Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty
Resist the urge to pigeonhole or, worse, dismiss NBC's Smash as a "Glee for grownups." It's more original and exciting than that, bringing a thrilling charge of bold creative energy to network TV's mid-season that the fall largely lacked. Smash (premiering tonight at 10/9c, and maybe you caught wind of it during the Super Bowl?) is a musical show-stopper, a lavish and dishy wallow in the glittery yet gritty glamour of Broadway. It's a far cry from what you'd call ordinary TV, but why should cable have all the fun?
"There's nothing safe about being a star," a diabolically sexy director (scene-stealer Jack Davenport) cautions his leading lady several episodes into Smash. There's nothing safe about doing a show like Smash, either, which asks viewers to invest in a very insular world as we observe the painstaking, backbiting and exhilarating process of creating an original musical (with catchy original songs, no less, from Hairspray's winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman). The musical's subject matter: Marilyn Monroe, who inspired a real-life flop musical back in the '80s — and don't the merciless gossips who inhabit the world of Smash know it.
As two very different ingénues battle it out for the lead, a brassy veteran chorine (Megan Hilty, a true Broadway veteran) and a newbie from Iowa with heart (American Idol's Katharine McPhee), Smash at times evokes Bob Fosse's classic All That Jazz in its gimlet-eyed, gamy yet irrepressibly fabulous and tuneful valentine to the business of show biz. The influence of top-tier producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron, whose credits include the Oscar-winning movie version of Chicago, can be felt in those razzle-dazzling moments when a sweaty rehearsal suddenly shifts into a full-dress production number, the dream realized (if only in their heads for now).
The cast is a provocative mash-up of TV, movie and Broadway talent. Debra Messing savors her new Will & Grace-like collaboration as a married lyricist working with a gay songwriter (tart Christian Borle), and the grand Anjelica Huston tosses back a mean Manhattan — often in her philandering ex's face — as the cash-strapped producer desperately trying to woo investors.
Not everything in Smash is worthy of a standing O, especially when the focus moves from the show-within-the-show to the more conventional personal arena, where an adoption subplot for Messing's character is so dull it makes Parenthood's look exciting. I get why the writers would want an All About Eve-inspired storyline — no shame in borrowing from the classics — but the character of lyricist Borle's simpering new assistant, who regularly locks horns with Messing, is poorly conceived and insipidly played (by newbie Jaime Cepero).
The first few episodes after tonight's sensational pilot struggle to find the right balance between the musical and the dramatic, but by the fourth hour, as the new leading lady makes things difficult for the also-ran during the tense rehearsal process, Smash finds its footing. The show depicts an incestuous world where torrid "show crushes" erupt among desperately ambitious people dreaming of a hit. I have a "show crush" on Smash, and hope it lives up to its name.
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HOUSE CALL: While NBC's new musical Monday line-up of The Voice (love those blind auditions!) and Smash dominates tonight's TV news, the February sweeps continues elsewhere, meaning big episodes of longtime faves. Including Fox's House (8/7c), which rebounds from a mostly lackluster transitional season with a powerful showcase for Hugh Laurie. The good/bad doctor, already on parole, finds himself under the microscope of a disciplinary hearing where his team's entire unorthodox process comes under review, with House's future freedom at stake if he's suspended. Stylishly directed by Emmy-winning executive producer Greg Yaitanes (helming his 30th episode), the story opens on what looks like a crime scene in a patient's bloodied hospital room, and as we piece together what happened, through testimony by House and his long-suffering flunkies, we sit in judgment alongside the episode's impressive guest star Jeffrey Wright, a fellow doctor who we learn once was Foreman's mentor pre-House.
"Are you intentionally trying to get me to dislike you?" wonders the thoughtful interloper, revealing how little he knows about House. The more he hears, the less he approves of the atmosphere of irreverence and recklessness that results in a shockingly violent turn of events. "You going to punish callousness?" wonders one of House's team, who all concede their master is a maddening handful, but isn't that the price of genius? This smartly structured, compelling episode acts not only as a referendum on House's behavior but as a reflection on the show itself, which has seen better days (especially where the ensemble is concerned). It's almost a shame this wasn't saved for the end of the season, in case House isn't renewed for a ninth year. One judgment call at a time, I guess.
THE BOGEY MAN: Who doesn't love a good old-fashioned noir detective story? The cast of ABC's Castle (10:01/9:01c) can't resist the lure, either, as all are drawn into a luscious-looking and just plain fun parody of '40s-era Hollywood-swank private-eye intrigue. While investigating the murder of a treasure hunter found dead in a long-abandoned nightclub, seeking a piece of vintage diamond bling called the "Blue Butterfly" (think "Maltese Falcon" as a priceless necklace), Castle discovers the 1947 diary of shamus Joe Flynn. Which is all the trigger needed to send Nathan Fillion into full-blown Bogart fantasy mode, barking out hardboiled Chandler-esque dialogue while making eyes at glammed-up Stana Katic as a showgirl/mob moll swathed in fur. "Where have you been all my life?" Joe/Castle growls, once again toying with the "Caskett" sexual tension that keeps fans up at night.
Meanwhile, we enjoy watching everyone play dress-up, including Esposito and Ryan mugging as henchmen and Medical Examiner Lanie crooning Billie Holliday-style as a big-band jazz singer. But the biggest kick comes whenever Castle abruptly stops his narration and we're plunged back in the present. "What happens next?" sputters Ryan, as Castle grins, "Isn't this great?" A frustrated Beckett gripes, "Why would you tell a story when you don't know the ending?" Soon enough, they're solving murders new and old, and as an old-school "The End" flashes on the screen, it's almost as satisfying as a night spent with a Turner Classic Movies Bogie marathon.
FJORD TOUGH GUY: Netflix is the latest to get into the original-series business, importing all eight episodes of the hit Norwegian comedy-drama Lilyhammer, available today. It's worth a look especially if you still miss The Sopranos — or, more to the point, wondered whatever happened to Silvio Dante, the intimidating trigger man played to the hilt by Steven Van Zandt. He's basically channeling the same character here as "Frankie the Fixer," a mob enforcer who turns rat (something Silvio would never have done) and high-tails it to Norway in witness protection, choosing the remote and icy locale of Lillehammer because, as he tells a local, "I fell in love with your Olympics." And, he figures, "Nobody but nobody's going to look for me there."
Adopting the new name Giovanni "call me Johnny" Henriksen, Frankie is an unholy mackerel out of water, learning the language (we see subtitles) as well as local customs as he attempts to ply his old trade from bribery to blackmail. He cuts a ridiculous figure, tramping about the wintry woods in snowshoes, because patent leather doesn't do so well in the snow. But he's also something of a romantic, offering to perform a hit on a rampaging wolf for a local lass he's taken a shine to, even though it could put him on the radar of the local law enforcement, who are extremely protective of wildlife. Lilyhammer is a droll diversion, a Scandinavian Fargo where the bad guy turns out to be a pretty decent fellow.
CHANNEL SURFING: The second of three new Absolutely Fabulous specials bows on Logo (10:30/9:30c), with Eddy (Jennifer Saunders) taking on a new celebrity client who wants to sing, but naturally can't. Can her pals Lulu and Emma "Baby Spice" Bunton come to the rescue? ... This week's escapee from Alcatraz (Fox, 9/8c) is a '60s prison guard, forced against his will to do bad things. But by whom? ... And on CBS' Two and a Half Men, Walden feeds Zoey some of Berta's special brownies in hopes of mellowing her out. Does the appearance of Matthew Marsden as her ex-husband have anything to do with this?
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