Thursday, February 23, 2012

My beef with NBC's "Smash"

In this corner, weighing hundreds of thousands of channel views on YouTube, is "Submissions Only," a hilarious web series about which I gushed last month. It parodies New York's theater audition scene, has great characters, brilliant comedy, and is at the same time procedural and informative. Aaaand in the other corner, with swiftly declining ratings, is "Smash," NBC's soap opera drama that chronicles the mounting of a Broadway musical. There's sex, tears, British accents, lots of montages of Catherine McPhee/Megan Hilty gazing longingly, swallowing their pain, singing through hardship, and reaching for the stars!

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 rant post is by no means conclusive. Let it thusly be deemed cautionary -- an airing of my grievances. I remain hopeful that these train wrecks flaws can be resolved before it gets canceled throughout the remainder of the season. Let it also be noted that I'm no expert on some of these matters; I can speak only from my limited experience in the biz of show, armed with my relative ability as a writer/performer to identify when something rings true and when it makes me want to vom comes off as hollow.)

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?

Not me.

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.

5. Autotune.

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.

Peace out!



  1. I think its too soon to judge about characters back story... And they must take a few liberties... It is fictional after all

  2. Hell yes you did! Sadly, I more than agree with all of this.. and, was anyone else cringing during the first Marilyn music number in the pilot?! Ok, I went beyond cringing and was yelling at the television with a big WTF's with the skank? I do have a love affair with old Hollywood - and while it's not necessarily with Marilyn I'm quite familiar with her work and still don't understand the musical concept.

  3. I have to agree, especially with the disconnect

  4. I agree with you on some points, however as an outsider to the world of theatre (but a theatre lover, as I'm sure many Smash fans are) I am thoroughly enjoying the show. You rightly said that people are fascinated by worlds that they know nothing about. As a medical student, I have watched shows like Grey's Anatomy with much skepticism and scoffing because factually it has about as much medical knowledge as the pencil on my desk, but at the end of the day a lot of people enjoy the show which depicts the busy hospital scene and the people who work within it.

    The characters could use some depth, but lets face it, with only 3 episodes how deep can you go without focusing on a single character for the whole episode? I understand that musicals take a while, but who is going to sit and watch a show where all they do is sit and talk about something that isn't going to start happening for 3 seasons? For the sake of the show, they rushed it. As for Angelica's drink-throwing, that and Debra's scarf-wearing have spurred an enjoyable drinking game to play while watching Smash.

    I have to disagree about Marilyn. I wasn't even close to being alive when she was but there's something fascinating about her. Much like Bonnie and Clyde the musical (Which I know has finished its run but I LOVED IT - and I'm not even American) there is a draw to the classic celebrities and what life was like for them in an era I wasn't a part of.

    I definitely agree about the auto tune. They're talented already, the don't need it and it makes them look fake when they sing. The songs are well written and catchy (can't wait for the album!) and I'm looking forward to what happens next.

  5. Full-scale workshops can easily have a budget of twice that amount, speaking as someone who has worked from the inside on those with actual budgets in hand. (Of course, maybe they don't need to raise as much because Equity workshops pay about a third what they do in real life according to Smash.) But 200k is not actually an outrageous number for a workshop. And they're clearly talking about a process that fits the workshop agreement rather than the 29-hour reading guidelines, from what they've mentioned about rehearsal times, etc.

    I'm also going to guess that there are plenty of police officers and lawyers who would say that Law and Order is NOT actually so perfectly accurate a depiction of their world, either.

  6. I agree. I'm in high school and even I know a lot of this show is just ridiculous.

    The first thing that had me angry was the fact they just randomly thought--OH LET'S MAKE A MUSICAL! YIPPEE! And now they're already casting. How could they really get everything together that quickly? After becoming obsessed with Wicked I looked into the process of read throughs and workshops, and I kept complaining to my uninterested dad how it was all so unrealistic.

    I was really hoping this show would be good, because I want so badly to learn more about the REAL audition processes in New York and other places with professional theatre. Every nitty gritty detail. It's actually really hard to find good information, and this show is feeding everyone false ideas! That's one of the reasons I love your book so much (!!!!)--it gives you the real scoop. If I didn't know any better, based only on this show, I would think that is how it actually goes.

    Okay, I have to get this out ther, I hate Karen. With a passion. She annoys the hell out of me. Why would you sing "I Am Beautiful" for a BROADWAY audition!? Why?! What's wrong with her?! And why did the judges look at her like she was some kind of divine vision sent from above to make their dreams come true? It's annoying how she thinks she's entitled to the role and I was rooting for Ivy the whole time--not that she doesn't get on my nerves as well--but she's Megan Hilty so I let it slide.

    Okay, also, I don't care about Marilyn Monroe. I know she's blonde and she stood over a vent once? I've never really cared and was dissapointed when they focused the show around her. I don't get why she's so fascinating and I feel a little out of the loop because everyone dotes on her and I really know nothing about her.

    So...from a Mega-Broadway-Obsessed-Fanatic high schooler's point of view, I give SMASH a thumbs down for now. I'm still planning on watching it, but sometimes I feel like even I'm smarter than the show.


  7. Felicia, Well said. I totally agree with you but everyone I've talked to loves it. I am in the same category with Glee....too contrived to be enjoyable. Btw, I'm a friend of your parents....loved your book....keep writing!

  8. I wanted to watch it because I love big splashy Broadway musicals, but I had a feeling it would turn into another Glee, which I just cannot stomach. And you're right--how many times can Marilyn Monroe be done as a movie, musical, whatever.

    Anyone who wants a behind-the-scenes POV should just read your book! I loved it, it was well written, very humorous, and provided me the insights behind the stage and the difficulties that you all make look flawless. YOUR book should be the TV show!! Just sayin'!

  9. Thanks for all the thoughtful comments, friends! Totes love these diverse perspectives.

  10. I really enjoy SMASH. I am waiting for it to pick up, and I think they are trying to give an element of mystery, and start to explain things as the episodes go by. Just a question for Fel--what do you think of Glee?

  11. As much as SMASH is intriguing, it is somewhat of a sugar-coated TV show that portraysa whole rainbow of stereotypical people in show biz. As I was watching an episode today, I was thinking how LITTLE time it took in "SMASH Land" to put MARILYN on its feet. I mean, Wicked took almost 4 years from first draft to Broadway, and was thought about even before then! And, for the autotune...they use autotune? Disappointing. Katherine McPhee was on American Idol, and Megan Hilty actually WAS on broadway!! (Glinda, woot woot!) The only reason I initially watched the show was because Megan was on it, and she's one of my favorite Glindas. but the ads confused me too. I thought both Ivy and Karen were mean, and I don't really understand Ivy's character at all. It is one of those shows that is not that good but that people watch anyways. And any Broadway lovers will tune in even if the plot is about as thick as water. Smash hit? I don't think so.

  12. I am a little late to the party as we are a couple of weeks behind in Australia and I wanted to give it at least 2 eps before I commented. I too loved the pilot and watched it 5 times but now I am a little disappointed at the drop off. I have faith it will get better in the coming weeks and just pray that it can be saved. I have way too many grips but my biggest one is against the two British characters –why must every American TV show have some poncy English dude now?? When did it become law?? At least have an Aussie for variety!

  13. Wait... They really use AUTOTUNE?!? And it's about BROADWAY!?! O.o