Lessons from the End Times of 'Smash'

Any hopes that Smash would rebound after its disastrous second season premiere two weeks ago have been dashed. NBC's musical backstage drama returned last night after a week off for the State of the Union to even lower numbers than the premiere, with a dismal 0.9 rating.

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Any hopes that Smash would rebound after its disastrous second season premiere two weeks ago have been dashed. NBC's musical backstage drama returned last night after a week off for the State of the Union to even lower numbers than the premiere, with a dismal 0.9 rating. A number like that probably means it's end times for the expensive, once-promising series. So what happened? Why is the show, which underwent a significant retooling after the first season, failing to connect?

Well of course there's the argument to be made that the show never actually did connect. That Smash got a second season at all is likely entirely owed to NBC head Bob Greenblatt's devotion to the series — it was his baby when he was at Showtime and he brought it with him to NBC — and to the fact that it could once coast, ratings-wise, on its big The Voice lead-in. Creatively, as the retooling would suggest, the show had big problems from the get-go, so maybe its doomed fate was sealed long ago. But let's not dwell on the past. There are plenty of problems in the here and now to talk about.

Last night's episode was titled "The Dramaturg," which probably didn't set too many hearts a flutter when spotted on the cable guide. That somewhat obscure title — dramaturgs are sort of creative consultants for theater companies or individual productions, helping to shape or enrich scripts with research and other guidance (it's a vague job, really) — indicates one big, glaring problem with the show. Even though Joshua Safran's overhaul has blown the narrative out, opening it up beyond the insular world of the Marilyn Monroe musical, the show is still mired in the idea that it needs to be authentic and knowing about theater. Bringing in a dramaturg character, as the show did last night (played by the always welcome Daniel Sunjata), may be true to the world of theater, but it's pretty tone deaf to the world of television. Having a super wealthy dramaturg (he does screenplay touch-ups as well) enter the scene as a sexy foil for Debra Messing's Julia is a silly, alienating idea — a sexy rich dramaturg?? — but the show played it mostly straight. That's a strangely dichotomous example of the show's warring impulses. Part of Smash is clearly trying to be a tart, bitchy, insidery nod to those who know what's up, but the other part is aching to find wider audience appeal. Both sides are given short shrift in the execution, so everyone loses. Much like the struggling fantasy genre, Smash refuses to make up its mind about what it is, to its probably fatal detriment.

As a fan of theater, diploma-carrying major and all, it pains me to say that Smash needed to figure out a way to be a little less, well, theater-y. Drama about investors and capital just isn't what people want to watch, no matter how many times Anjelica Huston throws a drink in Michael Cristofer's face. The meaty parts that a broader audience would care about — rivalry between actors, backstage hookups, eye-popping musical numbers — are certainly there, but they are muted by the writers' insistence that they're telling a real story about theater. Well, if they're so concerned with that, then why not really commit and actually get it right? The half-breed thing we're currently watching is certainly not doing anyone any favors. A show about theater, about how it really works, is an interesting concept, but it's one that probably needs a home that isn't so concerned with ratings and advertisers. Maybe Smash on Showtime could have been something, an American Slings & Arrows. (A great Canadian television show roughly about the Stratford Festival. Give it a watch.) But on NBC it instead becomes the muddy glob it is, a show trying to be both a sly soap and something more credible. The work between seasons that needed doing, chiefly sharpening up tone and streamlining plots into more aerodynamic forms, was eschewed in favor of finding a new hunk to cast and luring Jennifer Hudson aboard so she could do some snoozy arc about a production of The Wiz. It was not time well spent.

About that hunk. He is played by Jeremy Jordan, the talented and charismatic star of Broadway's Newsies who turned in a perfectly likable on-camera performance in last year's Joyful Noise. He's a smoothie with a groovy voice and was, in truth, inspired casting. But then they went and saddled him with a boring storyline about a brooding musical writer with an overeager partner and a hip, Bushwick sensibility. No, Smash! No no no. Stop trying to be cool. Make the singing hunk a singing hunk for god's sake. Give the people what they want. At least Glee, which is a terrible show that should never be used as a positive comparison ever again, knows its archetypes and did, in the beginning, play well into audience expectations. Smash is so preoccupied with its own sense of narrative purpose that it buries promising parts of the show under mountains of boring gobbledygook that only the episode's writer could love. (And even then, I don't buy that they're that into it either.) How else to explain why the show's obvious star, Broadway vet Megan Hilty, is left to languish in a thwarted supporting role while the robustly milquetoast Katherine McPhee gets to drone on in the spotlight? There's this idea that we need to have a wide-eyed wanderer plopped into the middle so we can really understand the drama and weight of it all, when in truth not much drama or weight has been created in the first place.

Smash is littered with myriad other creative issues, none of which seem to have been earnestly addressed in the makeover. Shackling Debra Messing with a Teresa Rebeck-shaming plot is not a good way to redeem that majorly disliked character. Casting the fate of Bombshell into doubt is not the right way to create tension around an altogether tensionless story. I appreciate the fact, and am sympathetic to it, that a big hole was dug last season and some time is required to properly get out, but it looks as though time is up. The coroner should probably call this one and label the death a massive creative misfire. There's just no saving Smash, I'm afraid. Maybe it's not the show's fault entirely, though. Even good network dramas like The Good Wife are getting trounced in the ratings. Maybe broadcast network television just isn't the place for trying interesting stories anymore. Whatever the case, let's close this particular flop and bring in something new. Unless someone wants to turn the theater into condos or something. That might make more sense in the long run.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.