Smash (Sky Atlantic, Sat) True Blood (Fx, Sun) -- IN THE olden days, elegant people in morning jackets would regularly break into song only to be joined by expertly choreographed passers-by and cheerful sailors looking for directions (whenever I'm lost, incidentally, I head straight for the fellow leading a dance number).
Sadly, over the years such musical outbursts ceased to be an element of cinematic drama (I'm guessing it had something to do with Keynesian economics and the post-war consensus). By the 1980s the very idea of sane people randomly having a bit of a singsong was seen as unrealistic, at least on telly and the cinema screen ... if not drunkenly on the last bus.
Thankfully, in recent years there's been a return of the repressed when it comes to musical theatre. There have been excellent musical episodes of Scrubs and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, not to mention Glee, a dramedy in which pristine teenagers cavort to glittery pop hits.
Smash, the new Spielberg-produced HBO drama, tells the tale of adults producing a Broadway musical and it's being called the "adult Glee" But while Glee is all cartoony colour and subversive humour, Smash goes for grey sub-Sorkinian characters enslaved by an overfamiliar plot.
It begins with musical co-writers Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle) secretly writing a show based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. This information is leaked, which leads to producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) teaming them with surly director Derek (Jack Davenport). Soon they're torn between two potential Marilyns: Katharine McPhee as skinny brunette ingenue Karen, and Megan Hilty as curvy blonde veteran Ivy (in American telly terms, this means: "both kinds of lady").
Smash looks great. It aims for a sort of epic naturalism in which muted colours, costumes and sets are rendered cinematic by cameras moving effortlessly and old-fashionedly between long shots and close-ups (they eschew the hand-held shakiness that's shorthand for realism elsewhere). This is punctuated by sudden explosions of colour and style, as we're granted access to the imaginings of the performers during musical numbers.
Sadly, this credibly-rendered world is filled with soporifically dull people. Oh, there are snippets of drama. Tom dislikes Derek, possibly because Derek likes to eat scenery (an impractical trait in the world of musical theatre). Julia is half-heartedly adopting a child (possibly little orphan Annie).
And implausibly naïve Karen is shocked to find that when Derek calls her to a late-night audition at his swanky apartment, he actually wants something else entirely (when editors ask me to call to their houses in the middle of the night for a spot of "editing", I usually say "no" these days).
For the most part, however, there's no sense that the overly content and successful protagonists actually need the musical to be a success and this drains the story of tension.
So why focus on people dutifully creating a potentially great Marilyn musical and not simply create a Marilyn musical? Answer: because despite the supposed revival of the musical form on telly, producers are still uncomfortable with unexplained singing and feel they have to find realistic excuses for it (auditions, hallucinations, glee clubs). They should really just bite the bullet and make a programme where people break into song because singing is awesome. Television audiences are ready for it. It would be no less realistic than some of the other things we take for granted -- swelling background music, canned laughter and the immobile foreheads of Wisteria Lane.
Or, indeed, the oversexed vampires of True Blood. In this week's finale, Sookie Stackhouse, who possesses, according to one character, an "unbelievably stupid name", summons her grandmother's ghost to stop a possessed pal from incinerating her vampire boyfriends. We've all been there! Later she makes little yelps as they suckle blood from her wrists.
Sadly, she doesn't break into song once.
Smash 2/5 True Blood 2/5