Saturday, February 4, 2012

must see tv returns to nbc

In the interest of full disclosure … I watch more TV than the average bear.

To be fair, most of it is sports. Especially basketball. Having said that, for all the TV I watch, its not often I strongly encourage you, the readers, in written word to actually tune in and watch something. (Save for “Friday Night Lights”, which as the Voice of Reason can confirm, I was 110% right about. Even if it took him six years and a boatload of ESPN Classic reruns to figure it out.)

When you couple my reluctance to “pimp shows I love” with the fact that the show I’m about to HIGHLY recommend you invest an hour of your week in, stars my most hated American Idol contestant ever, AND its about making a Broadway musical, not exactly something I find entertaining?

Yeah. That’s how epically good NBC’s new “Smash” is.

“Smash” technically debuts on Monday night (9pm CT) on NBC, but you can view the first episode at Hulu right now for free. I can’t believe I’m about to say this … but this is the best pilot episode for a show I’ve seen since “Swingtown” four years ago. Unlike “Swingtown”, I don’t think “Smash” is going to infuriate our “good friends” that are “socially conservative”. (Read into the “”’s whatever you want. See how I manage to insult a group of people without technically insulting them? TALENT!)

Also, unlike “Swingtown”, I don’t see this show being a one-and-doner. This show’s got serious potential. Thanks to the most unlikely of reasons (at least to me, and anyone else who never caught “McPheever”).

First, the primary characters, and yes, they somehow pretty much all interact together in a “Six Degrees of Separation” kind of way (only not as awfully as the characters in “Six Degrees” did five years ago):

* Debra Messing plays Julia, one half of the play writing duo. Her writing partner is Tom (played by Christian Borle). A chance conversation with Tom’s new assistant Ellis (played by Jamie Cepero) leads this Tony-winning duo currently responsible for Broadway’s biggest hit to decide to undertake a new play, based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. (As Julia’s husband puts it, “Marilyn … THE Musical!” As Julia’s son puts it, when asked what he thinks of when he hears the word Marilyn: “Baltimore? Manson?” There’s some really funny one liners in this thing.)

In order to get the play to work, however, you need more than two incredibly talented writers. Specifically, you need a producer, a director, and a lead. Whoever cast this show? Nailed the first, drilled the second, and somehow got me to overcome my hatred of half of the third, while loving the hell out of the other half …

* Anjelica Huston plays Eileen, the producer. She’s currently going through a divorce, and agrees to sign on as producer to establish a revenue stream separate from her company, which is currently in escrow. (As well as to prove that “the rumors of my demise are very premature”, another great one-liner.) The scene where she walks into the final round of auditions looks cheesy in the promos NBC has been running, but it works perfectly when put into context of the scene it’s contained in.

* Jack Davenport plays Derek, the director. In the interest of full disclosure, Mr. Davenport starred in “Swingtown”, and anyone who was a major part of that late, great show, I have a predisposed liking for. After his three main scenes in the “Smash” premiere? I cannot WAIT to see how this character gets developed. I suspect he will be the next great “character you love to hate … but really actually like because you hate him so much” member of prime time, filling the hole that has existed in prime time since Ben Linus opted to stay in the Sideways world in the final episode of “Lost”.

* Broadway veteran Megan Hilty plays one of the two leads vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe, playing an established Broadway actress named Ivy. You will note the resemblance to Ms. Monroe, on-screen and in-print persona, almost immediately. And she’s damned good too – she lights up every scene she’s in. You genuinely like her. Hell, she’s so good, that even as you watch the pilot and realize the show’s writers are trying to get you to root against her, you STILL root for her. I would pay damned good money to see her on Broadway. This chick has SICK talent. And yet …

* What SHOCKED the living hell out of me, was my reaction to the other lead vying for the role of Marilyn Monroe. And that would be “American Idol” Season Five runner-up Katharine McPhee, who plays Karen. Let me state up front, that 26 seconds into the pilot episode, I was ready to pull the plug. (Ms. McPhee reprises what was either her finest hour from “Idol” (if you liked her), or “Idol”’s lowest moment ever (if you hated her, as I did).) As soon as she starts singing in the debut scene, your biases from “Idol” kick in.

Until the thirty second mark. And then, the writers of “Smash” flip the script. Believe me, if you hate Katharine McPhee, just give the first minute of “Smash” a view, if only to enjoy how the opening scene ends. (And if you hated Ms. McPhee, you will be standing and applauding at how the first minute ends.)

Most incredibly, if after that first minute, you don’t begin to at least see why a large chunk of America kept backing this girl every week (at the expense of Daughtry and my rubber chicken in the season five race, Elliott Yamin)? Then don’t continue watching. Because if you enter this pilot episode with an open mind, you’ll emerge 40 some odd minutes later angry that you won’t see any new episodes for another week.

(The final scene, especially, builds brilliantly to next week’s episode. You will want to tune in for week two with “Let Me Be Your Star” embedded in your brain by the time the scene is over.)

I cannot even begin to express what a reveal Ms. McPhee is on the small screen as an actress. She’s remarkably good. This is the perfect vehicle for her. And yet, as good as her scenes are (the scene in Derek’s apartment between Karen and Derek is really good, and I LOVED the scene with McPhee’s character and her boyfriend (Dev, played by Raza Jaffrey)), the best scene is without question the “National Pastime”, which not only showcases Ms. Hilty’s immense talent, and not only gives you the viewer a look into how a Broadway act is developed and comes together (great use of switching between the current and the future in this scene) … but it’s just damned fun. And call me a dreamer, say I’m a little naïve, but isn’t that what prime time television is supposed to be? Fun? Enjoyable? “Smash” is both of those words, and THEN some.

By the time you get through the “National Pastime” scene, you’re only halfway into the episode, and you’ll find yourself liking what you’re watching so much, that you wish you could pull up Netflix or head to a Redbox and be able to view the whole season. (Or, at the very least, if you’re like me, you’ll rewind the “National Pastime” scene a couple times in utter shock that a NETWORK, not cable, NETWORK television show has developed something this damned enjoyable to watch.)

The pilot really sets up well where the show intends to go. Some plot lines are cliché (the producers are torn over who to pick as their Marilyn, although the contrast between the two potential leads makes it kind of obvious … ok, at least I think it makes it obvious … how this will get resolved; Eileen’s divorce feels forced, and the promos seem to back up my thoughts on that). Some are utterly retarded – the Julia and her husband adoption plot seemed like a way to fill four minutes that I think could have been better spent elsewhere.

But if the biggest complaint you have after watching the pilot is that one throwaway scene used to establish one of the writers family dynamic (guessing Julia and her husband can’t have any more kids), was a little boring? When THAT’S all you’ve got in the complaints box? You’ve got one helluva winning effort on your hands.

Which, I hope, is what NBC has with “Smash”. This show is good folks. It’s really good. The pilot is amazing, and the potential this show holds is incredible. If you wait until Monday to watch the premiere? Great. Just be sure to DVR it, I’ll explain why three sentences from now.

If you watch it on Hulu or iTunes? Make sure you see it twice. The first time you watch, prepare to be amazed. The second time, when you know what’s coming? Prepare to be extremely impressed at the intricate little details the show pays attention to.

For tradition’s sake, the pilot gets at 14-2 on the Theismann Rating Scale*, and the potential the remaining 12 episodes have gets an 11-5. Alan Sepinwall gave the first four episodes a B+ cumulative grade, and Ed Bark gave the pilot an A. Those are the only two television critics I even pay a moment’s worth of attention to, because they’re the two best in the business. And they’re buying what “Smash” is selling.

(*: the “Theismann Rating Scale” was developed by (go figure) Joe Theismann, who used to assign NFL regular season records to films he would review back when “The Deuce”, now known as ESPN2, was just starting out. Needless to say, the Chiefs have NEVER gone 14-2 … which should tell you how highly I think of the pilot episode.)

Watch this show. You will NOT regret it ...

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