TV Reviews

How ‘Smash’ Became a Whimper

Despite a solid and promising premiere, NBC’s Smash‘s star burnt out before it could set the world ablaze


Starring Debra Messing, Jack Davenport, Katherine McPhee, Christian Borle, Megan Hilty, Anjelica Huston, Leslie Odom Jr., Jeremy Jordan, Krysta Rodriguez, Andy Mientus, Raza Jaffrey, Jaime Cepero, and Brian d’Arcy James


On paper, Smash should have been a sure-fire hit. From an idea by Steven Spielberg, with a highly appealing premise, which combined Broadway stars Megan Hilty and Christian Borle, with high-profile actor Debra Messing, Oscar-winning Anjelica Huston and American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee, as well as music written by Tony-winning Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, as well as the success of rival network Fox’s Glee, Smash should have been a highlight of NBC’s 2011-12 television season. In some ways, it was, though soon became notable online for being emblematic of the hate-watching movement, with audience members tuning in purely to ridicule what was on offer.

Smash‘s, frankly brilliant, premise revolves around the genesis of a musical about Marilyn Monroe, fictionally written by Broadway writing duo Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle). Initially just writing a single song, its leaking results in a massive frenzy to properly produce the show for Broadway, necessitating the inclusion of producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), who is striking out on her own during a messy divorce from her slimy, odious husband, and director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), a somewhat acerbic, but brilliant, creative mind who has a less than happy working relationship with Tom. Vying for the coveted role of Marilyn is seemingly perpetual ensemble member Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), whose ambition and drive is as stark a match for Marilyn’s as her peroxide blonde locks, compared to talented, but naive, ingenue Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee).

Peeking behind the curtain at the inner workings of The Great White Way, with clear character directions and trajectories set up in the pilot episode: Julia and her husband adopting a child; Tom’s scheming assistant Ellis; Ivy and Karen’s rivalry; seeing Bombshell the musical take shape, and brilliantly entertaining musical numbers, both original songs and a cover, and climaxing in a breathtaking duet between our warring leading ladies, “Let Me Be Your Star”, Smash received promising reviews upon debut. Rooting its musical numbers in reality, even if moments would sometimes flick to fantasy imaginings of that song, characters still weren’t bursting into song in the street, but rather actually singing which, when compared with TV’s only other musical offering at the time, Glee, was a vast improvement. The original songs, for their part, were all strong and helped to legitimise and inject excitement into the idea of the musical that Julia and Tom were creating. The characters, though Karen and Ivy are perhaps portrayed as too obviously “good” vs “evil”, are all interesting, even if they are not necessarily likeable. All in all, then, Smash started in an assured fashion.

So, what went wrong?

The story of how Smash came off the rails can be separated into two parts, dictated by the showrunners at the time. While Season 1 was helmed by Theresa Rebeck, her firing meant that Joshua Safran, of Gossip Girl, was brought in to front Season 2, bringing with him several changes to the established universe in Season 1.

While there were many elements to love and appreciate about the first season, such as the commentary upon stunt casting and the reliance of the theatre industry upon using a name to sell seats instead of letting the talent speak for itself, as well as all of the consequent creative compromises that are necessitated by those decisions, the show suffered when it stepped too far away from Bombshell. The growth of unpopular characters, such as Julia’s son Leo (Emory Cohen) and the worrying growth in Ellis (Jaime Cepero) and his borderline-psychopathic scheming, did the storytelling no favours whatsoever, and Julia’s commitment to adopting a child with her husband was soon replaced by her impulsive desire to resume a long-buried affair with cast member Michael Swift (Will Chase).

While the Marilyn scenes were consistently strong, as musical numbers began to take shape and were sometimes reconceived, or choreographed, any of the other non-theatre musical numbers felt stilted and awkward and pushed at the established realism within the show. The odd focus upon the specifics of the rehearsal process was undercut by the fact that, by the end of the first season, the audience still has no firm concept of what the plot of Bombshell is, other than the fact that it is about Marilyn Monroe, and every single member of the production team seems to have a differing view as to which actress can do the character justice. There’s also a bizarre flippancy about how theatre even works, suggesting that Tom and Julia could conceivably complete the final musical number literally seconds before curtain rises, that Karen could learn the entire show in less than 24 hours and that all of the costumes could miraculously fit. Additionally, either the Boston tryout has the most sophisticated off-Broadway sound design in existence, or none of the characters appear to be miced, which seems a strange omission considering a large amount of theatrical talent involved in the show. If Karen has to project that much then she’s going to get nodes, and as Pitch Perfect taught us, that is no joking matter.

The characters didn’t really progress or develop. Even though Ivy developed an addiction to pills, she was still repeatedly unkind to those around her, while Julia embarked upon a downward spiral in which she fundamentally failed to take any accountability for her own actions and became monumentally shrill and irritating. As for Karen? She was simply too nice to be able to function as a human being. It’s almost as if the show had a set idea for who each of these characters should be and with each episode they fell deeper and deeper into that caricature.

Though the viewing figures for Season 1 were promising enough to secure a second outing, tension behind the scenes and issues with the creative direction of the show meant that Theresa Rubeck was dispatched in favour of Joshua Safran. With the advent of a new showrunner, several elements of the first season were eliminated, including Julia’s oft-maligned scarves (as Aynsley from Orphan Black will attest, they are a health hazard as well as an offensively twee crime to fashion), her drag of a son Leo, criminally underused husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), the object of her affair, Michael Swift (Will Chase), Ellis and Karen’s almost-fiancé Dev (Raza Jaffrey). New characters were introduced, bringing on more Broadway talent in Jeremy Jordan, Andy Mientus and Krysta Rodriguez, as well as a new musical that introduced modern musical theatre music to the audience, as written by the likes of Drew Gasparini, Joe Iconis, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul. Jennifer Hudson and Jesse L. Martin had multi-episode story arcs.

Though these elements certainly shucked off some of the problems of Season 1, other issues persisted. There still wasn’t quite enough focus upon the genesis of a musical. Bombshell‘s trajectory became more confused as time wore on, with the second season premiere revealing that Julia’s book was less than satisfactory, necessitating the inclusion of a dramaturg. This interesting storyline resulted in a table read, in which Derek professed that it was the best writing that he had ever heard, in which Julia had attempted a commentary on how Marilyn had been defined by the men in her life. It was the sort of creative process that audiences’ crave when watching the creation of art, yet ultimately this entire storyline was reversed as Jerry (Eileen had been taken off Bombshell because, drama, I suppose) confessed that he preferred the workshop version.

Except that makes literally no sense because a) the workshop version was established to be incomplete, as the workshop was predominantly musical numbers with a few scenes in between and b) the workshop script then became the Boston script, which was panned by critics, which is the reason that Julia reworked it in the first place. Though this story then created an interesting idea of Julia and Tom working desperately against Jerry to compromise on creative integrity compared to the visual spectacle that is expected on Broadway, it was ultimately more frustrating and unsatisfying than anything else.

What’s more, including new musical Hit List into the mix in Season 2 overshadowed the journey of Bombshell that audiences had followed since the beginning of the show. Having ended Season 1 with Karen finally playing Marilyn, Season 2 then also saw both her and Derek abandon Bombshell in favour of taking Hit List to Broadway, which is really just to pave the way for Tom to step up and be a director (despite the fact that he’s shown no discernible skills other than being holier-than-thou) and bringing Ivy in as Marilyn.

Speaking of Ms Ivy Lynn, Season 2 also performs the opposite of a character assassination for her. What do they call that? Character rehab? Having played the villain for the first season, even sleeping with Karen’s fiancé in Boston, she spends most of Season 2 being nothing but nice to anybody and being the only saving grace of a terrible revival of Liaisons that only lasts a handful of performances – yet still earns her a Tony nomination.

In order for Ivy to be nice, however, that of course means that Karen must now be a bitch. Why? Because, after you sever all contact with your fiancé and move in with Krysta Rodriguez, you will entirely change personality and have zero qualms about getting into another relationship soon afterwards. In fact, you will not mention Dev even once for the entire 17-episode run because you’re so eager for Jeremy Jordan’s dick (to be fair, same).

With another musical in the mix, now audiences were allowed to be confused about the plots about not one, but two musicals, in which we constantly seem to see musical numbers but never anything else. Bombshell‘s plot becomes even more confused than ever as, despite the fact that they’re apparently working from a half-completed workshop script, the show now includes an Act 2 opening with a plane, Marilyn’s mother and JFK – none of whom were, in fact, in the workshop script. They do, however, serve as a convenient reason to bring in Bernadette Peters as Ivy’s mother, just to tear apart Tom and Ivy’s relationship for the sake of drama. In order to overcome an issue with the interval running too long, they also bring back a Season 1 number “Dig Deep”, in which actors infiltrate the audience (don’t even think about questioning how they’re sitting in seats that were presumably inhabited before interval and how anybody sitting far away from the aisles or in one of the circles will have no bloody clue how Act 2 starts – especially because no one seems to be wearing microphones, as, frankly, your blood pressure won’t be able to handle it), the plot seems to be that Marilyn leaves Hollywood to join the Actors Studio, and somehow after that arrives in New York.

As for Hit List‘s trajectory, it spends most of the season in the genesis stages, before Derek struggles to reduce his Broadway vision so that it can debut at the Manhattan Theatre Workshop, relying upon dancers and minimal sets, only for it to transfer to Broadway suddenly (bearing in mind it takes until episode 11 for Bombshell to start previews, Hit List makes it to Broadway in episode 15, is nominated for Tony’s in episode 16 and wins most of them in episode 17) and then have to perform the opposite and seems notable for its glitzy screens in the brief snippets that audiences actually see it on the big stage.

Ultimately, pitting Hit List against Bombshell at the Tony’s as the climax of Season 2 doesn’t do either musical justice, as it overshadows all of the work put towards Bombshell since the beginning of the first season and means that Hit List‘s wins are seen more as criticisms towards Bombshell than they are actual achievements for the other musical.

The most successful parts of Season 2 of Smash were, unexpectedly, in the friction between Julia and Tom. Previously treated as a pair, except when Julia was going around snogging cast members, to see the inseparable pair experience difficulties was probably the most realistic part of the second outing. The show also allowed both of the pair to be nuanced, instead of relying upon miscommunication to fuel disagreements, as they utilised with both Karen and Ivy, Karen and Jimmy and Ivy and Derek. It became abundantly clear as the episodes rumbled on that the pair were outgrowing each other and were ready for challenges apart from each other, which was exciting from a narrative point of view and allowed for greater diversity in storytelling, as Tom focussed his energy upon “directing”, and Julia could actually demonstrate that she could write a musical without a man’s face between her legs (this writing method is avant garde, I grant you, but highly successful – I would recommend).

Apparently, the third season would have followed the creation of a movie musical, as hinted at in the season 2 finale, with possibly Derek or Tom directing, with Julia and Jimmy composing, Karen starring (because she’s the only actress in America), while Ivy remained behind, both pregnant and on Broadway. It’s a shame in a way that audiences didn’t get to see it, as it certainly would have been interesting both narratively and to see these characters in these new circumstances and roles, as well as a welcome shake-up to the status quo. However, considering the catastrophic trainwreck that Season 2 became, perhaps its best that the fire extinguishers were brought out when they were.

Smash is not currently available for streaming in the UK, but lives on, slightly infamously, in the minds of those who watched it

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