Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Smash Gives 'em That Big Finish

Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (Katherine McPhee) celebrate the fact that they aren't actually competing against Audra McDonald (not pictured) for the Best Actress Tony.

While the Tony Awards are only days away and I have plenty more predictions to make, I wanted to take a break from all that to reflect on a quiet but important event that took place during the holiday weekend: the series finale of Smash.

A behind the scenes look at the making of a Broadway musical, poor Smash has had a rough time of it.  After the pilot premiered to near-universal acclaim and fairly strong ratings, the series began its fast descent into mockery and derision.  The show became the poster child for a movement known as “hate watching,” with people tuning in every week for the express purpose of making fun of the show’s every flaw.  After the rather public firing of creator Theresa Rebeck at the end of season one, NBC promised that new showrunner Joshua Safran would retool the show into a sleeker, sexier Smash and thereby reinvigorate the show.  But the second season premiered to dismal rating that only sunk lower with each passing week, prompting NBC to move it to Saturday nights before officially cancelling the show a couple weeks ago (although any observer could tell the show was doomed for months beforehand).

I have to say, I quite enjoyed the two hour series finale that aired Sunday night.  Although it could have stood an extra 10-15 minutes to fully wrap up its myriad storylines, I felt the finale did an excellent job of providing closure to the series and the characters.  I would have loved to see a higher budget Tony Awards ceremony, and it would have been great fun to see all of the “nominated” industry heavyweights actually cameo, but I loved seeing where all the characters ended up and the wins in each category felt right. 

Ultimately, I feel like Safran made good on most of his promises about fixing the show, as this season was generally tighter, more focused, and less subject to the wild fluctuations in tone and characterization that plagued the back half of the first season.  Not every addition was a home run, but none bombed in the spectacular manner that reviled elements like Ellis or Julia’s son Leo did in season one.  But while I personally am sad to see the show go, I think in some ways this is a blessing in disguise, as the story about the creation of Bombshell came to a natural conclusion with no obvious extension.  Safran has stated that a third season would have seen Karen starring in the movie musical Tom and Julia were asked to write in the finale, possibly with Jimmy taking over composing duties so Tom and/or Derek could direct.  It’s an interesting premise, but even Safran admits he hadn’t quite figured out how Ivy figures into that story, and a Smash without the amazing Megan Hilty is almost destined to be a lesser show.

So why didn’t Smash become the breakout success everyone hoped it would be?  It’s a complicated question.  I think the biggest obstacle the show faced was never fully deciding who its intended audience was.  The show, especially in its first season, would have seemingly knowledgeable characters suddenly become idiots to allow the writers to explain key concepts like workshops and previews to audiences unfamiliar with how Broadway works.  And yet at the same time it would have industry professionals like Jordan Roth or Michael Riedel appear as themselves with no explanation as to who they were or why they were important, something that surely made anyone not intimately familiar with the New York theatre scene feel slightly lost (I’d even wager there’s a large contingent of NYC actors who wouldn’t necessarily recognize theatre czar Jordan Roth on sight).  Trying to have it both ways ended up pleasing no one, as theatre professionals would get insulted by the characters’ spontaneous naivety and outsiders would get confused by the overly specific, unexplained references.

Then there is the problem of the writing, particularly in the first season.  Under Rebeck’s direction the show could be a narrative nightmare, inconsistent in its logic and continually trying to force uninteresting characters down the audience’s throat.  The show also had a nasty habit of making previously sympathetic characters unlikable and selfish, a problem which it never fully escaped.  Add in a 7-month break between seasons and you have plenty of reasons for less dedicated viewers to jump ship.

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that theatre people are also partly to blame, as a large percentage of them approached the show with the wrong attitude.  A number of friends and colleagues would constantly complain that the show wasn’t “realistic” and that certain plot twists would never happen, citing that as irrefutable evidence that the show was garbage.  But this assumes popular shows like Law and Order are a 100% accurate representation of the criminal justice system or that Grey’s Anatomy is the place to go for solid medical information.  Like all workplace dramas, Smash embellished elements of the business to make for good TV, and I for one found myself much more disturbed by the things I’m sure do happen, like when Julia’s high-minded Bombshell rewrite was rejected in favor of a more tourist-friendly version.

I think the positives of Smash far outweigh the negatives.  It introduced musical theatre to a wider audience, as even the paltry 2 million viewers a week are more people than see the Broadway production of Wicked in a year.  It provided a host of Broadway actors with a steady, TV-sized paycheck, which will provide them with a nice financial buffer while they search for their next stage project.  And once they land that next project, the exposure they received on Smash will be a valuable marketing tool to help sell tickets (and unlike most Broadway stunt casting, we know these people have the skills to actually succeed onstage).  And it gave us some truly stunning new songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who really need to be writing more musicals to stand alongside Hairspray and the underappreciated Catch Me If You Can. 

So farewell, Smash.  I for one am grateful for the two seasons of entertainment you provided, and while you certainly had your issues, you were far from the unqualified disaster so many folks made you out to be.

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