980s and 1990s. It hopes “Smash,” with Steven Spielberg behind it, will be a tent pole for a return.
The show has promise, but the dynamics of 2012 broadcast TV make it hard to envision hit status.
Creatively, the process of putting on the Marilyn Monroe musical provides "Smash" with an entrée into multiple plots, ranging from young stars striving for a break to the personal dramas of successful writers to whether a powerful producer can fight through a divorce.
For viewers, the next time they sit in a Broadway audience, they're likely to appreciate the minefield of heartbreak and politics and finances it took to get to scene one.
The best TV dramas, even with their creative freedom and exaggeration, give viewers a sense they are getting an inside look at a world inaccessible to them – whether “The Sopranos” or “West Wing” -- and “Smash” shows potential there with Broadway.
In the show, Katharine McPhee, the former “American Idol” runner-up, is the standout in episode one, while playing the winsome yet determined actress pursuing the Marilyn part after a series of failed auditions. Scenes where her character tries to emulate Monroe with advice and encouragement from her boyfriend are endearing. Her singing is outstanding.
Viewers will root for her character (Karen Cartwright) … at least until she becomes less of an ingénue and more of an infighter back stage. Much of that coming toughness appears to be rooted in keeping the Marilyn role with a challenge from Ivy Bell (played by the relatively unknown Megan Hilty).
Former “Will & Grace” star Debra Messing and actual Broadway veteran Christian Borle play the writers of the Marilyn musical. Oscar-winning legend Angelica Huston plays the persistent producer. Jack Davenport plays the slimy director, with a penchant for using his casting power as a way to bed desperate wannabees.
Messing's Julia character is trying to adopt a child, which proves a distraction. Messing is OK in her role, but hardly spectacular. It’s a completely different assignment than her superb work on “Will & Grace,” but one pines for Grace.
Great writing brings a scene where Julia asks her teenage son, “When I say Marilyn, what do you think?” His answers include “Baltimore, Marylin'" and "Marilyn Manson.” And yet, there is no humor from Messing.
With McPhee, there is plenty of excellent music and scenes with cutaways to how performances would look in final form. There will be original songs and covers in each episode, which “Glee” has shown can have shelf lives off the air.
"Smash" should try to tell the heartwarming stories of making it on the Great White Way without cliché. It’s rather trite that McPhee’s character is from Iowa and working as a waitress waiting for her break. Couldn’t this stereotype be modernized and she at least work at the Apple store?
Another scene is exceedingly treacly. Marilyn wannabe Ivy wants to become more than a dancer, but says wistfully, “I'm not complaining."
“Just dreaming,” says Tom, the writer.
“Like everybody,” she says.
There is plenty in episode one to get viewers to tune in for at least another show. So, NBC has launched a massive promotional push to bring that initial audience, which goes all the way from pages in Broadway Playbills to expected promos in Sunday’s Super Bowl. Smartly, the first episode is also available free at multiple stops online.
NBC is also counting on singing competition “The Voice” to return as a hit and deliver a big audience to "Smash," which will follow it on Mondays.
But even if "Smash" proves a standout creatively, its long-term success would seem to face two major hurdles in avoiding the fate of “Friday Night Lights" and other critic-loved, but ratings-starved shows.
Both are rooted in it being on NBC. On cable, even a few million viewers tuning in week after week is enough to keep a series like “Smash” going. On broadcast TV, there have to be millions more. (Maybe appropriately, “Smash” was originally ticketed for Showtime.)
Is “Smash” too Broadway? Does it have appeal beyond those who can’t sing every “Pippin” and “Wicked” song?
Themes such as striving and overcoming and love and betrayal – along with doses of pop music – could help move beyond that.
But more problematically, it’s a serial drama. And springboarding viewers from week to week is harder than ever. Even with DVRs and video on demand and Hulu, viewers seem to increasingly feel if they’ve missed a few episodes, they’re hopelessly behind and they'll wait for Netflix.
Procedural dramas with a story arc that wraps in one episode – notably solving a crime – dominate. This season, there are no more than five serial dramas among the top-30 shows. Four -- “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Once Upon A Time," “Desperate Housewives” and “Private Practice” -- are on ABC. Fox’s “Terra Nova" is a fifth, but it's future is uncertain.
“Once Upon A Time” is in its first season, so clearly there is potential for a break out, but the bar is so high.
NBC has ordered 15 episodes of “Smash.” With all it has put behind the show, it will surely air all of them even if audience levels don’t impress after a handful of episodes.
He probably didn't want to anyway, but one of the "Smash" stars isn't quitting his day job. There were questions whether Christian Borle, the Broadway mainstay, would be able to keep his stage commitment to a Peter Pan prequel.
But, he’ll be on stage starting March 28. That's when NBC hopes the “Smash” ratings are flying as high as Monroe’s skirt in that famous “Seven Year Itch” scene.