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WEEKEND TV PREVIEW: Smash (Sky Atlantic, Saturday, 10pm)

Posted by Michael Moran
Michael Moran
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on Friday, 20 April 2012

There can be few of us who haven’t caught a classic Hollywood musical on television, perhaps on one of those drizzly Sunday afternoons for which our little island is justifiably famed.

Like them or loathe them, they’re part of our cultural furniture. They’re a part, though, that people don’t bother to sit on as much as they once did.

For me, that’s a shame. I have no objection to hauling myself into the West End to catch infectious confections such as The Wizard Of Oz or Matilda. But live theatre will always struggle to capture cinema’s transformative vault into pure freewheeling musical fantasy.

Television has, for the most part, sat this dance out. There have been a couple of notable exceptions. Joss Whedon, currently thrilling cinema audiences with The Avengers, penned a one-off musical episode of his teen-slanted vampire-fighting series Buffy The Vampire Slayer.

Then there is the inoffensive but slightly too saccharin Glee, aimed mainly at the ‘Young Adult’ demographic. And we have of course all agreed to forget Stephen Bochco’s disastrous 1990 pop-police-procedural Cop Rock.

The long wait for a TV musical drama that actually worked for a grown-up audience has been a long, and seemingly fruitless one.

Until this weekend...

Sky Atlantic have picked up Smash from US network NBC. The series features original music by composers Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman(probably best known for their work on Hairspray).

It’s superb television. The characters aren’t uniformly nice, but they’re all in their different ways likeable.

The storylines don’t stray all that far from the well-worn mechanics of all those backstage musicals that followed in the toe-tapping footsteps of 42nd Street, but they don’t really need to.

And the songs (mainly originals with a sprinkling of contemporary pop hits that some characters use as audition numbers) are flat-out wonderful.

There are a couple of soapy subplots – one of the composers is being slowly ground through the adoptive parent selection mill, the producer is negotiating a messy divorce – but so far they’ve just served to round out the characters and keep things interesting.

All the action is in the rehearsal rooms. Smash follows that convention of allowing phantom orchestras to supplement the répétiteur, and scruffy rehearsal sweats to be magically replaced by glittering stage costumes.

It’s as corny as anything, but you’d have to have quite a hard heart not to at least raise a smile when you watch it.

Debra Messing and Anjelica Houston lead an excellent cast as composer and producer respectively.

There are a couple of Brits sprinkled into the cast for added interest. Jack Davenport plays the musical's director, who is perhaps a little too fond of the casting couch. Raza Kaffrey from Spooks turns up as the boyfriend of an ingénue who against all the odds looks as if she might be cast as the star of the show’s imaginary musical.

I can’t help thinking that if the series goes well the musical biography of Marilyn Monroe at the heart of the show might be popping up on a stage near you some time in the future – although without perhaps the telegenically streamlined development process we see on screen in episode one.

On the basis of the first few episodes I have nothing negative to say about this show. The little taste of what’s coming up later in the series that is tagged onto the first episode is a little too detailed for my liking, but that’s barely a reason to condemn this old-fashioned musical that is, paradoxically, one of the freshest new shows in television this year.

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