When Smash premiered to smash ratings on Feb 6, 2012 it seemed it could do no wrong. It had all the elements and then some. With Steven Spielberg on board as Executive Producer and a stellar talent packed cast of TV veterans like Debra Messing, brilliant newbies like American Idols Katharine McPhee and Jennifer Hudson lending their formidable pipes; Broadway legends including Bernadette Peters and Liza Minnelli to give authenticity and Hollywood A-listers like Angelica Huston and Uma Thurman how could Smash go wrong? Add to this smoldering Brit bad boy, Jack Davenport, hopping from bed to bed with all his leading ladies and ingenious stunt casting like bringing Sean Hayes back from obscurity to reunite with Messing plus a credible Broadway soundtrack and endless glossy production numbers it was like catching a play every week. Even better because we got to go behind the scenes and live the juicy backstabbing, politicking, angst and trauma that goes with the turf.
On top of that the timing was perfect. Coming on the heels of Glee, Dancing With the Stars, The Voice and countless other hit shows about the highs and lows of instant stardom audiences are addicted to Smash brought it all together in one music and dance filled deliciously soapy hour that made waiting for the next week’s episode feel like an interminable intermission.
Fast Forward to one year later and though not yet official Smash is on every TV pundit’s deathwatch list, banished by NBC to TV’s Saturday night graveyard, running off its final episodes while awaiting execution. So what went wrong? How did NBC and its highly paid legions of programming executives and analysts run such a promising beginning straight into the ground?
The answer is they couldn’t leave well enough alone. Smash was working just fine as it was as we followed the fictional musical Bombshell through its tortured development process. The story was already dense with the main characters’ messy lives falling apart as they tried to bring the show together. Marriages and relationships hit the skids leading to constant cast changes for Bombshell as it’s stars and supporting players fell in and out of the cast depending on whose bed they were hopping in or out of any given week. Leading ladies Ivy, brilliantly played by Broadway vet Megan Hilty, and McPhee’s Karen clawed each other as they vied for the lead and favor with director Derek (Davenport). Add to this the every changing book as Messing’s Julia and writing partner Tom (Christain Borle) struggled with endless rewrites and Huston’s putting it all on the line to raise funds to get Bombshell up and running and there was plenty of drama to go around.
But that apparently wasn’t enough. Instead the powers that be, in what appears to be a somewhat desperate attempt to cultivate a younger demographic, introduced an entire second production, Hit List into the mix, a thinly veiled Rent redux meant to amp up the angst and hip factor by pitting the off Broadway rebel against mainstream Bombshell. And with came one of the most dislikable protagonists ever; tortured auteur Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan whose acting range seems to be from sneers to lip curls) who each week grew increasingly more detestable. Aside from his perpetual bad mood recent episodes have disclosed a shady drug dealing past (and maybe present) and now a false identity. Who cares? Even worse they made this creep Karen’s love interest, turning her from an incredibly talented scheming ingénue who could spar with the best of them to a whiny, sniveling wretch with unbelievably bad taste in men. Yes, just who’d I’d chose to front my production.
To add further unnecessary complications Karen now has fight former friend and rapidly rising underling, Ana a/k/a The Diva, to hold on to the lead and her rapidly shrinking part, in a part due to Derek’s jealously (and obvious distaste) from having to battle Jimmy for Karen and lose. Didn’t she just fight this battle with Ivy? Add on Jimmy’s jilted gay writing partner, Kyle, Tom’s alter ego, and new/old love interest for Julia, Jesse L. Martin and oh what an overly tangled web we weave. Because at the same time the drama continues full on at Bombshell, which in addition to its financial struggles, ever changing production and bed hopping cast is weighed down even further by even more plot lines and major characters and guest stars that enter with a bang (like Jennifer Hudson and Sean Hayes) and then just disappear into the mist.
But aside from the complex storylines that require a spread sheet to follow their endless twists, turns, false starts and stops, and the frustration of seeing great characters and actors random comings and abrupt exits just as they get going, what really did Smash in was NBC’s losing sight of just who the demographic for this show was – namely an older, educated theatre loving crowd who tune in to watch Liza and Jennifer Hudson belt out Broadway showstoppers with some great soapy drama in between. The same eyeballs who consistently keep CBS on the top of the ratings. More importantly an audience that’s not going to relate to Jimmy and Hit List. Nor is a younger hipper audience that Smash seems desperate to attract going to relate to prime time glossy drama of Bombshell and it’s cast of iconic old timers most of them barely heard of and could care even less about.
Sometime you’ve got to just stick with the horse you rode in on. Not that Smash didn’t have its problems. The worst of which was the devolution of most of the main characters who increasingly lost their dimension as time went on – case in point Karen disintegrating from a hot determined star on the rise to a whiny victim of poor choices for romance but that was fixable. The songs and production numbers still rock and in and of themselves justify sticking with it if the writing could be brought back to where Smash started – a fun and at times campy and deliciously ridiculous peak behind the curtain of the Great White Way, brought to life by some of the best talent ever assembled for TV. Hit List should have been named Hit Man with Jimmy being taken out by his loan shark in the very first rehearsal. Then the cast of Bombshell could have gotten back to the task at hand and Smash would be headed for a 3rd season.