The TV Musical Is Dead

With Smash and Glee declining in both quality and ratings, it's time to put this genre to rest.

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FOX, NBC

So, Smash has gotten pretty bad, eh? When NBC's ambitious musical drama first debuted, we were among the few skeptics, conceding that, though the series makes plenty of mistakes, it was dazzling enough to leave us wanting more. Most critics were less bashful in their love letters to the pilot: "Uniformly excellent;" a "captivating fusion music, dance, and potent storytelling; and "so good you can't help wondering why no one thought of it before," make up a sample of the effusive raves. It's been just 10 weeks since we critics were singing those praises. How quickly the tunes have changed.

There's been an almost visceral reaction to how rapidly and sharply the show's quality has dipped, and just how much promise Smash has thwarted. It's stumbled, "face first, into the orchestra pit," says Jace Lacob at The Daily Beast. And he's right: The characters have become one-dimensional caricatures whose motives are confounding, when they exist at all. Monologues accompanied by piano tinkles at the end of Full House are less corny and more believable than the show's dialogue. Critics are marveling at the lack of acting talent displayed by the young man playing Debra Messing' son. A recent episode featured characters performing a fully choreographed rendition of "Dance to the Music" at a bowling alley while Meryl Streep's daughter tornadoes through, sprinkling Peace Corps fairy dust over everyone's problems before becoming so stressed by their ridiculous machinations that she announces she must flee to "count wild salmon in Alaska." In other words: It's bad.

So, a musical TV show debuts to standing ovations, praised for its ambition and bravery in daring to merge the worlds of theater and television—only to soar off the rails in such grand a fashion that even its biggest supporters can't help but shake their heads in dismay. Sound familiar? It's exactly the plight of Glee, the cheeky song-and-dance soap opera whose initial success arguably paved the way for Smash. What started as a candy-colored breath of smart-and-snarky air quickly became muddled by overly earnest "message" episodes, laughable dialogue, a glut of unlikable characters, and jarring tonal shifts. Currently, both shows are at a crossroads: Smash recently received a second-season renewal, but fired the showrunner responsible for its cacophonous premiere season. Glee returns after an extended hiatus Tuesday night to close out a season that will see a crop of pivotal characters graduating high school—and perhaps the show. Some might view these as opportunities to regroup, restructure, and reboot. But perhaps a better idea would be to face the music: The TV musical experiment has failed.

Back in 2009 when Glee premiered, there were legitimate doubts that the show would ever catch on. The musical TV show graveyard is littered with series that failed to bring musical storytelling to the tube. Cop Rock and Viva Laughlin couldn't make it work. Neither could Fame, which, despite its cult status, received ratings so low that it was canceled after two seasons—living on only thanks to a syndication deal. Glee initially was a ratings smash, getting as many as 13 million viewers for episodes in its first season. Those days are long gone. Ratings for season three have been in free fall, hitting series lows. Smash has followed a similar trajectory, debuting to a stellar-for-NBC/mediocre-for-any-other-network 11.5 million viewers, then falling to almost half that number for its most recent episode. For both series, ratings have slipped as dramatically as the quality. That viewer interest in musical TV shows is waning couldn't be more obvious if Ryan Murphy wrote a "very special episode" of Glee about it.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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