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Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright in "Smash." (Will Hart/AP Photo/NBC)
Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright in "Smash." (Will Hart/AP Photo/NBC)

John Doyle: Television

Applause, applause! 'Smash' is smashingly good Add to ...

What cheery times we live in. Great gales of laughter blow back and forth across this noble land.

I told you Sun News was high comedy. Non-stop hilarity in the pseudo-news racket. Was I right? Now, I’m thinking musical. Or light opera. Everybody’s doing it. There was a recent one-time performance of an opera about Toronto Mayor Rob Ford. There’s Mulroney: The Opera.

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The kookiness of Sun News is ideal material. In the “let’s put on a show” tradition came let’s create a loony news channel idea. Now is the time for the musical version. Agitated TV anchors dancing across the stage. (Krista Erickson already has the arm-ballet movements down.) Government ministers genuflecting at the altar of Ezra Levant. Bureaucrats playing real people in news bits. What larks.

And everyone loves a musical. Perks us up. Singing and dancing is all over television right now. From American Idol and other singing competitions ( The Voice takes up two hours of real estate on NBC and CTV tonight at 8 p.m.) to Glee. Little wonder. Sources of joy are needed and sought out in these hard times.

Smash (NBC, CTV, 10 p.m.) is the latest in a wave of shows about music. And, boy, is it big, broad and gloriously good. This is a drama about musicals, about grown-ups addicted to the thrill of the stage, the joy and abandon of a well-executed musical number.

The pilot episode tonight is an extraordinarily graceful celebration of the American dream of stardom, and an ambitious and flagrantly approving story of the addiction to performance. It opens beautifully with a young woman singing Over the Rainbow. That’s the opening nod to the rapture of the American musical.

Then comes the contrasting grim reality of auditions. We meet the producer character Julia (deftly done by Debra Messing) and, by the by, somebody says of Marilyn Monroe, “I think she’d make a great musical.” The reaction is “been there, done that” but a seed is sown. There’s a singer, Karen (Katharine McPhee) who says, “I’m not sexy enough, I’m the girl next door.”

Stuff happens. There’s another singer, Ivy (Megan Hilty), who is more experienced and more of a Marilyn type. Julia’s husband says, “I hate the theatre, I really do.” There’s the central tension – the addiction to show, to music, to joy, always clashing with the mundane world.

Over and over it happens, this clash. Karen’s dad says, “Sometimes dreams just don’t mix with reality.” But he’s wasting his time. We see the hard grind of rehearsals but we are taken smoothly from rough rehearsal to imagined glory in the finished stage musical.

We are thrown into backstage machinations. Big-time producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) is trying to prove herself away from her ex-husband in the midst of a bitter divorce. And along comes the nastiness and spite that is the other side of showbiz genius – that’s all embodied in the magnetic character of Derek (Jack Davenport), the Brit director who is all cut-throat competitiveness and adept at creating power dynamics that suit him. A scene tonight between Derek and Karen is an exquisite exposition of all the viciousness that can accompany the elation of performance.

Two young women are potential Marilyns. That’s the hook in the drama that unfolds. The unknown willowy brunette Karen. The more experienced and skilled blonde Ivy.

That’s a showbiz hook, but the real attractiveness of Smash is its lyrical expression of the romanticism of the musical. This showbiz world is a garden of delights and simultaneously the gates of hell. And the thrill of performance transcends everything.

Smash is an ingenious drama, all charm and substance too. It’s not Glee for grown-ups, as some reviews have suggested. It’s better than that.

Ah, the kicks and pleasure of the musical. And please think about it – Sun News: The Musical is sure-fire entertainment. Hope the idea inspires somebody.

ALSO AIRING TONIGHT

Underground Railroad: The William Still Story (PBS, 10 p.m.) is a fine and often chilling new doc about Still, a Philadelphia clerk who was a key figure in the network of people who arranged for runaway slaves to travel to Canada. He spent 14 years helping the Underground Railroad and about 800 former slaves made it to Canada thanks to his work. Unlike others involved in the dangerous work, he kept secret notes and records that are now an invaluable portrait of just what happened, and why. Although the program is a documentary, it features Stratford actor Dion Johnstone as Still, speaking Still’s own words, and it’s a powerful performance.

Follow on Twitter: @MisterJohnDoyle

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