'Smash': Why is it not a smash? Some theories

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Image Credit: Patrick Harbron/NBC

This week, Nick Jonas popped up to try and keep the youth demo from turning off Smash when it came on after The Voice. If previous weeks are any indication, it probably won't do much to halt Smash's ratings slide. [See UPDATE below.]

How did the season’s most-promoted show, one most eagerly praised by both critics and industry observers as fresh and original, turn out to be more like the Marilyn Monroe musical it’s chronicling — a flop waiting to happen?

Jonas was on Smash to portray a “big TV star” with a fondness for musicals who might want to help with the $200,000 that Anjelica Huston’s Eileen needs to raise for the Marilyn Monroe musical. A dreadful actor, Jonas was quite effective as a dreadful egomaniac to whom the older folks at the party had to suck up. But what else was Eileen to do? I mean, she was also shown trying to sell a Degas sketch for some fast cash. She had to act as though Jonas’ Lyle West was actually a human worth talking to, which is why I love Eileen, and Huston’s performance. Now if only the rest of America did. Or even more of Smash‘s writers.

This week’s episode included a fine performance, a boop-boop-a-doop rendition of the USO number, “I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love to Howl,” written by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman and delivered by Megan Hilty’s Ivy in a manner that would indeed make at the least a cartoon wolf as designed by Tex Avery howl. But it also featured this week’s Smash Glee moment — the “spontaneous” club performance of Adele’s hit “Rumor Has It” — that was a drag: The song choice tired, too reminiscent of the same song as done by the Fox network series I just name-checked, and generally dampened by the ever-maudlin presence Katharine McPhee brings to nearly every moment of this show.

All this effort, for a TV show that can’t even commit to having McPhee’s Karen being hated by the chorus — ‘scuse me, the ensemble — and so this week had to have a few such members take the doe-eyed innocent out for a fashion “intervention”? I like Smash more when Ivy is being Ivy, getting Karen kicked out of the chorus — ensemble — just because it’s one of the few bits of power she can exercise.

Yet it speaks well for Smash that it settled the who’s-going-to-be-Marilyn contest between these two early on, even though we know simply from watching television in the 21st century that this casting is probably, somehow going to be reversed, flip-flopped, or double-reversed before the season concludes.

The blind date subplot for Christian Borle’s Tom was a charmer, and a good sign for the way gay people are either depicted or ignored in Smash, given how slightly odd it is that Jaime Cepero’s Ellis is presented as having a girlfriend, yet he signifies, and is perceived by many in the show’s enthusiastic fan base, as gay in every other way. What may factor into this is the theme of Ellis shaping up to be the series’ villain: the guy who’s going to gum up the Marilyn musical by claiming the idea was his (which it sorta was). Perhaps Smash and/or NBC wanted to avoid a gay bad guy in a way that Glee, for all its looniness, frequent narrative incoherence, and regular detachment from reality would never have had a qualm about.

I would also guess that some elements that most please critics — the performances of Anjelica Huston and Michael Cristofer as her hostile husband, for example — work against the show as a ratings draw: Too abrasive, too New Yawk, too old (it’s increasingly an ageist pop culture out there, folks; see: Oscars, Billy Crystal, Internet comments about).

Smash was brought to NBC by entertainment president Robert Greenblatt, who’d been developing the series at his previous post at Showtime. And of course, it’s now easy to say that if Smash had run on that pay-cable network, it might have been more of an artistic and ratings success. It could have been more stinging, more bawdy. (Which doesn’t, of course, necessarily mean it would have been better.) The current show’s weakest plotline — the adoption process Debra Messing’s Julia and Brian Darcy James’s Frank are enduring — might have been scuttled; it always feels as though it’s there to draw in mass-audience network viewers who want a few married-couple and family scenes in their hour-longs.

It may also be that, after two hours of high drama and low music from Christina and Adam and the contestants on The Voice, viewers are just plain music-ed out by 10 p.m. on a Monday night: What looked like the ideal lead-in may have proven a case of too much — a three-hour programming block of knock-your-socks-off competitive singing and judging (since the judging and coaching that Julia, Jack, and Jack Davenport’s director Derek do all the time in shaping their show runs parallel to what’s done on The Voice). Certainly the older segment of The Voice‘s demographic seems more tempted to go with lighter fare such as Castle and Hawaii Five-O. Because despite all the razzamatazz, Smash is at its best a smart show that nods to the bright cynicism of professional artists, and at its wobbliest a bleak show about failure and rejection that relies on weak melodramatic dialogue. (Sample from this week: “There’s nothing safe about being a star.”)

If you’re still watching Smash, I’d like to hear your theories about what’s good and what’s not working on the show.

UPDATE: Last night’s Smash was up slightly from last week but still finished fourth in its time period, compared to the No. 1-finishing Voice, per Media Insights overnights.

Twitter: @kentucker


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