Okay, okay, I'll stop being cheeky. As you can probably tell from my preamble, "Smash" is not my favorite show. But, here's the thing: I watched the pilot and didn't hate it. In fact, I liked it. I was rooting for it so hard! It's a TV show about Broadway, for Pete's sake! And that's awesome!
But since then, my hopes have been all but dashed. As the characters get flatter, and the stakes get lower, and the camera-mugging gets muggier, disillusionment has overtaken me.
The show's just not working. Here's why.
(DISCLAIMER: I understand only three episodes have aired, so I freely admit that this
1. Marilyn Monroe.
There's a blonde elephant in the room, and it's Marilyn Monroe. Namely: why her? "Smash" relies so heavily on the intrigue of Marilyn Monroe as a person. They're constantly alluding to the contrast between her larger-than-life persona and her quiet vulnerability, threading it like it's some kind of important theme or whatever.
Unfortunately, I agree with the nay-sayers on the show: "Who would want to see a musical about Marilyn?" The sad truth is that she doesn't resonate culturally with this generation of viewers. When the writing duo (played by Christian Borle and Debra Messing) haggle about which characters they should include in their joint work, they mention Arthur Miller and Joe DiMaggio with such gravitas, as if we should know how and why they are so profoundly important to Ms. Monroe's story.
Except, um, who cares? My level of understanding of Marilyn Monroe has as much depth as a Wikipedia page. That's just the truth. Sorry. And I'm guessing I'm not alone.
So I'm skeptical about where this can go. As long as the show's fictional producer (Anjelica Huston), writers, and actors are so invested in Marilyn, we as viewers will be expected to share similarly heightened feelings. I mean, Megan Hilty's Ivy treats her actor's journey of discovery like it's the most sacred and enthralling pursuit of all time, but I couldn't care less. I feel alienated, and, frankly, bored when I hear her mention it.
I can't really see how this whole Marilyn thing is going to fly, especially if it remains so central to the show. In short, if I were a producer approached to invest in Marilyn: The Musical, I would hold onto my money.
2. Musicals take years to put up, and yet this process is the show's main source of conflict.
Everybody is racing to mount Marilyn: The Musical. Why? The thing is, writing and putting up a musical is the slowest process EVARR. Musicals (like all works of art -- plays, books, screenplays) go through many drafts and iterations. In theater, this happens in the form of table reads, staged readings, workshops, and then maybe -- just maybe -- full-on productions. Which is to say: nobody, especially not Ivy and Karen, should care about this confounded workshop (for which producer Eileen Rand is hoping to raise a whopping $200,000?? Why??).
By and by, this idea of "putting up a musical" is the centerpiece of the show's sources of "conflict." (Who will get the part??? Will Karen stay in the ensemble??? Will the evil and weirdly monotone-voiced assistant demand credit for the writers' idea?????) But this backdrop couldn't be less dramatic. The whole "will she or won't she get the part conflict" never mattered. Ivy got the part for now, but Karen remains in the wings in the ensemble. Also, there are lots of auditions. Lots of jobs. Lots of parts. So who cares who gets it?
3. The show would be interesting if it would just be honest.
People are fascinated with worlds about which they know nothing. There's a reason why we all loved (still love!) Law and Order: it's the ultimate procedural show. The layperson doesn't really have a day-to-day sense of how crime and punishment works, so we love seeing it dramatized in a step-by-step manner that's not (too) far-fetched.
This was why I was so excited about "Smash"; I was looking forward to seeing a creative theater process on the small screen. If you read my book, you know it's an interest of mine to purvey to non-theater folk what it's like to work in theater: I tried to write about how it works, what kinds of obstacles there are -- the basic nuts and bolts of the process.
Instead, "Smash" totally bastardizes the process, almost like it's embarrassed by it. "Smash" so badly wants the theater world to be something it's not -- a world where there is ONLY ONE great director, and he's hot and British (not to mention straight and predatory); a world where all high-powered producers dine, by coincidence, in the same restaurant; a world where struggling waitresses have great apartments; a world where one writer can HATE HER PARTNER'S ASSISTANT SO MUCH BECAUSE HE BEHAVES IN DEEPLY INAPPROPRIATE WAYS but not gently request that he be let go.
Okay, okay, I know: lots of shows distort reality and make stuff larger-than-life. But in "Smash" there's such a fundamental disconnect, it doesn't come off as distorted, it comes off as surreal! It's like "Smash" merely wears the disguise of a show about theater, when really it's a half-baked soap opera about...nothing.
I wish it would just be more honest. Which leads me too...
4. The show needs fewer and better characters.
Who are these people? What do they want? Why does Debra Messing's son really, really want a Chinese sister when he's going away to college in like a year? Do you know anything about Ivy besides her being really, really, really into Marilyn, slightly neglected by her unsupportive family, and that she's maybe starting to like the director (with whom she's sleeping)?
And what the eff is that assistant's problem? Seriously, though. Get the hook.
These characters ring flat. And there are so many of them! Show me some depth, please. "Smash" needs three-dimensional characters with real sources of conflict, especially since the tone of the whole show is über-serious. I can count on one hand the show's funny moments (and I would only raise one finger for the, uh, three times Eileen threw a Manhattan in her ex-husband's face).
A dramatic TV show takes real human drama that's rooted in something -- real backstory, real stakes -- not something that's thrown in after the fact, like spices on an undercooked dish.
Why. Why. Why.
And thus ends this post. I hope some of these things can be resolved, because I do want "Smash" to succeed. I suppose I'm passionate about this because it's one of the first mainstream attempts (in recent memory) to portray the theater world to a non-theater audience. It also features some super talented actors, many of whom are fairly new to TV, and I hate to see them short-changed with such sub-par material.
Here's hoping things get better! As always, I invite you to comment and join the discussion.