In this image released by NBC, Christian Borle portrays Tom,...

In this image released by NBC, Christian Borle portrays Tom, left, and Debra Messing portrays Julia in the new NBC series "Smash." Credit: AP

REASON TO WATCH Great cast and production team -- headed by Steven Spielberg -- along with original songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman ("Hairspray.")

WHAT IT'S ABOUT Veteran Broadway musical team Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle, "Legally Blonde") have an idea for a new musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. But who to play the title role? Shrewd, ambitious veteran stage performer Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty, "Wicked") or doe-eyed newcomer Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee)? Cash-strapped, soon-to-be-divorced "Marilyn" producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) enlists bellicose Brit director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) to make the call.

MY SAY This is NBC's long ball to the end zone. After a lost season of failure (at least in dramas), "Smash" amounts to a heave-ho wing-and-a-prayer Hail Mary, accompanied by a silent network prayer ("ohpleaseplease let this stick because if it doesn't . . . ") That's right. What if "Smash" doesn't stick? Another hour of "Fear Factor"?

But NBC can exhale. "Smash" is just fine -- a bounty of memorable performances and spectacular song-and-dance numbers, or spectacular for TV, anyway. Hilty, Davenport and Huston are uniformly excellent, but McPhee's the surprise. We knew she could sing. Who knew she could act?

The series gets demerits for some broadly drawn stock characters -- the cornfed Iowa Ingenue, the dastardly director, the scheming diva, the hyper-romanticized New York. There's even an overly ambitious fanboy -- "Smash's" own male Eve Harrington. The plot feels conventional, too. But the skills of Davenport, Messing, Borle, the allure of McPhee ... and sheer vitality of some of the music ... more than compensate.

BOTTOM LINE Much to admire -- and enjoy -- but will "Smash" draw a big number, or any number? At first, sure, thanks to endless promos scheduled for last night's Super Bowl, but the diminished crowd that returns won't be disappointed. I've seen four episodes; they're all good.


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