The first season of “Smash” resembled a Broadway show, with a promising overture and an interesting first act, which falls apart after intermission. A new showrunner and various tweaks haven’t righted the ship, as the Marilyn Monroe musical and the TV series it serves share several flaws. Cast changes and additions (a la Jennifer Hudson’s new diva) can’t obscure a skein whose soapy doings drown out its tunes, and where even the music often comes across as flat. NBC might view the program as a success, but creatively speaking, it’s time to write this off as a squandered opportunity.
Despite a promising off-Broadway tryout, all is not well with the fledgling production “Bombshell,” its cash-strapped producer (Anjelica Huston), imperious director (Jack Davenport) or Will-and-Grace-like writing team (Debra Messing, Christian Borle). Moreover, the emergence of Karen (Katharine McPhee) as the show’s star has only exacerbated her feud with Ivy (Megan Hilty), who lost out on the part but exacted a measure of revenge by sleeping with Karen’s since-departed boyfriend.
At one point, Borle’s character quotes a positive Variety review verbatim. While it’s nice to remember the name still carries some clout, rest assured, nobody will be framing this one.
Freeing Karen up romantically allows her to take an interest in a prickly young songwriter (Jeremy Jordan), whose work for a nascent musical is, we’re told, “Jonathan Larson good,” a reference to the late genius behind “Rent.”
But like so much in “Smash,” it’s all sizzle, no steak, and when a later episode is built entirely around a show-stopping tune, it’s hard not to wonder, when the number finally plays, what all the fuss was about. Even the youthful longing and yearning for that big break can’t approach what McPhee and Hilty brought to the party at the outset of season one.
Indeed, the modest changes — other than jettisoning some of the more annoying cast members — mostly amount to a shift in the way “Smash” approaches musical numbers, staging them against montages of action more like a musicvideo. If that’s meant to help the series connect better with a younger crowd, it’s at the expense of the Broadway origins that captivated some fans in the first place.
Moreover, like “Glee,” the soapy aspects of “Smash” tend to feel like an unavoidable surcharge. And while her extramarital infidelity is over, Messing’s character remains a mess, to the point where we question her talent every bit as much as she does.
Despite NBC’s expressed faith in “Smash,” the ratings softened as last season progressed, and the show won’t be blessed with “The Voice” as a lead-in this time around.
The Broadway aspect did help attract an upscale audience, which might be the program’s best hope for longevity (other than NBC’s emotional investment in the project). Still, in the weeks ahead, the more the network feels compelled to tout such metrics, the less chance “Smash” is genuinely living up to its name.