Well, it's back. NBC's much-maligned high stakes gamble of a series Smash returned for a second season last night, supposedly repaired after a backstage debacle of a first season, and was, ratings-wise, an unqualified disaster. At a certain point, one has to wonder: Should NBC just throw in the towel?
The show seemed as gangly and bumbling as ever, tripping over its own elaborate footwork, forever clumsy. But who cares about quality, really. Without last year's heavy The Voice lead-in, NBC Entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt's beloved pet project re-debuted to a miniscule 4.5 million people and a measly 1.1 rating in the key 18-49 demographic. That's Carrie: The Musical-level disaster.
Shows have bombed on TV from time to time. But, at this particular moment for NBC, the fate of Smash seems like so much more. Think about it. 30 Rock, the show that both skewered and elevated the network (in terms of quality, if not viewership), is now over. The Office, once its sturdiest tent pole, will be closing up shop in the spring. Parks and Recreation probably only has another season in it. And that leaves what? Just The Voice? Seriously, is that NBC's only successful program at this point? And that banshee wail of a show isn't even on terra firma. Who knows how new judges Shakira and Usher will go over. (Xtina and Cee Lo are taking a break.) It could be a mess, and then NBC would really be sunk. I mean, they're sunk already. With basically no well-performing hour-long series beyond the modest Law & Order: SVU, the Peacock was banking hard on Smash — revitalized with a new showrunner and some sexy new cast members. They need it to be, if not an actual smash, at least a moderate, buzz-y success. But it's not. Far from it. And that, really, should be the network's final straw.
Maybe they should just stick to sports and reality programs? What television law says NBC has to be in the business of scripted fare, anyway? Sure it was a nice 75-year run, but it's important to know when enough is enough. The glory days are past. NBC probably peaked in the contemporary era somewhere in the late 1990s or early 2000s, when it was the go-to place for intelligent, classy dramas like E.R. and The West Wing and was home to behemoth, actually funny comedies like Seinfeld and Friends. (And Veronica's Closet! Kidding.) It was on top of the world then. And my how far it's fallen. While the other big networks, ABC and CBS, have certainly had their highs and lows, they really haven't suffered as mightily as NBC has in the past few years. I mean, it is really a disaster over there. It's so bad that we think they should just scrap the whole scripted television enterprise and focus on what they're marginally "good" at. We like NBC News. We like Bob Costas and his John Williams-scored Olympics package. Some humans seem to enjoy The Voice and The Biggest Loser. So why not just concede? Say, OK, you're right, America. We shouldn't be making scripted shows, because no one wants to watch them. Not even Smash, which was supposed to be the big zeitgeist hit. Why not just give up?
Even when the network tries really hard to make something a hit, throws all its might behind a project, they just cannot get it right. The lugubrious two-hour premiere (two hours! Of Smash! On one night!) was yet another gurgle of fatally missed narrative opportunities, badly developed plot arcs, and thuddingly tone-deaf writing. Don't get me wrong, it's still a marvelously entertaining catastrophe, the kind of thing that is perfect to bitchily hiss at, but snide camp value alone does not a hit show make. In terms of actual quality, Smash is a wreck. Sure, sure, credit its earnestness (synthetic and cynical as it is) and swoon over all the high-power vocals, but beyond that? It's a poorly rendered, lazy mess. This, NBC's great big hope. The new head guy's beautiful baby. In some ways, Smash's high-profile, expensive flopping is the nadir (so far) of NBC's swan dive into oblivion. It provides a symphonic score to the descent into rubble, puts a shiny showbiz gloss on the whole cataclysm, sparkling sadly in the night.
Smash was never a sure thing, it's about musical theater for god's sake, but NBC doggedly pinned a lot of hope on it anyway. They threw in movie stars and Oscar winners, commissioned a whole musical, traipsed around Manhattan with fancy camera crews. This show was supposed to be something, and the network blindly chased it right into a ditch. Now what the hell are they going to do? In the immediate, they'll hope that the return of The Voice gives them a boost. Though I'm sure the network brass knows that that golden goose must be almost out of eggs. And then? I dunno. Wait until the fall and hope the new crop of shows does well? That's about all they can do. Because NBC's spring just ended last night. There will be no glorious Smash parade to May. Do No Harm did a lot of it. Its sitcom bright spots are flickering and burning out. All they can do now is throw flowers on The Office's grave and pray to the Shakira gods that The Voice can tide them over indefinitely. Of course what they should be doing is developing a bunch of cheapo reality shows and figuring out how to air primetime sports, but they're probably not ready to face that stark reality yet. Though, they should be. What else have they got left?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.