[Because this is the first show of the series, my review will be lighter on recap and analysis than most posts. Instead, I will focus on finding the show's place in the television landscape and identifying the most promising and worrying aspects of the pilot for potential new viewers.]
In the last few years, the networks have debuted a number of music-themed television shows to varying levels of success. These include a casino musical (Viva Laughlin), glee club soap opera (Glee), and even an aneurysm-induced George Michael hallucination law drama (Eli Stone). Countless shows have done one-off musical episodes, which typically meet a warmer critical reception (the gold standard perhaps being Buffy the Vampire Slayer's "Once More, With Feeling"). During the 2007-2008 writer's strike, Joss Whedon created Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog, a cult Internet-only musical miniseries starring Neil Patrick Harris, Felicia Day and Nathan Fillion.
Musical television can be divided into two eras: pre- and post- Glee. With a promising first season and encouraging popular and critical reception, Glee blazed the path for music-themed television (the teen-oriented High School Musical notwithstanding). The show's mix of soap opera drama and popular covers proved to be a hit with viewers. Furthermore, Fox's clever strategy of selling the songs via iTunes the day after an episode airs led to Billboard chart success. Any musical show that follows owes a debt of gratitude to Glee for bringing this a mainstream audience to this niche.
However, inconsistent character development and wildly varied pacing have lately driven the show's critical reception and ratings far below their peaks. This may have prompted Smash's stars (Katharine McPhee and Debra Messing) and producers to distance their work from Glee. The show's pilot episode confirms this distinctness, though it's unfair to characterize the show as "Glee for grownups." This does a disservice to Glee's audience as well as minimizes the new show's potential.
And Smash is certainly full of potential. The show's premise (a Broadway musical based on Marilyn Monroe) allows the composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman to create professional-quality songs without violating the show's realism (contrastingly, a willing sense of disbelief for Glee's professional-quality productions is necessary to enjoy the show). Joshua Bergasse's choreography is similarly flawless - the numbers look to be just as grandiose as they would be on a real Broadway show.
The pilot presented a myriad of storylines to draw from throughout the season. Each of the main characters received a share of screen time to introduce their conflicts, though the transition between characters was handled naturally with a small shared scene. Katharine McPhee plays Karen, a "green" actress struggling to realize her dream in New York while her worried parents encourage her to give it up for a safe life in Iowa. Debra Messing's character Julia balances her family's needs in the slow adoption process as well as her responsibilities as half of the writing partnership that conceived of the Marilyn musical. Anjelica Huston portrays Eileen, a woman in the midst of a contentious divorce that threatens the financial health of the project. A number of smaller characters (such as the actress competing for the Marilyn lead and Debra Messing's writing partner) have their own problems on display as well. Having this many storylines to draw from will certainly provide a rich mine for drama throughout the season (much as ensemble shows such as Parenthood and Modern Family are able to do).
However, such choice can also be a source of problems for a show. Quite a few of the characters (the womanizing director, Karen's seemingly perfect boyfriend, and the rebellious teenagers) are stereotypes that couldn't be fleshed out in the pilot's limited time. Hopefully the show won't dedicate all of its time to the problems of its main protagonists but instead develop its other characters past stock characterizations. The show also risks falling into the trap of schmaltzy, unearned sentiment, as demonstrated by the assistant's speech about theater making him whole. The writers can avoid this pitfall by developing the character before trying to use him for emotional payoff.
This show is one of the midseason replacements that I am most excited for (along with Awake), so I definitely plan on continuing watching and reviewing. Future posts will contain much more analysis so be sure to watch the episode before reading!