May 27, 2013



Nothing ever came up roses for SMASH, and tonight, after two misbegotten NBC seasons, on a holiday weekend buried against reruns and NASCAR, the show’s Broadway curtain came down for the last time.  The saddest thing about its passing, of course, is the enormous waste it represented:  of a truly distinctive setting and topic; of what seemed like nearly unlimited network forbearance and resources (up to and including tonight’s finale, which amounted to a 2-hour commercial for rival CBS’s telecast of the Tony Awards 2 weeks from now); and of all the talent that was poured into it.  (The second saddest thing is that it brings to an end the brilliant, hysterically funny episode recaps by Rachel Shukert on Vulture, derivative works far more entertaining than the originals that spawned them.)

Also sad:  the show had truly improved during the second half of its second season.  Not enough, mind you, not even to make it a superior soap, let alone the awards-caliber series we originally dreamed it could be, but still… better.  If Smash was only going to be a more tuneful Gossip Girl, at least Season 2 showrunner Joshua Safran, who’d come over from GG itself, brought it somewhere near that level.

But the moose had already been murdered, and the damage had already been done.  Perhaps there were too many cooks involved in the show from the start, not just series creator Theresa Rebeck (deposed after Season 1), but a giant Executive Producer team that included Steven Spielberg, Neil Maron and Craig Zadan, and the forces of NBC, whose head of Entertainment Robert Greenblatt had brought the show over with him when he left Showtime.  That might explain Smash‘s fundamental schizophrenia, which on the one hand tried desperately to appeal to younger, straighter audiences by insistently pulling the show in the direction of wide-eyed midwestern ingenue Karen Cartwright (American Idol celebrity Katharine McPhee), but on the other built the entire series around “Bombshell,” with the gayest, oldest-skewing subject matter imaginable, a musical about 50-years’ dead Marilyn Monroe–and not just that, but one written (very well, by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who were also Executive Producers) in a Broadway style equally outdated.

That alone, though, is no excuse for the terrible plotting (Ellis poisoning Rebecca Duvall!), the dull characters who acted like high schoolers instead of professionals (it may have been an in-joke in the finale when one character noted that very fact), the dumb song cues (Karen does karaoke! the Bollywood number!), or the show’s general tone-deaf mix of bitchiness and earnestness.

Season 2 improved some of that, by bringing on another musical to join and ultimately compete for Tonys against “Bombshell,” the more modern “Hit List” (not that it was ever clear just what that show was about), allowing Ivy (Megan Hilty) to finally become something like a true co-lead with Karen, including nabbing the role of Marilyn (and tonight, winning the show’s fictional Tony), and generally moderating the stupidity.  But Season 2 had its glaring problems too, including a horrifically bad story arc for Sean Hayes as a moronic comedy star who took on the lead in a musical version of Les Liaisons Dangereuses that featured Ivy.  Worst of all was the introduction of Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan) as love interest and “Hit List” co-star for Karen, an ex-drug addict and borderline abusive type who was never as magnetic or redeemed as the show needed him to be.

The series finale (Hour 1 written by Co-Executive Producer Bryan Goluboff, Hour 2 by Safran; both hours directed by Michael Mayer) was Smash for better and worse.  The one character who’d mostly survived the show with his dignity intact, director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport), was forced to play out a storyline where he fired someone from “Hit List” because he’d slept with another woman who he’d once sexually harrassed and who wanted the part; this included a ridiculous bit where, at his instigation, the cast of “Hit List” changed its on-air Tony Awards musical number mid-broadcast so the replacement actress wouldn’t appear.  There were completely unnecessary call-backs to former loves of lyricist Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston).  Composer/director Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) was either nervously kvetching about his Tony chances or clumsily meet-cute-ing with a possibly closeted movie star.  Ivy, in the most predictable possible plot development, turned out to be pregnant (by Derek).  Jimmy proved himself worthy of Karen’s love by turning himself in to the cops for giving drugs to a woman who’d OD’d years before (don’t worry, she was fine).

On the other hand, the Tony Awards part was fun, including the sequence of all the main characters huddled by their early-morning TV sets to watch the nominations; the byplay between Ivy and her mother (Bernadette Peters), nominated against each other for Featured Actress; an almost-touching moment when Jimmy accepted the Best Musical Book award for the late writing partner who, for fans of Rachel Shukert, will always be known as Kyle Goblinweed (ruined when Jimmy had to, for the nine billionth time in the history of the show, make it about Karen); and Julia and Tom chatting so much they didn’t even realize they’d won.  For its ending, Smash went completely meta and had Ivy and Karen perform together (with the word SMASH in lights behind them, even though that had nothing to do with any Tony-nominated musical) about the show coming to an end, and you could almost forget how Auto-Tuned Katharine McPhee was.

It won’t be possible to really miss Smash, a series that was rarely even in sight of its potential.  But looking at the parade of procedurals and routine-looking soaps that are coming our way on the networks next fall, we could find ourselves nostalgic for its recklessness.  There won’t be any more Marilyn Monroe musicals on network TV, and that’s a little bit of a loss.



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."