Why NBC’s ‘Smash’ wasn’t built to last

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Another week, another decline for “Smash,” the highly anticipated midseason series for which NBC had high hopes. The third episode Monday registered a 2.3 rating in the demo, an 18% decline vs. the previous week, which itself dropped 27% from the impressive premiere ratings.

Debate all you want whether this should be a disappointment or not for NBC, but this much is indisputable: “Smash” is not hanging onto the audience that first sampled it. That may be a surprise to those who thought a great cast and terrific music would keep the series humming along.

So what’s wrong with “Smash,” a behind-the-curtain look at the formation of a fictional musical? Let me posit a theory rooted in a creative decision at the very heart of the show–one that may prompt the execs responsible for it to take a hard look in the mirror and ask themselves whether they got blinded by their own reflection.

Nbc_katherineHere’s the problem: “Smash” spends way too much time focusing on the producers, the quartet of characters played by Debra Messing, Christian Borle, Anjelica Huston and Jack Davenport. The narrative should have been more centered on the ingenue singer-dancer played by Katharine McPhee–the woman “Smash” marketing materials leads you to believe is the star of the series, but really isn’t.

The problem manifests in the very first scene of the premiere episode–McPhee sings rapturously at an audition in front of producers who couldn’t seem more jaded. Viewers are set up for the same character dynamic that has animated every great inside-the-production story from “A Chorus Line” to “Black Swan”: the struggling performers up against the cold-hearted puppeteers who pull their strings in pursuit of artistic perfection.

But from there “Smash” takes a detour from which it never deviates. In this series, the producers AND the performers are the underdogs we have to pull for as they attempt to pull off “Marilyn: The Musical.”

And therein lies a twofold problem. First, if you’re not in the entertainment industry, producers are an inherently uninteresting lot. “Smash” may be great at capturing the process that goes into making a musical, but not so good at getting at why average Joes should get a vicarious thrill from witnessing their efforts. Three episodes of Messing and Borle trading psychobabble-laden banter about Who Is Marilyn Monroe Really? with the import of the national debt crisis isn’t going to cut it. 

All in all, the “Marilyn” producers are a pampered, petulant bunch who seem to treat putting on a play as if it was their divinely ordained destiny, a high-class problem that probably doesn’t resonate much with an economically strapped U.S. audience. There’s no sense of the stakes for these characters–a basic building block for good drama.

Secondly, the way some of these characters are drawn practically dare you to take a rooting interest in them. Take Messing’s character, Julia, in particular. Three episodes in, we’ve learned: 1. Taking on the “Marilyn” project has alienated her husband to whom she swore she’d take the year off from producing in order to focus on adopting a child (a subplot painfully wedged into the show to give her a shred of humanity) 2. She harshly treats Ellis, a young man who is her partner’s assistant (although she’s unaware he’s plotting against her) 3. She had an extramarital affair with the guy she just cast in her musical for the part of Joe DiMaggio.

Are you in her corner yet? Go, Julia!

Julia is unlikable in so many ways that you have to wonder whether that the very reason Messing–a good comic actress who radiates likability–is in the part in a futile attempt to change this leopard’s spots. But it doesn’t work.

Same goes for Huston, whose character comes across as deluded after viewers learn she doesn’t actually have the ability to finance anything because all her assets were frozen in escrow as she negotiates her bitter divorce. Who doesn’t love this veteran actress, but her character’s conflict with her wealthy ex-husband is so overheated that we see her throw a drink in his face in three different restaurants where they just happen to bump into each other. Because everyone knows Manhattan only has about a handful of restaurants–especially for rich people.

“Smash” really is the story of the “Marilyn” producers more so than McPhee’s character, Karen, who should be the focal point but is left fighting for screen time. That makes for a jarring disconnect between how the series is promoted and what it actually is. But the bigger problem is that “Smash” would have more dramatic horsepower if it stuck to watching a plucky heroine go up against the Big Bad System rather than wasting time making the cogs of said system into characters in their own right.

And if “Smash” really just had to make the producers into protagonists, the series would probably have been better served depicting a story right out of the real-life Jonathan Larson production “Rent”: a hardy group of outsiders who bootstrapped their own off-off-Broadway musical by breaking all the rules, up-ending the traditional theater world in the process. That way there’s characters who don’t seem like spoiled brats.

And this is where an uncomfortable question must be asked: Do the various producers and execs responsible for putting “Smash” on the air bear blame for overestimating the appeal of characters who just happen to be producers and execs themselves? Perhaps there’s some narcissism in not seeing that characters who basically function as fictional proxies for themselves may not be quite as interesting as they consider themselves to be.

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  1. I agree in part with the points made in the article, but I find it interesting that none of the finger-pointing efforts point at the time slot.

  2. The started off Smashingly. I had high expectations for this 21st Century Musical drama set in the NYC theatre world. As a lgbt man who worked during college in Shubert Alley I thought the portrayals were dead on. In fact my mom even saw a resemblance of me in the character of Ellis, Tom’s assistant. Furthermore, I loved the original musical and stii have the poster ( now in Hollywood). But alas, the well written loving relationships went to the straights and it seemed like Grace found a new will in Tom. More suprising was the fact that Ellis has a girlfriend. I am no for stereo types but he was the only hope for an accurate portrayal sine everyone else was established. Oh well, I hope this does not get a GLAAD Award.

  3. Sarah Wall says:

    In behind the scenes videos its Jack Davenport and Katharine McPhee that have all the chemistry but the writers havent capitalised on that. Instead theyve made his character so unpleasant that you dont want him to build a relationship with her character. All of Debra Messing’s storylines are boring and in particular the baby adoption strand. What teen son says go get me my chinese sister. The writing and character development is appalling and feels like its being written on the fly.
    I’m sad because I like actors like Davenport, McPhee and Huston and have enjoyed the songs/performances. In the right hands this could have been a winner.The show needs to be given to new producers/writers but that will never happen. Its on borrowed time.

  4. What a great article and I completely agree with your comments. I thought Katharine McPhee (Karen) was the star of the show (at least that’s what all the marketing told me), last night, episode 3, she was hardly in it; had only 1 number. I thought the show was about, as you point out, a”Black Swan” type of competition between two women both wanting the part of Marilyn. Somehow it veered off into different directions about a bunch of different characters that I don’t really care much about one way or the other.

  5. Wow. This is such a great article, with amazing and accurate insight. I normally feel critically articles are shallow opinions, but I think this one hit the BullsEye– There can’t be two “underdogs” on opposite sides.
    And if you have to chose one side for the audience to connect to, it should be the one that’s most relatable, the one that’s most like them: Poor, struggling, trying to achieve their dreams; Not wealthy, comfortable, with much success behind them, and such a blaise attitude about how lucky they are, that they throw it all away on a whim ( Julia’s marriage, etc. ). No one wants to be reminded of how easy rich people have it, and how little gratitude they have for it. No one wants to see employees treated like servants, or the lives of Broadway hopefuls toyed with like a dead mouse.
    I’m grateful that you wrote this aritcle, grateful that Variety published it, and hopes that someone who pulls the strings takes a moment to Really LISTEN.
    -Eva Bodine
    http://www.facebook.com/horseflyfilms

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