May 15, 2012


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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And so the curtain drops on the first season of SMASH, which may have set the all-time television speed record for going from shining beacon to punching bag.  Tonight’s season finale, written by now-deposed showrunner and series creator Theresa Rebeck and directed by Michael Morris, wasn’t the worst episode of the series, but it showcased plenty of reasons why the question that continually dogs Smash is:  What the hell happened?

Partly,  of course, Smash was the victim of inflated expectations.  Huge names were attached to the show, award-winning producers like Neil Maron and Craig Zadon, and musical-theatre veterans like composer Marc Shaiman, lyricist Scott Wittman and director Michael Mayer, not to mention Steven Spielberg.  The fact that the show had originally been developed for Bob Greenblatt at Showtime and that it was the one project he brought with him when he went to NBC suggested it would have the sophistication of pay-cable.  Perhaps even the very fine pilot was never an accurate picture of what series intended to be, or perhaps Powers That Be changed their minds once the show had been picked up.

In any case, what was seemingly smart soon became as thuddingly dumb as any network soap, with terrible storylines (Ellis the treacherous assistant) and flat, obvious dialogue, of which the season finale provided several examples, notably in a groaner of a scene between show-within-a-show composer Tom (Christian Borle) and his boyfriend Sam (Leslie Odom, Jr) about the glories of art, and every single line of dialogue uttered by director Derek (Jack Davenport).

There was also an unacknowledged meta problem, a fundamental disconnect, in Smash that never went away.  Although the pilot had presented the story’s central conflict as between two antagonists–chorus veteran Ivy (Megan Hilty) and newcomer Karen (Katharine McPhee)–for the role of Marilyn Monroe in the series’s musical “Bombshell,” in fact from the start the entire series was tilted toward McPhee’s character.  Karen was presented as the salt of the earth, a far better human being than scheming big-city girl Ivy, and  virtually every episode featured at least one song that caused other cast members to lift their eyes to the heavens in awe at her great talent.  And McPhee is talented, as well as beautiful and charismatic.  She just doesn’t seem particularly well-suited to play the role of Marilyn Monroe in a Broadway musical.

Tonight’s season finale, in which the Marilyn role was to be finally awarded to either Karen or Ivy (Uma Thurman’s movie star having been peanut-poisoned by Ellis out of the production), accentuated the problem.  Virtually every character in the entire show opined that Karen wasn’t capable of playing Marilyn–the better to make her the underdog–and only visionary Derek, with his hallucinations of Karen in Monroe costume, saw her as The Star She Was Meant To Be.  This led to “Bombshell”s new finale (as well as Smash‘s), written by Tom and lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) through the course of the episode, which turned out to be a ludicrous 11PM number (literally, for TV viewers), which presented Marilyn Monroe as though she were Tom Joad in “The Grapes of Wrath”  (when you sing “Happy Birthday” to the President–I’ll be there).  McPhee belted this out, Karen having triumphed over the news that her boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey) had slept with Ivy, to a standing ovation that will presumably make her a star… and she still didn’t seem like Marilyn Monroe. In comparison, Megan Hilty, who’s performed circles around McPhee all season, is relegated to playing the mean girl who–as Derek bluntly informed her this week–just doesn’t have star quality.

Another oddity of the Smash season finale was that it was so bereft of cliffhangers that Debra Messing had to appear in a post-episode tag to explain that the show would be back next season, and it was just getting started.  With Karen not only cast as Marilyn but getting ovations, that main storyline would seem to be over, and Ivy’s presumed suicide attempt clearly isn’t going anywhere.  All that left was the painfully obvious development that Julia will be pregnant, possibly not with her husband’s child.  (In case that was in any way not clear to viewers, Julia announced that–hey!–the last time she’d had to throw up was when she was pregnant.)  Which sadly means that her soap plotline of adulterous romance may not be going away.

Smash, it seems, will never be in the business of creating complicated, interesting characters or saying anything in particular about Broadway.  It either was or became nothing more than a routine serialized drama that happened to use Broadway as a backdrop and feature musical sequences (at least we were spared any “spontaneous” songs this week).  And the fact that Rebeck is being replaced as showrunner by ex-Gossip Girl producer Joshua Safran doesn’t raise much hope that the show has any interest in becoming more ambitious.

Here’s a way Smash is like the real Broadway:  every week, stage musicals that are mediocre or worse (can you say Spider-Man:  Turn Off the Dark?) sell tickets and please sizable audiences.  Smash isn’t the ratings success of its title, but it did well enough to get renewed, and that makes it a “hit.”  On television as well as on Broadway, that word justifies a multitude of sins.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."