Well, Smash didn’t Save NBC, and it sure didn’t save the cause of serious drama on broadcast networks. But it is getting a second season, which means it succeeded after a fact; the ratings it pulls in are some of the best on NBC (it helps that it has NBC’s only good time slot, after The Voice). Even people who are appalled by it sometimes keep watching it, because when it’s bad, it’s bad in a fun or jaw-dropping way rather than a dreary way: the characters who drag the show down, like the teenage son, are such terrible characters that you can’t look away. If you can’t be good, it’s better to at least avoid being bland.
Smash obviously has revealed some problems that weren’t immediately apparent in the early, generally well-reviewed early episodes – even though some of the problems (like that teenager and that assistant guy) were there already. Some of these problems may or may not be addressed in the second season, which will proceed without creator Teresa Rebeck, who left the show to Pursue Other Projects™ or whatever other term you prefer.
There’s one recurring complaint about the show that I don’t entirely agree with. That’s the complaint that Ivy (Megan Hilty) is clearly more talented than Karen (Katherine McPhee) yet the show is biased in Karen’s favour. Yes, Karen’s a Mary Sue, someone who is meant to be a star-in-the-making even though she doesn’t have the talent or personality to be a star. (Part of this is what might be called Ruby Keeler syndrome. The person cast in this part must be believable as someone who is not a star yet. But the reason she’s convincing as a non-star is often that she has no star quality or star-level talents.) But I think that the Karen/Ivy stuff is what’s keeping people interested in the show, precisely because they are mismatched in terms of talent.
Smash is heavily influenced by reality TV, especially reality competition shows – and the way it’s shaped up, it owes even more to American Idol than Glee does, given the Simon Cowell-esque character of Derek and the fact that so much of the story revolves around who will get the part. One thing it’s successfully replicated from that type of show is the fact that viewers love to argue about who “deserves” to win in the end, and that some performers seem to be getting preferential treatment. We can all remember Idol contestants who seemed to be the pets of the judges or the voters; we can think of Dancing With the Stars contestants who just kept going while better dancers were eliminated. Rebeck probably didn’t intend it this way, but when viewers throw up their hands and rage against the fact that the show seems to be favouring Karen, she’s actually managed to give us something similar to the reality competition experience: that moment when we suspect the whole thing is rigged.
So if the second season continues milking Karen vs. Ivy, or Karen vs. Anybody for that matter, I don’t think I’ll blame the new producers. At least if we’re slapping our foreheads in disgust over Karen, we’re feeling something and rooting for something (or against a character). The show hasn’t established much of a rooting interest in the musical, and it certainly hasn’t made people interested in the personal lives of the characters. At least the most recent episode came up with a plot point that is a realistic and interesting part of the creation of a musical – the moment when outside writers are called in to rewrite without the creators’ knowledge. But then it executed that idea in a way that didn’t make any effort to feel authentic, and that hit the same old theme the show has been hitting from the beginning: work vs. family, being a successful person vs. stabbing your friends in the back. TV writers are obsessed with these things in their regular lives, and they seem to feel that we’re equally obsessed with them. Maybe some of us are, but the potential of Smash was always in the potential it had to show the work. When the director talks about how the songs in Marilyn are too nice and cute to serve the story, that’s actually a discussion we haven’t heard that often on TV before. So naturally they didn’t spend a whole lot of time on that.
What the audience has to grab onto, then, are these two women and the writers’ unequal treatment of them. That, at least, feels authentic – not to our lives, but to our experience of watching TV.
It continues to do better than Studio 60 On the Sunset Strip, because it hasn’t seemed to fall victim to the same kind of self-importance about the show-within-a-show. It is crazily self-important about Marilyn Monroe, and the parallels between Marilyn Monroe and seemingly everything that happens. Every time they do that, it just creates a little more doubt that Marilyn is actually a good subject for a musical. But at least we’re still not required to buy that the writers are doing important work, saving Broadway, or creating a masterpiece.
One thing about the show that may be holding it back is that it tends to hit some of the same notes in every episode. This is always an issue, I think, when a serialized show is based around building up to an event hat hasn’t happened. We’ve seen shows where the characters can’t stop talking about the big fight they are eventually going to have with the villain, and they talk about it every week, but it never happens. Smash is like that, only without the violence. The opening of Marilyn is the big event. The show has chosen to spend most of its story energy on things that point forward to that big event. But that means that the ground they’ve covered in one episode winds up being similar to the ground they covered in a previous episode. Ironically, it’s possible that the overall story would have more momentum if they had more little mini-crises that were solved within the course of an episode. (This is the monster-of-the-week principle: giving the characters weekly problems to solve – really solve – prevents the insoluble problems from burning themselves out.) You can say what you want about Glee, but that show has always understood that you can’t just have the characters talk endlessly about getting to Sectionals; there’s almost always something that occupies them right here and now. Most of the problems the characters confront on Smash turn out to be just part of the larger problem of getting the show on. Which in turn makes it seem like they’re always talking about getting to Sectionals.