May 29, 2013

A Farewell to—and Final Lament for—"Smash"

“Smash,” which ended its two-season run on NBC this past Sunday night, was like that friend you’re embarrassed by and are always thinking you should drop because she just doesn’t know how to behave herself. And yet, when she packs up and leaves town for good, you can’t help mourning the loss. 
There have already been legions of eulogies for the show (click here to read executive producer Marc Shaiman’s) and about what its failure will mean for any future shows that try to put stories about Broadway on TV. So I hesitated about adding to the pile. But “Smash” was my wayward friend too and so I’ve decided to have my little say. 
I had held back from sounding off about the show after my lukewarm—but hopeful—review of its pilot episode back in February, 2012 (click here to read that). I just didn’t want to join the ranks of the hate watchers who could hardly wait for an episode to end before badmouthing it.  
Even before the second season began with a new head producer brought in from the successful show “Gossip Girl,” new story lines aimed at a younger audience and new stars like Jeremy Jordan to play those parts, naysayers were performing autopsies on the show (click here for a detailed analysis of what went wrong with the first season). 

One week, the popular A.V. Club entertainment site gave the show an F for “The Phenomenon” episode in which the series regulars dealt with the sudden death of the character Kyle, the co-writer of “Hit List," the show’s Rent-like show-within-a-show musical. It was bad but not bad enough to deserve an F.

Even while sighing my way through some of “Smash’s" most exasperating episodes, I got a kick out of seeing familiar Broadway faces (“look, there’s casting director Bernie Telsey”) and places (“they’re sitting right next to the table we had at Bond 45”).  But at the same time, I knew that most viewers wouldn’t have a clue about any of those inside references. 
And I think that may have been the main problem with the show: its creative team never figured out how to please the general viewers who don’t care about Broadway or the world of New York theater while still satisfying us theater geeks who care about it too much. 
The standard soap-opera stuff that might have attracted a wider audience never got fully developed. Flirtations started up and quickly fizzled out. Problems popped up and were instantly resolved. When characters no longer served the shaky plot, they were just tossed aside.

Meanwhile, the process of putting together a musical that we geeks craved to see was etched in such ridiculously broad strokes that those scenes made the old Judy Garland-Mickey Rooney let’s-put-on-a-show movies seem like “Frontline” documentaries.

The handwriting appeared on the wall when news leaked in March, a full six weeks before NBC officially canceled “Smash,” that Debra Messing, who portrayed one-half of the show’s main songwriting team, was doing a pilot for a CBS sitcom. 
Messing, of course, knows from her days on “Will & Grace” what it feels like to be in a hit series. And so her dismay with “Smash” was understandable as it jerked around her character Julia—making her a clueless writer one minute and a brilliant one the next, having her trying to adopt a baby from China while cheating on her husband.

“Smash” was originally conceived as a cable show. But its big fan Bob Greenblatt brought it with him when he moved from Showtime to head up NBC and I can’t help wondering if it wouldn’t have been better to have left it behind. About 11.5 million viewers tuned in to see the first episode of "Smash;" 15 months later, only 2.4 million watched Sunday’s finale.

Shows on broadcast networks need big numbers to survive. Those on cable don’t. During its second season, “Mad Men” drew an average 2 million viewers per episode. Now in its sixth season, the show pulls in around 3 million but remains one of the most buzzed about series on TV.   

“Smash” may never have developed the cult status of “Mad Men” (only a handful of shows in the 70-year history of TV have done that) but, without the pressure to draw a mass audience, it might have had a chance to become the show that those of us who love theater could have loved.  And it’s that lost opportunity that I now mourn the most.

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