Monday, May 27, 2013

Requiem for Smash: Did It Have to Be That Bad?

Smash has had its supporters and detractors, but even its supporters never defended its quality. "Guilty pleasure," they said. "The show you love to hate." And it's not like there hasn't been bad TV before. And it's not like there haven't been unconvincing theatre-behind-the-scenes depictions before. But after two seasons, I just keep thinking: did it have to be that bad?

Of course not! Smash was written and scored and directed and performed by some deeply talented people--and some not-so-talented people too, of course, but there were certainly enough of the former to create a good show. Even mediocre would have been welcome. So what went wrong?

Marc Shaiman wrote
A lot of smart, talented (and in some cases, smart AND talented!) people were brought together to create a television show. Probably too many people. Yes, "too many chefs" is the most succinct way to say what went wrong. But there was not a single soul working on the show who didn't want it to be great. Everyone just had a different idea of what that was.

Since Shaiman was one of the few people whose contributions were consistently top-notch--I'd gladly see Bombshell--and because he was there, he must know what he's talking about. But from the other side of the TV screen, it appeared that the trait that destroyed Smash was lack of respect. Lack of respect for the TV audience. Lack of respect for the theatre--in particular, musical theatre. Lack of respect for the show itself! Maybe that's not what the various creators were feeling, but it's what they presented in each and every episode. (This doesn't include everyone. Shaiman and Scott Wittman brought their A game, and Megan Hilty was extraordinary. Not only is she an excellent musical theatre performer with great presence, but she navigated every stupid plot turn and random character development with sincerity, poise, and dignity.)

As one example of the disrespect, the creators of Smash either find the process of making theatre uninteresting or assumed that their audience would. Everything was presented as last minute, hectic, as though working bit by bit to make a work of art couldn't possibly be interesting. Benefits were planned that day; performers were still learning words to a song at 4:00 and then dancing in a full production number by 8:00; actresses were replaced with two minutes' notice; a Tony song was changed one minute before it was to begin. I'm not saying Smash should have been a documentary--I was even willing to go with the dumb premise that two actresses were vying for the same role well into rehearsals--but why couldn't it show a little of the genuinely fascinating process of doing theatre?

For another example, the creators of Smash carefully avoided using musical theatre songs in this show about musical theatre. No Sondheim? Rogers and Hammerstein? Andrew Lloyd Webber, even? Shaiman writes that there were even complaints that the songs that he and Wittman wrote for Bombshell were "too 'musical theatre-y.'"

And the creators of Smash had zero interest in character consistency. Character arcs and personalities were chosen and changed at random. I picture the creators using two hats. One has the name of the characters, the other has plot ideas: drug abuse, affair, pregnancy, secret past, divorce, sex with lover, fight with lover, etc. As just one example, Ivy Lynn is a tough survivor of the chorus. No, she's abusing drugs and attempting suicide. No, she's fine. She likes Derek. No, she hates Derek. No, she loves Derek. She's angry at him. Oh, no, wait, she isn't. And, woops, she's pregnant, and is clearly considering stepping away from the career she has sacrificed her life to. And Derek, self-centered asshole Derek, is suddenly tender. Because he's just the sort of guy whose heart would melt at the idea of having a child. Yeah, right.

And the creators of Smash were willing, even eager, to make every single one of their characters completely unprofessional. Book writer/lyricist Julia Houston wins the prize here, particularly in the first season where she missed rehearsals, whined, and pouted, and only grudgingly did her job. But everyone had their moment. When Kyle died, Ivy decided to call in sick to her lead role on a show that had just opened on Broadway (she could have/would have told Derek, "I'll be there the second my curtain comes down.") Composer Tom Levitt was so obsessed with finding out if he was nominated for an award that he checked his cell phone during a show, disturbing everyone around him--and this was played for laughs. This bit was an insult to his character and completely unamusing to anyone who has had to deal with the growing percentage of talkers and texters in theatre audiences.

And the creators of Smash didn't put in the effort to set up their big moments. Take the impact of Kyle's death. After he's gone, we're hit with flashbacks in which everyone suddenly loved and respected him. His one-night stand with Tom turns out to have been a mini-relationship. He was smart! He was talented! His death promotes him from near nonentity to young genius, which is not unbelievable in itself, but develop the damn story.

And the creators of Smash let story lines trickle away to nothing. The most egregious is never showing who wins the best director Tony.

Obviously, a show of this sort requires a certain suspension of disbelief. And there were random plot points that I chose to buy because they were entertaining, such as the casting of Ivy's mother in a role that was nonexistent up until the second it was cast. But, hey, her mom was played by Bernadette Peters, and the friction between mother and daughter was reasonably involving, so I willingly suspended my disbelief. But more often, the plot points were random and stupid and uninteresting.

And I'm not even going into the whole Ellis plotline. Or trying to figure out how Anjelica Houston and Michael Cristofer could possibly produce a child who looks like Grace Gummer.

And the less said about Julia's son Leo, the better.

The thing is, no matter how low I set my expectations for Smash, the show managed to slip under. It committed the biggest sin of all: it wasn't fun.

A few months ago, someone asked me if Smash was worth watching. I started to say no, but I had to stop myself. After all, I hadn't missed an episode. There must have been something there. Yes. Megan Hilty. Some good musical numbers. Christian Borle. Cameos by New York actors. Anjelica Huston singing "September Song."

But the thing that really kept me watching was misplaced hope. I kept thinking that Smash might someday come into its own. That it might at least reach the level of good bad TV. But it never did. And now it is gone, a monument to squandered opportunities.


Unknown said...

"And the creators of Smash let story lines trickle away to nothing."

Two words: Jennifer. Hudson. In the lead-up to season two, she was shown in the promos as basically a new leading character, someone who would be a serious player in the developing plot. And then: barely a blip. Used as nothing more than an easy redemption for Derek's, and then gone.

Wendy Caster said...

And while she was there, they didn't do her story line justice. That thing with her mother was silly . . .

Unknown said...

I spent that entire episode waiting for Sheryl Lee Ralph to walk downstage and belt Rose's Turn. Underdefined, and cliched.

Wendy Caster said...

Yes! And it would have been so much more fun!

Unknown said...

I also hated the whole "Kyle as Jimmy's hopelessly devoted gay boy" angle, but that's a whole post by itself.

Wendy Caster said...

I would have minded it less if the actor playing Kyle had actually depicted it. I thought they were just friends . . .

Anonymous said...

Misplaced hope -- such accurate words. We all love theater and that's why we keep hoping this show can bring out the bright spots of theater community, even though it keeps disappointing. It's over. I'm glad and sad simultaneously.

Wendy Caster said...


Thanks for commenting.

Holly said...

SMASH and I had a totally pathetic relationship. It kept treating me bad, and I just kept coming back for more. I kept hoping it would get better, and when it didn't and I expected it to be lousy, it was even worse than lousy.

And yet, I will somehow miss it.

I repeat: pathetic.

Wendy Caster said...

We need a new support group:

Women who love TV shows too much . . .

Holly said...

If only SMASH had loved us back! It does get embarrassing expecting NOTHING of a show, and still being disappointed.