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Smash might be the hit NBC desperately needs

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NBC wants a hit. Desperately.

A big hit.

A great, big SMASH hit.

It's been more than a decade since shows like Seinfeld, Friends, Frasier, ER and The West Wing made NBC the dominant player in U.S. television ratings; since the dawn of the 21st century, the once-proud Peacock has struggled, more often than not ranking fourth among major south-of-the-border broadcasters.

NBC needs a hit. And Smash just might be it.

The endlessly hyped, expectation-laden musical drama finally arrives in prime time on Monday (9 p.m., NBC and CTV), and early indications are that this is one show that might actually live up to its considerable advance billing. Smash, a Steven-Spielberg-produced backstage look at the politics, passions and personalities involved in creating a Broadway musical, is as beautiful as it is brilliant.

The series, which boasts a large, stellar cast and a web of intricately layered storylines, focuses on the creation and staging of a new Broadway musical inspired by the life of big-screen goddess Marilyn Monroe.

Debra Messing (Will & Grace) and Christian Borle star as Julia Houston and Tom Levitt, a successful songwriting duo who are taking a self-imposed break from theatre work so that Julia and her husband can focus on adopting a baby. But when the suggestion of a Marilyn-driven musical is floated, they find themselves lured back into the Broadway grind, creating songs and starting the laborious process of rounding up a cast.

While their producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), gets down to the dirty business of raising money, Julia and Tom entice brilliant but difficult director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) to sign on and begin auditions to identify their Marilyn.

Before long, the field is reduced to two hopefuls -- veteran Broadway chorus girl Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), and newly arrived but obviously talented midwestern girl Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee). As the auditions continue and the competition heats up, nastiness ensues, egos get bruised and hearts are destined to be broken.

In addition to the linear creating-the-musical drama that drives the narrative, Smash also gives each of its characters a fully realized at-home storyline that will be explored in depth as the episodes unfold. Julia's domestic situation becomes even more complicated as she knowingly breaks her promise to focus on family rather than work; Eileen is finding that her clout as a producer is compromised since an acrimonious split from her former husband/business partner; Karen is being pressured by her parents to give up her Big-Apple struggle and move back to Iowa; and Ivy's ambition to land a starring role leads her to make a classic, ill-considered showbiz compromise.

On their own, these interwoven yarns would make for a great TV drama. Add in the numerous musical numbers -- both cover tunes and original songs written for the show-within-the-show -- that appear in each episode, and what you've got is a mesmerizing, take-your-breath-away stunner of a series.

McPhee, who inexplicably finished second to Taylor Hicks in Season 5 of American Idol but firmly establishes herself as a multi-talented star here, and Hilty, a real-life Broadway veteran who has appeared in Wicked and 9 to 5: The Musical, are the engines that drive this series. Both are massively gifted performers whose roles require them not just to act, sing and dance, but also to act like they're acting, singing and dancing as if their fictional characters' showbiz lives depended on it.

They deliver the goods on all counts, and each contributes at least one show-stopping vocal number every episode.

They're, like, wow.

Smash will quickly erase all the inevitable comparisons that have been made to TV's other music-driven series, Glee. This new NBC effort is much more grounded than Fox's comedy-driven tunefest; Smash is much more concerned with portraying behind-the-curtain Broadway accurately, while Glee's is very much a fantasy-flavoured look at high-school life.

A more apt comparison for Smash is to one of those shows that propped up NBC's last ride atop the U.S. ratings -- The West Wing. In terms of thoughtful, inspired TV drama, Smash does for showbiz what Wing did for politics, but offers the added bonus of jaw-dropping musical numbers by two legitimate triple-threat stars.

Is Smash the smash NBC has been yearning for? It deserves to be.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 4, 2012 G7

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