Smash season 2 review

Smash logoIf Smash had been a real-life Broadway musical, it would have been one which enjoyed a stellar opening before tanking dramatically. What could have been a satisfying grown-up alternative to Glee followed a disjointed season one with an equally confused second – and final – run.

Where did it all go wrong? As with the show’s two fictitious musicals, the real drama of Smash took place behind the curtain rather than on our screens.

Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee) - the best of frenemies? (Image: Smash Wikia)

Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katharine McPhee) – the best of frenemies? (Image: Smash Wikia/NBC)

Season 1: More crash than smash

Smash had all the right ingredients from the outset. Steven Spielberg‘s name as an executive producer. Debra Messing (Julia Houston) and Anjelica Huston (Eileen Rand). The obligatory Brit, Jack Davenport, familiar to US viewers from the short-lived FlashForward, as bad boy diva director Derek Wills. A bona fide singing star in former American Idol runner-up Katharine McPhee to play ingenue Karen Cartwright. A rival in Megan Hilty‘s Ivy Lynn who not only looked the part of Marilyn Monroe but more than held her own vocally (and was, for me, the series MVP by a distance). An extended guest turn by Uma Thurman.

Unfortunately, what it also had was a succession of other characters who were not so much love-to-hate as just-plain-hate. From the odious Ellis to Karen’s boyfriend Dev to Frank and Leo Houston, there were too many characters who had no redeeming qualities whatsoever.

It didn’t help that series creator and showrunner Theresa Rebeck fell out with fellow producers and decided to forego a regular writers’ room in favour of an approach which was described as ‘dictatorial’. As a result, character and plot development appeared random at times.

For all its faults, though, season one laid out the inner workings of how a show is developed and contained moments of musical brilliance, in particular Let Me Be Your Star, Second Hand White Baby Grand and Don’t Forget Me. At the centre of it all – both professionally and personally – was the triangle of Derek, Karen and Ivy, with the women’s tooth-and-nail battle for Bombshell‘s lead role of Marilyn Monroe a bitchy delight.

For all its flaws, I found season one eminently watchable. Audiences disagreed, however. Paired with The Voice by NBC, the pilot drew in 11.4 million people, but viewers quickly abandoned in droves, dipping to a low of 5.3 million.

Season 2: Throwing the baby out with the bath-water

Rebeck was ousted and replaced by Gossip Girl‘s Joshua Safran for season two, prompting wholesale changes. Out went Ellis, Dev, Frank and Leo. So too did the numerous off-stage numbers, which were often bemusing, occasionally surreal – step forward the Bollywood-based A Thousand and One Nights – and barely related to each episode’s plot, but which I rather liked.

As the troubled Bombshell staggered on towards its Broadway debut, focus shifted to a new, more contemporary musical, Hit List, written by two unknowns, Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus). The former provided a new love interest for Karen as both she and Derek jumped ship.

Personally, I wasn’t that keen on most of  Hit List‘s songs – mine seems to be a minority view – although my favourites were Broadway, Here I Come and the sassy Original.

Ivy toiled away on Liaisons, an appalling comedy remake of Les Liaisons Dangereuses, before reassuming the role of Marilyn following Karen’s departure. Ivy and Karen’s competitive relationship was effectively written out, one of the casualties of the haste to distance season two from its predecessor.

Derek was another whose claws were pulled in. Season one’s bad boy was systematically softened up and was consequently only half the character he was.

Instead it was Jimmy who assumed the role of the dark and troubled leading man, albeit one lacking real depth. Many of this season’s narrative failings can be traced back to him. His secret drug-related past was alluded to ad nauseam but only revealed hastily in the closing moments of the finale.

Jimmy achieved the seemingly impossible task of making Ellis seem likeable (Image: Smash Wikia)

Jimmy nearly achieved the impossible task of making Ellis seem likeable (Image: Smash Wikia)

We were asked to believe Karen’s willingness to give up her life-long dream for Jimmy and his nascent musical – a stretch, at best – and her character became little more than a fawning girlfriend, lacking any real agency of her own. Presumably the producers recognised McPhee’s limited acting ability – her range varied from doe-eyed awe to doe-eyed anguish – and consequently reduced her role’s demands. It was a significant and jarring demotion for the show’s leading lady.

When Jimmy finally did go off the rails, jeopardising both Hit List‘s Broadway hopes and indirectly leading to Kyle’s death, we were expected to care about his fall from grace. I didn’t. Jimmy was so unlikable that at times he had me wishing for Ellis’ return. (Only momentarily, mind you.)

However, as drastic as Jimmy’s sudden implosion was, an episode later he was back and fully focussed on Hit List. It was barely plausible and obviously rushed.

Tom's season two journey was less than enjoyable (Image: Smash Wikia)

Tom’s season two journey was less than enjoyable (Image: Smash Wikia)

In addition to Jimmy’s obnoxiousness, we also saw Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) undergo a displeasing transformation from fun-loving composer via struggling first-time director to a more hardened and selfish individual before a complete reset in the closing episodes. There seemed little reason to turn the series’ most likeable character into – what’s the technical term? – a complete douche-bag, only to flip him back to season one Tom at the end.

What else? We had the early storyline of Peter the ‘dramaturg’ being brought in to help Julia fine-tune Bombshell‘s book – a not-so-subtle mirroring of what was happening behind the scenes on the show. Unlike with Bombshell, however, too many changes were made for change’s sake. Much of it felt like throwing the baby out with the bathwater, bordering on blind panic.

Take, for instance, the casting of American Idol alumnus and Oscar winner Jennifer Hudson in an early three-episode arc. This storyline went nowhere and was no more than what it appeared to be: a naked, stunt-casting viewer-grab with no real link to the season’s storylines.

The final act

In terms of building or at least sustaining the audience, Hudson had no impact. Season two opened to just 4.5 million viewers – fewer than the debut season’s low-point – and staggered to a conclusion having lost 60% of that number.

With cancellation inevitable, the final quarter of the season was a mad dash to the finish as new developments were thrown in from all directions. The last four episodes gave us Kyle’s death, Jimmy going off – and returning from – the deep end, Ivy’s pregnancy, Derek being blackmailed by Daisy into replacing Ana as the diva, Julia’s divorce and the return of both her former love Michael Swift and Eileen’s boyfriend Nick. It was way, way too much.

In addition, we had the sudden resurrection – and almost immediate extinguishing – of Karen and Ivy’s feuding, and a final attempt to make everyone likeable so viewers could be presented with a warm and fuzzy happy ending, erasing virtually all of Tom’s character progression (and to an extent Jimmy’s) in one fell swoop.

It was jarring, to say the least.

Sadly, the two-hour finale (The Nominations/The Tonys) fell somewhat flat, despite some nice insights into the hoops people have to go through to get Tony nominating committee members onside. The final hour turned into a cliché-riddled, schmaltzy and knowingly self-referential affair. It opened with the entire cast converging on the Tonys venue while performing Queen and David Bowie’s Under Pressure and concluded with Ivy and Karen, their differences set aside, performing together in front of the Smash logo. Pass the sick bag.

And so ended Smash, a show which started out with a clear identity but soon lost its way. Season one was all diva-ish swings in terms of both temperament and quality, and if as a viewer I never quite knew what to expect from week to week I kept tuning in just to see. Season two ironed out many of the show’s faults but at the expense of much of what made it distinctive. We ended up with the equivalent of the chorus line – nothing glaringly awful but equally nothing to make it stand out from the crowd. From a clash of sweet and sour to a bland vanilla. The show’s cancellation was a mercy killing.

Even if by some miracle Smash had been picked up for a third season, it’s hard to see where the writers could have gone next. With both leading ladies ensconced in their respective Broadway productions, and Derek, Tom, Julia and Eileen moving on to other projects, the principal cast would have become even more fragmented narratively.

Ultimately Smash ended up as a mediocre drama hiding behind a musical, rather than a musical-based show in the guise of a network drama. It’s easy to forget the level of both critical and popular acclaim that the pilot garnered, which the show’s internal troubles never permitted it to build upon. I really, really wanted this to be great. Sadly it wasn’t.

A missed opportunity. Less smash than flop.

Rating: 5/10

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2 Comments on Smash season 2 review

  1. At least we’ll always have the music 🙂

    I know I’ve gone on about it at length over at our gaffe, but for me the problem was one of characterisation/perception: the writing almost obsessively focussed on certain characters and storylines in a way that was completely at odds to how those characters were (and should have been) coming across. They thought people would root for Karen against Ivy in season 1 – people didn’t. They thought we would enjoy Ellis – everyone hated him. They tried to get us to care about Dev’s career – eh? Season 1 Julia’s love life – dear God.

    At least season 2 recognised some of the problems as you say Tim by ditching the deadwood characters, and I actually prefer Karen and Ivy as friends so I liked them throwing out the rivalry as well. But instead they gave us Jimmy to ruin absolutely everything – what kind of madness overcame the showrunner that he thought people would like/care about/be able to STAND Jimmy? There wasn’t a single likeable or interesting thing about him. (Ok, except his musical which I loved – I would go and see Hit List tomorrow if I could, Broadway Here I Come, Reach out for Me and Voice in a Dream in particular give me chills.) And as you say, they made most of the season revolve around him, which is just bizarre.

    Having said that, we did get Derek and we did get some cracking songs which I’ll be listening to for a while I hope, so there is that – I agree with you that Smash could have been a lot more, but I did have fun with it while it lasted.

    • I think you’re spot on with your comments about characterisation/perception. So much of season 1 was spent on trying to make us like the unlikeable. Apparently Spielberg really liked Ellis – God only knows why.

      And yet the writers spent most of season 2 apparently thinking that making Karen fall in love with Jimmy – WHY?!? – and him harbouring a Deep Dark Secret(TM) would be enough to make us like him. As if.

      I thought the Ivy/Karen relationship was symptomatic of the writing of most of the season 1 characters. The writers didn’t necessarily have to keep them as hostile rivals, but they replaced it with something so bland it was barely a relationship at all. The same went for neutering Derek in the first half of this season – they took away and gave nothing back, other than the Ronnie Moore cul-de-sac. Instead we got more Elaine-and-Jerry – the cocktail-throwing repeating gag wore out its welcome by mid-season 1, but they persisted with it right up until the end anyway. Groan.

      Even though I was less of a fan of Hit List – some great numbers, but also several that were more ‘Miss List’ for me (I accept I’m in a tiny minority here!) – I was mostly enjoying the ride (and ignoring the bumps) until that clear moment when the writers went into frantic wrap-up mode: Kyle’s death. From then on it just felt like an unholy mess to me of artificially pumped-up drama and happy-ever-after resolutions, especially the reintroduction of Nick and *grits teeth* Michael Swift. Why, writers? WHY?!?

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