If 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.
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.
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.
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.