Requiem for a musical: How 'Smash' went wrong

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Image Credit: Will Hart/NBC

Smash should have been a singular sensation. When the show launched last February, it seemed to have everything going for it — an innovative concept, a killer cast of established screen stars (Debra Messing, Anjelica Huston) and beloved Broadway actors (Christian Borle, Megan Hilty), fabulous original songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, high production values, and the stewardship of producer Steven Spielberg. And early on, ratings indicated that this potent mixture had indeed resulted in a hit — the show’s heavily-hyped premiere drew 11.44 million pairs of eyeballs and healthy demographic numbers.

Then, of course, came Smash‘s crash. As the series’s onscreen antics got increasingly absurd — Ivy’s hooked on pills! Terrible Ellis has poisoned Uma Thurman’s smoothie! Julia’s mumbly son Leo is a “straight-A student”! — viewers began tuning out in droves. By the end of season 1, Smash had been demoted from promising newcomer to a singing, dancing mascot of the hate-watching movement.

Even then, there was a light at the end of the tunnel. It came in the form of Josh Safran — a new showrunner who promised to reinvigorate Smash by ditching unpopular characters, broadening the show’s scope, and severely cutting down on its number of scarves per capita. Those who saw a diamond in the rough that was Smash’s first season were hopeful — maybe, just maybe, the show could become the hit it was always meant to be in season 2.

Or… maybe not.  Smash‘s sophomore outing hasn’t just failed to win new viewers — it has failed to retain those who tuned in last year just to see just how crazy the show could get. Smash‘s two-hour premiere was down 71 percent from the series’s debut last season. Its third episode, aired after a week-long break due to the State of the Union address, was the lowest-rated show on a major broadcast network the night it aired. Though ratings have since stabilized, upward momentum is about as unlikely as Rebecca Duvall winning a Tony. NBC remains committed to airing the show’s 11 remaining episodes, but it won’t allow Smash to stink up primetime anymore; starting April 6, the Broadway baby will air on Saturdays, where it will die a slow, gentle death. (A moment of silence, please, for the social lives of Smash‘s dedicated online recappers.)

So why did the show’s big, overhyped relaunch fail so miserably? It’s simple: While Safran and his team gave the show a cosmetic facelift, they failed to address the underlying issues that have plagued Smash since its second episode — specifically, weak, repetitive storytelling and scenes that are never nearly as captivating as the show’s songs.

In some instances, Safran and co. have even exacerbated those issues, turning already unlikeable adulteress Julia into a shrieking harpy and elevating wan Karen into a muse for not one but two tortured artist types. In season 1, we were repeatedly (and annoyingly) told how brilliant the characters’ work was, but the show’s production sequences at least enabled us to judge it for ourselves as well. In season 2, we hear rave reviews for Julia’s revamped Bombshell script — but only after the characters attend a read-through to which Smash‘s viewers aren’t invited.

The season’s new characters have also flopped. Proud songwriter Jimmy is supposed to be a thorny, lovable rogue, but his behavior just makes him seem like an entitled jerk. Jennifer Hudson’s Veronica Moore sang beautifully but made clunky lines even clunkier with her awkward delivery. (“You may be a womanizer, but I know there’s no merit to her story.”) And smug dramaturg Peter — who tries to save Bombshell by patiently explaining why everything its female writer has done is wrong, then convinces her to rewrite it so that it’s all about the male gaze — seems an awful lot like an analogue of Safran, brought in to save a sinking ship that used to be led by a woman.

Smash‘s biggest crime, though, may be its shift away from bold, ambitious ridiculosity. Last year, the show was enjoyably nuts; now it’s just mediocre, overly focused on Karen and Jimmy’s dull love story and marching toward a series of plot points as conventional as they are predictable. Six episodes in, it’s far too easy to see where Smash will end up during its season (and, in all likelihood, series) finale. This might not be an issue if the road to that inevitable conclusion were paved with crackling dialogue and jaw-dropping musical numbers — but given season 2′s first six installments, Smash seems more likely to limp than leap to the finish line.

This is all the more frustrating because Tuesday’s episode showed several sparks of life. “The Fringe” frequently made me laugh (intentionally, no less!), featured a fitting if brief showcase for Ivy, and centered on an art versus commerce conflict (what to do with “Never Give All the Heart”?) that was both compelling and narratively logical. Alas, the hour ended with yet another snoozy ballad between Karen and Jimmy, whose Broadway dreams seem that much closer to becoming a reality… even if their dreams of continued TV stardom never come to fruition.

Follow Hillary on Twitter

Read more:
‘Smash’ Recaps and Episode Guide
‘Smash’ moves to Saturdays
Jeremy Jordan and Jonathan Groff sing gender-bending cover of ‘Let Me Be Your Star’ — EXCLUSIVE VIDEO

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