The Problem With NBC’s Smash

Many of us were skeptical about NBC’s launch of a show about the underbelly of Broadway, and in conjunction, one rife with musical routines. NBC, not known for big risks, or musical theater, has struggled with their dramatic formula for the past few seasons. Now they planned to attempt drama and in a musical format? We were mostly afraid it would be some low rent Glee offering, with all the pap and cheesetastic nuance that has consumed the once lauded Ryan Murphy juggernaut.

Yet, upon viewing the premiere episode of Smash, there was more than a hint that maybe NBC was on to something. Maybe they would be able to pull off depicting the sturm und drang of the performance world without handing it to the cancellation guillotine after three episodes.

With the opening scene showcasing the tense audition of Katherine McPhee’s character, Karen, we felt her nerves, her desire, her fervent hope that maybe she could, just maybe be what the producers were looking for. The show let us sit with this premise just a bit. We rated Karen’s performance and they let us marinate on what she had to offer before giving us Ivy (Megan Hilty), the Broadway workhorse, who we accepted as the long suffering chorus girl whose time had finally maybe come. It was a classic push and pull, a battle of salt of the earth and flash, of naiveté and facility. Right down to the contrasting hair color of our two stars in the making. We rooted for them both, we liked them both. Maybe we thought Karen’s “Aww, gawrsh. I’m from Podunk, US of A, and I hope I get it, I really hope I get it!” thing was a little overplayed, and maybe we thought Ivy’s ownership of the Marilyn Monroe role was a bit premature, and her character’s zeal for the part, a bit overzealous. However, we’re pretty sure this is what the writers wanted us to think. They wanted you to be either “Team Karen!” or “Team Ivy!” Nevertheless, and this is a credit to those early episodes, even if we had a favorite, we watched breathless to see who would actually walk away with the prize.

In the first two episodes while watching both would-be stars wait for call backs and the decision making process from writing team Julia (Debra Messing) and Tom (Christian Borle), producer, Eileen (Anjelica Huston) and director, Derek (Jack Davenport) – we felt a part of it. After all, whomever the quartet chose, we would have to support her journey to being Marilyn for an entire season, right? Okay, this is where the show soared. And then something happened.

We deviated from the shining parts of the series — the Broadway machine, the rattle and hum of the inner workings of putting together a huge show and taking risks all the way around — and we got mired in the soapy, sudsy, inner workings of the people flitting around the main drama. We had Julia’s conflict with adopting a baby while also wanting to create a Broadway hit, thereby creating friction with her husband and son. Eileen’s money woes and constant battles with her ex-husband emerged (We liked the drink in the face shtick. It was very Sam Malone and Diane Chambers circa early days of Cheers) and was important for an episode or so, but now seems a bit flat and underdeveloped. Ellis, oh, Good God, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Tom’s erstwhile assistant with a face full of dramatic pauses, and halting smiles, started sneaking around, listening behind closed doors, popping up at the most inopportune times, brown-nosing, and bitchfacing, all in order to get ahead, now serves as the biggest annoyance of the entire series, and perhaps on television period. Lastly, an illicit affair between Julia and Michael (Will Chase) the male lead in the show has become some sort of distracting bee buzzing around the last few episodes in a fit of “Will the husband find out? Do we care if he does?” bit of protracted filler.

If we’re workshopping the show Smash, while it makes a storyline of workshopping the fictional Broadway hit, Marilyn, there are more than a few stories here that could be trimmed. All of this serves as a distraction, and a deviation from what the show should be about, but is roped into the quieter moments episode after episode, which has proven to make the show disjointed and a bit confusing.

When watching you find yourself wondering what the main focus of the show truly is. Is it uncovering the theater world and bringing to light more than just the highs and lows, adding in the politics, the skill, and the knowledge? Or is the show some sort of Melrose Place primetime schlocker that we’ve seen a thousand times? Are the writers and producers of Smash so afraid that it will skew to far toward the theater kids that they’ll leave the casual viewer by the wayside? This is a big problem for NBC. They don’t trust their viewership to get it. They seem to believe that we need to be spoon-fed, and if it’s something that is new and different, they’re content to water it down with familiar tropes in order for its DNA to be recognized by the 18-49 demographic host, and not take the risk of being an anomaly like their other network counterparts, or it’s larger competition, cable television. Smash easily gets off track and heads in a knee-jerk fashion toward safe ground.

For instance, the scene where the chorus group explains (with kicky musical demonstration) to Karen, after she loses the lead to Ivy, how to make her movements smaller so that she could become a true chorus performer, instead of a leading lady, complete with the initial fallout of being too much “leading lady” to Ivy’s chagrin in rehearsal, was great. There was, yes, drama of the kind that you believe happens backstage when competition and egos get ramped up. This was a boon for the show. Watching Michael (Will Chase) serenade Julia outside of her fake Manhattan brownstone on the cusp of rekindling their needless affair, on what looked like the Sesame Street soundstage, was not. It is this bit of unevenness that damages the show.

As for the characters, we don’t buy the always strong-willed Angelica Houston as a naive first-time producer. Her character seems smaller and less significant than someone of Houston’s acclaim and heft should be. Nor do we buy Debra Messing as this conniving, histrionic, adulteress vamp. They almost seem miscast at times. And seriously, if anyone on the writing/producing/directing team of Smash thinks that we would like to continue seeing Ellis peering around every corner, stroking his new found dominance, or strutting his way through personal assistant jobs, then they are sadly mistaken. His scenes torpedo the show’s momentum each and every time. If this is an attempt at a Shakespearean Iago, it’s failing miserably.

Keep the interspersed song and dance numbers, but also keep sight of the cheese factor too. Less is always more here. Breaking out into song at the local bowling alley with full on jazz hands is what we mean by too much. Have more conversations like the one between Derek and Tom about the secrets that reside in those dark theater corners, and nix the stuff about Karen’s boyfriend’s political aspirations. Who cares? It’s odd to have this whole political plot attempting to unfurl in a song and dance show.

The focus should return to the underpinnings of Broadway, the unexpected toil, the antics that take place within the scope of the show, and if there must be extra drama, let’s keep it between the characters we really care about, Karen and Ivy. We don’t care about Eileen’s saintly daughter, or Julia’s affair. Keep the focus where it’s meant to be — on whether or not the show — not the personal dramas of filler characters — will be a Smash.

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