‘Smash’ Crash: After Finale, Seeking Lessons for TV

"Smash" Finale Review

As curtain falls, what TV shouldn't take away from NBC's not-so-"Smash"-ing experience

Hollywood has a way of deriving the wrong lessons from both failure and success. So in bidding a final farewell to “Smash” — which wrapped up its tumultuous two-season run with a “Let’s dump this on Memorial Day weekend” two-hour finale Sunday — a few parting thoughts.

Whenever something ostensibly risky doesn’t work, TV execs — particularly those laboring at the major networks — like to use that to bolster their impulse to stick to the tried and true. In this case, many argued before the series premiered that it’s primarily elites on the coasts who attend musical theater, so it’s easy for showbiz types to delude themselves into thinking there’s a mass audience for a series about a Broadway show. Frankly, this argument is as old as “Cop Rock,” which — unlike “Smash” — didn’t even open.

Still, “Smash” didn’t fail because it was a musical soap opera. It failed because (unlike “Cop Rock”) it was a bad musical soap opera — or more specifically, because the promise of its first few episodes and thrill of discovering its female leads vying for the part of Marilyn Monroe, Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty, wasn’t sustained past episode three. The margin for error might be smaller for a show like “Smash,” but assuming that’s true, there were nevertheless far too many creative missteps to survive.

The producers, moreover, stumbled not with the relative unknowns they assembled, but foremost with the recognizable names, particularly Debra Messing and to a lesser degree Anjelica Huston. In short, they seemingly didn’t trust a show about hungry young Broadway wannabes to get by on theatrical talent, but rather felt compelled to surround them with stars, whose plots were almost uniformly teeth-gnashing. Stunt casting in the later episodes (Sean Hayes, all is not forgiven) only made matters worse.

As New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood shrewdly observed, the series repeatedly engaged in “the kind of compromises that can turn an edgy, fresh show into something that resembles a bland, assembly-line-produced product: precisely what ‘Smash’ turned out to be.” Indeed, it’s hard to say “Smash” lacked the courage of its convictions, because in hindsight, it’s hard to discern what those convictions were.

Finally, NBC did the show no favors by continuing to cling to its “These aren’t the droids you’re looking for” public-relations approach when many perceived (correctly, I’d argue) that the program had gone off the rails creatively in addition to losing a sizable chunk of its audience. That included NBC Entertainment chief Robert Greenblatt adhering to his description of the program as “an unqualified success,” when you didn’t need to be a research ace to recognize the claim didn’t hold water.

The closing hours highlighted just how seriously the show had lost its way, which included producing music videos that dispensed with any connection between original songs being rehearsed and performed on stage and people walking down the street (multiple people, in the case of a tepid cover of Queen’s “Under Pressure”) belting out tunes. Fittingly, the final image (and SPOILER ALERT, assuming anyone cares) was a McPhee-Hilty show-stopper, which only reinforced, in a melancholy way, just how much the initial spark had been lost.

During the finale, Messing’s character huffs at one point that the press “will twist anything for a story.”

Perhaps so. But in the case of “Smash,” the media vultures didn’t really need to bother. The show failed. But that’s not a referendum on musicals, or serialized dramas, or shows with too many gay characters, or networks trying to do something a little bit different or outside their comfort zones.

It’s simply a referendum on “Smash.”

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  1. Dee Lynn says:

    I thought this was a great TV show and head & shoulders above the reality shows the networks push on us. It was also more entertaining than the cop shows that feature crimes on women week after week. My hope is that it actually becomes a Broadway show or another cable network picks it up…..we can hope…..

  2. Jan Jenkins says:

    Who do you think attends theatre on the East and West coasts? Visitors for middle America! Music Theatre of Wichita (KS) is probably THE most successful long-term theatre, selling out since 1976 (65,000+ tickets every summer). Then, there’s great theatre in St. Louis, Houston, Phoenix, Columbus, Kansas City. It’s even sold out in East Lansing (MI). Come on, quit with the false stereo-types.

    I loved Smash even more before it was “fooled with” in the second season. It was nice having a traditional married family in the show … too bad it was taken out. And, how long can a show sustain two women fighting over the lead? That plot was ok by me. Am guessing thet some of the not-so-dyed-in-the-wool fans may have been turned off by PDI and TMI of the gay love.

    It will be missed.

    • DrMikey says:

      Most of your assertions are quite correct and important. But the gay ‘PDI (isn’t it PDA?) and TMI never hurt Brothers & Sisters, The Amazing Race, a few daytime soaps, Glee seasons 1 & 2, etc. I think you may be underestimating much of America. And I doubt many rightwingnut religious fundamentalists actually give a hoot about Broadway & live theater. Besides, TV is way ahead of Hollywood features in the portrayal of same-sex relationships, and someone has to educate the children of those who believe Adam & Eve was simply a parable.

  3. Claudia says:

    This show had so much potential and I loved the music and the storyline until the writers got side-tracked, if not totally misguided, with character development, and tried to stuff the story with leading actors with no success. Debra Messing’s role could have been eliminated. She was a mature character with no core or direction. ( and I like her in comedy). Derek was “taken” with Karen from the beginning and throughout the show until the end when he “loves” Ivy. His intrigue with the two girls but focus on Karen got lost which was central to the show as was the girls’ competition. Also, Karen’s hooking up with a troubled youth headed to jail was poor direction for the starlet. The writers just screwed up. They seemed to be more interested in gay characters who also were not developed. Did I want the show to make it? Yes! Character development happens over years, not in a final episode. I’ll miss the music, the competition between the two girls, the Derek-Karen intrigue — all lost because of poor writing.

  4. Linda says:

    I saw on BroadwayWorld that a prop Bombshell Playbill is available! http://broadwayworld.com/board/readmessage.php?thread=1060399
    I really want it!

  5. Nelson says:

    i loved it
    it took you out of your self
    so many shows about how to kill someone what is this world comming too
    I am tried of cop shows and reality TV
    sorry to see go

  6. david wesson says:

    Despite the fact the show did not get the critical acclaim it deserved Smash delivered some thing different and had a legion of fans that will sorely miss. i am happy to boast i was among them and until the commercial TV format changes many other great shows will go by the way side. Hopefully the growth of web TV will change all that ad dinosaurs like NBC and pyscophantic journalists that go with it will be history in a few short years.

  7. Frank W says:

    I’m not a big fan of musical theater–My Fair Lady is about it (I did love the movie musical of Lost Horizon so you know where my taste is from)–but I really loved the pilot of SMASH that I got from iTunes and looked forward to watching the series, but by the second episode, that spark was subdued. I could see it was just going to be, like the author here puts into what I was thinking, a Soap Opera. I guess I wanted it to be about putting on the show, not various subplots (backstabbing assistants) but I did want the show to succeed.

  8. Dave says:

    i think the writer is completely wrong. This was one of the best shows on tv. NBC failed the show and writers like you.

  9. Dallas Lafever says:

    This show was phenomenal and better than half the shit this station has on. You need to keep shows like this and get rid of all the fucking reality TV out there.

  10. Ann says:

    The show had its ups and downs, but in general, was great to watch. And you sound daft assuming only the coasts have fans of musical theater. There are theaters in the middle of the States with all that corn…

  11. Suzann says:

    Whatever!!! I loved this show and am so disappointed it is canceled.

    • Francesca says:

      Me 2!!!

    • Dave says:

      Innovative and captivating, with many vivid and intriguing characters. By no means a failure. Loved the location and the music too.

    • Eli says:

      Three strikes and you out! Stike one was Lipstick Jungle, strike two was NBC replacing Ann Curry, strike three is canceling Smash! I will not give NBC my time anymore. Should have fired the writers, more importantly the writers should had stepped away for the good of the show. Now because of them they don’t have a show to write and we don’t have the show! So long NBC, going back to cable.

      • Lynne Newberry says:

        Also agree with Eli! Guess it’s why NBC is #3! Way to go, NBC! You finally get a HIT, and you let it go?! You’ve totally messed up. We would speed through commercials on our DVR to get to the next minute of SMASH as fast was we could. SO much better than the mindless reality shows and blood ‘n gore that is on TV. If Showtime or HBO wants some great publicity and thousands of happy fans, they will bring back SMASH ASAP!

      • Terri says:

        Agree! What a BIG mistake

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