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.
Here'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.