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

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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