On SMASH, and Why It Is the Worst
This is a very long essay, and it probably constitutes the end of my interest in NBC’s SMASH. I know that most of you will be happy to hear that.
The second season of Smash begins with Karen Cartwright (Katherine McPhee), dressed as Marilyn Monroe, onstage and singing a song called “Cut, Print… Moving On.” Like all the songs on Smash, it is utterly devoid of context; like all the songs on Smash, it seems impossible that there’s any way to combine it with any of the other songs to form something even resembling a comprehensible musical. All pretense that the in-story show, Bombshell, is really a play that people might actually want to watch is abandoned. The song could have easily been called “Here Is the Beginning of the Second Season, We Have a New Creative Team, We Noticed It Too; Aren’t We All Very Clever?”
Not Quite a Satire
If you’d only read the many articles about Smash, you could be forgiven for thinking it’s meant to be a trenchant satire, or at least a very terrible joke. It takes almost zero effort to imagine “Bombshell” switched out with Mystic Pizza: The Musical from 30 Rock, and absolutely no effort to imagine Jane Krakowski returning after the summer hiatus to remark in her brilliant, cheerfully vacant deadpan that the show was canceled after she tried to assassinate Uma Thurman with peanuts. Whatever the case, it seems impossible that anyone could have legitimately made Smash as a serious artistic effort, just because of the irony:
Smash is a Stephen-Spielberg-devised marketing plan in the form of a network television show starring an American Idol runner-up who is in a Broadway musical about a woman who famously committed suicide after being chewed up and spat out by a soul-crushing entertainment-industrial complex.
Theresa Rebeck, god bless her, was committed to trying it, and the first season of Smash was clearly run by someone wholeheartedly, sincerely committed to what was ultimately an impossibly stupid idea. How could Smash not be a joke? The musical was paid for by a coked-out musician named Randy Cobra. The main character’s only two character traits were 1) can sing all right and 2) does not even vaguely resemble Marilyn Monroe. She refuses to respond to a marriage proposal because she’s in tech. Anjelica Huston’s assistant is a sociopathic murderer who tries to assassinate Uma Thurman with peanuts.
Do you think Megan Hilty – a successful Broadway actress who actually does have a passing resemblance to Marilyn Monroe – felt cheated by the fact that the show revolved around Katherine McPhee simply because McPhee was famous for losing American Idol? Do you think she felt cheated a second time when the storyline in Smash actually revolved around Uma Thurman’s character coming in and taking over the main role from Katherine McPhee for exactly those reasons? Megan Hilty doesn’t even get the satisfaction of being the protagonist in her own story, and the layers of irony here go unnoticed. Maybe Megan Hilty isn’t especially bothered; I imagine that the steady pay of a regular role on a network television show assuages a lot of insecurities – another interesting idea that no one seems to care about.
Is there some interesting question about Julia Houston (Debra Messing), who repeatedly derides her old work as “pieces of fluff”, not actually noticing that there is absolutely nothing about Bombshell to suggest that it is itself anything but fluff? Any irony that she’s already bedecked in the flowing scarves of a retired theater-professional-turned-part-time-acting-teacher? Any irony that she’s the writer of a play that appears to contain no actual scenes? That her only real opinion about theater is a prickly insecurity about critics who are too mean? There are, and Smash is not interested in them.
The experience of watching the first season of Smash is something like watching a starving woman with a craving for Twinkies, blundering through an orchard and obliviously banging her head on all the low-hanging fruit.
Not Quite a Turnaround
Theresa Rebeck was fired for producing an embarrassing, stupid, schmaltzy mess of a show, apparently because she was (rightfully) paranoid that she was going to get fired for doing exactly that. She was replaced by Josh Safran, because if you want to make a show that has something intelligent and relevant to say about the soul-killing nature of the entertainment industry, of course you want the guy that ran Gossip Girl.
He didn’t disappoint, presuming you would have been disappointed if he hadn’t made the show worse in every possible respect. The show’s gone from a kind of naïve and wholehearted pursuit of something stupid to a smirking, halfhearted pursuit of something even stupider. This is the source of the lampshading that opens the show, the “This Is the Second Season” song. Lampshading is the first resort of the lazy but marginally clever. Having a dumb idea (“let’s move Julia into Tom (Chrisitan Borle)’s house because of awkwardly-engineered relationship problems”) is forgivable if we think you’re just a stupid person who didn’t notice it. It’s less forgivable when you draw attention to it (Tom: “It’ll be like a sitcom!” Get it? Because of how Debra Messing was on that sitcom where she was roommates with a gay man? GET IT?) because that just shows that not only did you have a dumb idea, but you actually noticed the dumb idea and then didn’t do anything about it.
Except, for all that Safran’s team has noticed the trivially stupid parts of the show (It’s like Will and Grace! Julia’s scarves are silly!), it pursues that first season agenda with just as much, if not more, oblivious vacuity.
Season Two awkwardly introduces Veronica Moore (Jennifer Hudson — clearly booked for the show before anyone actually had time to write a reason for her to be involved in it) a black musical theater actress working on a show that apparently consists of all the black musical theater actors in New York (except, obviously, for the one who’s working on Bombshell). Now look here: the fact that there’s an unspoken but pretty clear division between “black theater” and “white theater” – that there’s essentially an entire genre of plays that are by and for the black community that white people don’t go to see and often don’t even know about – is a huge deal. No one likes to talk about it, because we like to imagine that theater transcends race, that Broadway is a bastion of progressivism and of course progressive things are never racist. What a great subject to talk about, what a worthy avenue of interrogation that Smash skips blithely by, fully aware of race when it comes time to cast Veronica Moore’s backup singers, but suddenly colorblind when it comes to actually looking at them.
And of course, in the grand tradition of network television, it’s also weirdly sexist. Which isn’t to say that it’s weird that it’s sexist – of course it’s sexist, it’s on TV – but that it’s sexist in a bunch of really weird ways. Uma Thurman’s character — who was poisoned in a failed assassination attempt — has decided to sue Bombshell director Derek Willis (Jack Davenport) for sexual harassment. They say it’s “to save face”, but it’s not abundantly clear what kind of face she’d be saving, or why that would be particularly important to her in the face of almost having been murdered. One of the ensemble then points out that she can’t be trusted anyway, due to her being a whore (thanks, guy who had one line in this episode). This suit precipitates a series of sexual harassment suits against Derek Willis who, it should be noted, is in fact a sexual predator who uses his position of authority to attempt to extract sexual favors from Karen in the very first episode (she has subsequently forgiven him for this).
He undergoes some kind of existential crisis to which we’re apparently meant to be sympathetic, though it’s again not exactly clear what’s sympathetic about his situation. There is a particularly baffling musical number at this point, which I’ll get to a little later, but the whole sequence feels like artificially-tense filler.
Later, there’s a party where team Bombshell needs to distract all the entertainment reporters from some personal drama so trivial that I actually don’t even remember what it was. Veronica Moore (still here, for some reason; presumably the writers will find a motivation for her eventually) says, “Why don’t you use her?”
“Use who? You mean that pair of legs? That abundant cleavage floating up the stairs? Oh! Oh, it’s Katherine McPhee, I didn’t recognize her until the camera finished its ten second pan up her body.”
And somehow, SOMEHOW through all of this, no one seems to have noticed that the entire lynchpin of this series is a musical about Marilyn Monroe, who was driven to suicide by a culture that didn’t recognize her has a human being so much as a collection of sexy, commodifiable body parts. Katherine McPhee famously endured a lot of criticism when she was on American Idol; people said that she wasn’t especially talented, and that she only made it as far as she did because of her willingness to show off her legs. She’s essential to Smash because she’s pretty and famous, obviously. And everyone tells us that Karen Cartwright is essential to Bombshell because she possesses some undefinable “star power” (she does not; Katherine McPhee has the charisma of a photograph of someone who once met Marilyn Monroe in a diner), but really it’s because scruffy British horndog Derek Willis wants to bone her. It was a joke among critics of Smash’s first season that every personal problem, no matter how tangential, was somehow related back to “Marylin” – and the one way in which Katherine/Karen’s arc IS like Marylin Monroe’s is never mentioned.
Not Quite Artists. Or Characters
Considering the dramatic possibilities of a professional Broadway theater struggling to make a hit musical to be sufficiently exhausted, Safran’s team opens the story up and takes us to an imaginary Brooklyn full of secret Mozarts toiling in obscurity, each with a brilliant musical waiting to take the world by storm. One of these Mozarts-in-waiting is Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan), a bartender who seems bizarrely confrontational about Karen just wanting to order water (while Karen seems bizarrely defensive – “I’m not like that,” she says, when he accuses her, as though going to a bar with your friend and just having water isn’t something that’s a perfectly reasonable thing to do); or he seems that way until you remember that these are the early stages of a paint-by-numbers relationship, and this is #3, “Early Disdain for Each Other Red”.
Weirder than that is Jimmy’s genuinely confounding insistence that no one ever hear his music. He labors on the piano in the back of the bar after it’s closed, safeguarding his new brilliant work from anyone that might actually, you know, hear it. (“I didn’t get into musical theater,” he didn’t say but might as well have, “because I wanted people to HEAR my MUSIC.” Scoff scoff scoff. “Could you BE any more bourgeois?”) It’s not clear what his plan was, exactly, except that he should exist for the purpose that Katherine McPhee will eventually convince him that he can be a star, too.
In fact, between this, Jack Davenport’s musical interlude, and the desperately on-the-nose opening number, it’s abundantly clear that new showrunner Safran doesn’t actually understand how musicals even work. Say what you want to about the American Musical (oh, well, don’t mind if I do: they are mostly vacuous, stupid, formulaic, and generic) but the standard rule for music in a musical is that it’s supposed to arise out of a conflict that’s actually in the play, as opposed to being perfectly prepackaged to be resold as a single on iTunes.
The music in Smash, because of the nature of the show, is always devoid of context; the Bombshell songs are only ever precious commentaries on the scene. Critics deride it, but the one piece of music that was actually interesting about the first season was that weird paparazzi number that Derek Willis had commissioned: it was awkward and uncomfortable and weird, yes, but it was also the only song that didn’t look at Marilyn Monroe and the 1950s through a Vaseline-slathered soft-focus camera lens. It was about the price of fame, about the sexualization of celebrity, and the conflict between modern musical theater and classical American musical theater. In a better show, that tension would have been the central theme, and the question of how to understand Marilyn Monroe as a cultural icon would have been essential to Julia Houston’s relationship to her own work.
But Joshua Safran isn’t interested in making a better show, he’s interested in making a show that’s more appealing to 21-year-olds. The new musical-within-the-show that’s supposed to be a kind of meta-Broadway musical so far sounds just as painfully sincere an homage to Broadway as Bombshell is to Marilyn Monroe. Safran wants to put more covers of modern songs in (so as to bring in the young folks), context be damn. Most baffling of all, he seems to be making a television show about a musical while explicitly rejecting the most basic premise of musical theater, and that brings us back to that weird Derek Willis song.
Not Quite a Musical, Either
It goes like this: Willis gets drunk, hits on a woman in a bar, and then is pushed to the ground (possibly he hits his head at this point, that’s not clear). When this happens, he has something like a hallucination, in which the actresses from the show dance around in sexy black minidresses and hot-pink stiletto heels, tormenting him with their unbridled sexuality and singing something that I’ve already forgotten.
Here’s Safran’s opinion on how the music in Smash should proceed:
“I am against bursting out into song,” Safran said. “I understood why they tried stuff like that, because Glee does it all the time and it makes sense for them. Smash wasn’t sure what its rules were in the first season, because it was still finding its way. This year, we know our rules and we don’t break them.”
The most confusing thing about this is that a television show in which characters burst out into song is a television show that HAS rules: the rule is that they burst out into songs that describe their emotions. The rule is that when a musical number is occurring, we’re transported to a fantasy universe where everyone is on the same page, and has the same choreographer. It’s not realistic, but it’s still consistent, and it’s integral to the very idea of musical theater.
Safran’s idea seems to be that the musical numbers are either onstage, or else some kind of hallucinations, which not only doesn’t solve the “no rules” problem (which was not a problem, because there are rules), it adds a host of new problems. Is everyone going to have a musical number when they fall down? Is falling down the only way you can have a musical number? What if you’re in a car accident, or bang your head on a door? If the sexy-black-minidress dance number was actually a hallucination inside Derek Willis’ drunken and concussed brain, how did they manage all that precision choreography? Joshua Safran, in addition to not understanding anything about racism or sexism or relationships, clearly doesn’t understand musicals, either.
He is, nonetheless, the perfect showrunner for this season ofSmash and that is because of what Smash actually is: a commercial enterprise dedicated to feeding an audience spoonful after spoonful of the sweet, sweet promise of having your ego gratified by fame.
Not Quite Anything, Really
There have been other media that have tried to capture what it’s like to work in the theater. The incomparable television show Slings and Arrows; movies like The Cradle Will Rock and Shakespeare in Love. And they work because, while they never shy away from looking directly at the utterly ridiculous people who inhabit the theater (and, let’s be honest, there’s probably no industry with a larger “utterly ridiculous” demographic than the theater industry), they genuinely believe at their cores that there is something fundamentally ennobling about the process of trying to understand and present the vagaries of the human experience onstage. They believe that art is an actual thing that people can do, and that it can genuinely make a person’s life better.
Consider Katherine McPhee’s insistence to her soon-to-be-boyfriend Jeremy Jordan: it’s not, “you’ve really got something worth saying,” or even “I think the subject of your musical is really interesting.” It’s “it’s scary, but you’ve got to put yourself out there.” She doesn’t draw any distinction between the work that he’s doing, and the personal risk and potential reward of self-affirmation that he might enjoy. The show can’t understand the many reasons why Jeremy Jordan might not WANT to have his show picked up by a Broadway team: maybe he likes small theaters, maybe he wants to sell cheap tickets so more people could see it, maybe he has an artistic vision and thinks that it will work better in a little black box somewhere. There’s any number of reasons why he might think that, but since Smash doesn’t understand any motivation beyond “the desire to be a Broadway star”, his reticence just comes off as surly and insane.
Or consider Julia’s interest in her own play – a play that, again, appears to contain no actual scenes. She repeatedly talks about how there are things in it that “don’t work”, but how don’t they work, or why? Do they make the audience uncomfortable because they’re boring? Because they’re addressing things that the audience would prefer not to think about? Does she have a vision of Marilyn Monroe that differs from Derek Willis’ version? Does she think that her particular understanding of Monroe as a cultural icon is something that especially needs to be expressed? Or is she just a two-bit hack who threw a bunch of generic, junk songs into a formulaic plot about a famous figure? “Two-bit hack” is the answer; the only thing she has to say about her own play is, “I want it to be the best it can be”, which is frankly meaningless. She doesn’t have anything to say about this, or about Marilyn Monroe, or about anything, actually. She’s here for the same reason everyone else is: she wants to write a famous play that makes a lot of money so that she can be a star.
Or else take Jennifer Hudson’s advice to Katherine McPhee, about her burgeoning career as a Broadway star: “Protect the work,” she says. “Someone’s always waiting to take you down, but if the work’s good, they won’t be able to.” If you cared about the work, then there might be times when you sacrificed of yourself in order to improve it: you might say, for example, “This show is good, but it would be better if it starred you, Megan Hilty,” and then you’d back out of the production. In that sense, if the work’s good then it doesn’t matter if someone else takes you down, because you’ve contributed to something that is greater than yourself, and it’s impossible for someone to take that away from you. But Smash does not draw a distinction between “the work” and “the star”. What Jennifer Hudson means by “the work” is “your meteoric rise to fame and fortune”; there’s nothing ennobling about this at all, nothing that even resembles the need for personal or artistic expression. Smash is about getting famous, full-stop.
Whether it’s because the show is afraid that genuinely grappling with the human condition would be off-putting to the coveted 18-35 year old demographic, or because the people working on it do not themselves have any particular interest in art, the show is utterly disinterested in anything except the most banal aspects of Broadway. This kind of shallowness colors everything about the show, and it’s what makes the show ultimately toxic. That’s because Smash isn’t just a commercial enterprise on its own – tacky, yes, but everyone’s got to eat – it’s an enterprise that characterizes everything else it touches as equally hollow and grasping. It doesn’t just fail to understand the theater, or the people who work in it for reasons other than “I want to be a star”, it grossly misunderstands them, describes them according to its own distorted sense of self, and then parades around presenting them to the world.
Smash isn’t just shallow, selfish, stupid, and narcissistic: it’s a hundred percent sure that everyone else in the world is, too.