TV's Musical Dramas Aren't Always Worth Singing About

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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

And, of course, there are other things on TV right now besides basketball. For a while, in fact, it seemed like there was going to be a little renaissance of musical dramas. "Glee" was a hit and two new shows, "Smash" and "Nashville," were set to win audiences, too.

But TV critic Eric Deggans says they have all run fallen flat in different ways.

ERIC DEGGANS: Here's my biggest problem with TV musicals: In real life, nobody just bursts into song.

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DEGGANS: But ABC's "Nashville" solves that problem with a setting in country music's capital city. It's the perfect setup for a contemporary musical, with folks on concert stages, in recording session and the nightclubs.

The only problem is that may not be enough.

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DEGGANS: The stars are Rayna James, an experienced legend - equal parts Reba McEntire and Shania Twain, and a bratty young upstart, named Juliette Barnes. They often clash, but when they work together, it brings hit-making magic.

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DEGGANS: For "Nashville," that was the right song. It was a hit on the show and it sounds like it could be a hit in real life.

And if you really want to appreciate how hard that is to pull off, consider a few other musical TV shows which aren't so successful. Like NBC's musical about the making of a Broadway musical, "Smash."

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DEGGANS: Like "Nashville," "Smash" should have no problem offering plausible reasons why characters would burst into song. But "Smash" commits a cardinal sin: The songs keep the star from living up to her own billing.

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DEGGANS: Katherine McPhee's Karen Cartwright is supposed to be a novice with talent powerful enough to stop traffic. But sometimes "Smash's" songs keep her from delivering those kinds of performances. It makes you wonder why everyone thinks she's so great in the first place. Small wonder NBC is burying this show on Saturdays, come April 6th.

But if you need a poster child for TV musical fatigue, it's probably the show that started this mini-genre: "Glee."

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DEGGANS: But these days, the cover tunes often sound routine as the show itself.

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: (As character) (Singing) Yeah...

: (As character) (Singing) Yeah...

DEGGANS: ABC's "Nashville" avoids the mistakes of "Glee" and "Smash." So why don't I love it more than I do? I suspect part of the problem is star Connie Britton as Rayna James. Though she shines while fighting with her husband or battling her corrupt father, Britton never quite seems as comfortable commanding a stage.

But what keeps me coming back is the songs, curated by acclaimed producer and songwriter T Bone Burnett. When the story says two aspiring musicians turn heads by playing a beautiful ballad, we get a head-turningly beautiful ballad.

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DEGGANS: Ultimately, that's all you really want from a musical show: music that's seamless and keep you immersed in the story.

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MONTAGNE: Eric Deggans is TV and media critic for Tampa Bay Times.

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

And I'm David Greene.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.