By Ken Tucker
Updated February 05, 2012 at 05:00 AM EST

A Glee for grown-ups, Smash is an admirable risk for a network television series. Given that the size of the Broadway audience couldn’t keep Work It on the air, the notion of a weekly show chronicling the behind-the-scenes creation of a Great White Way musical about Marilyn Monroe is gutsy.

Smash benefits mightily from the presence of Debra Messing as Julia, half of the songwriting team (along with Christian Borle’s Tom) that is the series’ key duo. Messing is funny and charming; her tempo here is dialed back from her Will & Grace days. The other significant pair is Katharine McPhee (American Idol) and Megan Hilty (9 to 5: The Musical) as the actresses competing for the role of Marilyn. Hilty, a curvy, energetic bombshell, is so obviously superior to the blank-eyed, wan McPhee as both a performer and an embodiment of Monroe that the show’s search for a star already feels strained.

The show wants to make viewers feel like theater insiders. Its difficult task is to stuff the series with knowing references to actual Broadway stars, shows, and slang without baffling people who don’t read Playbill. From the pilot, you’d think New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel is a make-or-break deity — but that’s presuming you’re even interested in knowing who Riedel is, something I’m not sure America is a-Googlin’ to find out. That’s a problem for Smash: its awkward mix of the slightly arcane and the too familiar.

As an example of the latter, the constant psychoanalyzing of Monroe by everyone from the songwriters to McPhee’s boyfriend (”Marilyn wasn’t about the sex, she was all about love”) is trite. And Smash has a big plot implausibility: the notion that Broadway pros like Julia and Tom would allow their new assistant (Jaime Cepero) to believe he came up with the Monroe-musical idea. Hello, lawsuit! All that said, Smash is often enjoyable. Besides Messing, Anjelica Huston is terrific as a feisty producer going through a hostile divorce from a husband played by Michael Cristofer (himself a Pulitzer-winning playwright). And Smash has a lot of major talent behind the scenes: One of its executive producers is Steven Spielberg; the brisk pilot was directed by Michael Mayer, a Tony award winner for Spring Awakening; and some snappy original music is provided by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who teamed on Broadway’s Hairspray.

There’s no point in second-guessing a TV audience that’s made Once Upon a Time, with a premise I thought was both obvious and problematic, a ratings hit. So I’ll just hope for Smash to be successful enough, if not a smash, to see its Monroe show-within-the-show make it to opening night. B+