Why 'Smash' Will Never Be a Smash, No Matter How Good It Gets

The second season is much improved. But terrible ratings for last night's premiere demonstrate that a "Glee for grownups" just can't provide the viewership NBC seems to want.

smash 615 nbc.png
NBC

"It's time to lose the scarves."

Anyone who watched the first season of NBC's Smash likely let out a laugh or cheer during last night's Season Two premiere when composer Tom told his writing partner Julia to ditch her wardrobe staple. Her neckwear had become such a defining—and mockable—part of her first-season characterization that some viewers created a drinking game around it. But anyone who didn't watch the first season of Smash, probably didn't care about the scarf diss at all—and therein lies the show's problem.

Leading up to Smash's return Tuesday, professional TV critics have obsessed over the creative changes the show has made to address the fact that the first season, outside of a spectacular pilot episode, was a mess. So tonally schizophrenic, stiltedly written, and nonsensically plotted was this behind-the-scenes musical drama that the term "hate-watching" became synonymous with viewers' tune-in-to-see-a-train-wreck relationship with it.

But that's the thing. Whether to watch the train wreck or for some other reason, a good number of people stuck with Smash throughout its first season. Viewership averaged 7.7 million viewers, which is a respectable total nowadays, and not too much of a drop from the 11 million who tuned in to the premiere. For all the "How to Fix Smash" pieces that were written about the series' dip in quality—and the relief critics are showing because this season appears to be so much better—no one, including its creative team, has addressed the show's real problem: its singular appeal. To build the huge audience that NBC executives seems to crave, they don't need a better show. They need an entirely different one.

To understand this, it helps to rewind the clock a bit. When Smash debuted in 2012, it arrived as television's Great White Hope from the Great White Way. Following the on- and off-stage lives of a team putting on and performing a musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, that first episode, produced by Steven Spielberg, was a triumph of razzle dazzle. Critics raved about its slickness, the star-making performances of the leads competing for the role of Marilyn (played by Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty), and the way it used original musical numbers.

All too quickly, these intriguing showbiz characters morphed into bland stock personalities: scheming villains, naive ingénues, flamboyant sidekicks, and warring spouses, all nuance-free and who, worse, acted in ways that made little sense at all. A series of ridiculous side plots were introduced; idiotic dream sequences occurred on a weekly basis. Anyone who gave a standing ovation to the first episode was dumbfounded. Critics and viewers alike wanted to know what broke their show. Before Smash premiered, they were promised Glee for grownups. What they were given was a flop.

Presented by

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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