05 May 2013
Smash is, perhaps more than any other show currently airing on broadcast television, the most reviled and ridiculed thing in the world. By the end of its first season, people were writing editorials about the new phenomenon of “hate-watching” to explain why anyone was tuning in at all. But I still kind of liked it. Smash is not now and certainly has never been a perfect show- I would even go so far as to say it’s never even been all that good- but it’s had moments when I’ve thought “yes! I’ve been waiting for someone to write a character like that” or “ooh, that was awfully fun to watch” and that’s a lot more than some shows can say (here’s looking at you, Two Broke Bawdy Idiots). What’s interesting about Smash‘s trajectory is that it was completely overhauled between the first and second seasons (after an early pickup that shocked pretty much everyone). The Broadway-vet creator was canned and a Gossip Girl-vet brought in as the new showrunner. My instinct was that this was pretty strange given that most of season one’s major issues were rooted in melodramatic storytelling, but maybe it had something to do with television vs. theatrical pacing or attracting a younger audience. Either way, Josh Safran now had almost a whole year before the January premiere of season two to shore up his newly acquired ship. But when January finally came and the few faithful Smash viewers returned, what we found was a show without much more going for it than it had in 2012 (see photo caption).
A few smart moves were made, most notably the elimination of the universally reviled plot-moving assistant Ellis. Julia’s sweet but boring husband and good-for-nothing son were also taken out along with Karen’s out-of-place fiance and the tragically mis-used character of Michael (the only casting cut that really hurt). Beyond personnel changes, though, Smash is operating largely in the same way it did last season (although Julia’s scarves have been pointedly and completely superficially eliminated- why did everyone care so much about the damn scarves?!). Characters are still randomly bursting into pop songs on the street (an infuriating device I could have sworn the new EP promised to quit) and there’s still entirely too much emphasis on Katharine McPhee, who might just be the worst actress I’ve ever seen on TV (yes, her voice is good, but she can’t sell a scene to save her life and the more I hear the other characters call her a “star” the more I want to write them- otherwise perfectly well executed characters- off as stupid). Meanwhile, the much-anticipated Jennifer Hudson arc was a complete waste of time and so jam-packed with artifice that I was more annoyed than I was when Ellis poisoned Uma Thurman last year (generally regarded as the series low-point).
The one major change for season two is that the narrative has been expanded to focus on more of a theatrical landscape, smartly easing the tension off of Bombshell. It’s a massive help to Smash that the audience is no longer expected to live or die by the fate of the Marilyn musical because I (like most people) didn’t give one flying hoot about its success or failure last year and I still don’t. Not only did the Bombshell emphasis push the stakes for the characters high and the audience low (a killer if you don’t want viewers to flirt with the idea of defenestrating their televisions), the making of one big-budget musical didn’t generate enough plot to fill the episodes. The result was that relationship and character arcs that were actually beautifully conceptualized were condensed simply to give the characters something to do. I loved the idea of a long-simmering, tension-filled attraction that would test Julia’s loyalty and restraint as she watched the man she once loved singing the words she wrote day after day as they crawled towards opening night. But no, season one Julia didn’t have much to do beyond bantering with Tom, scolding her son and half-heartedly contemplating adoption, so the whole Michael affair played out in about 3 episodes, making Julia seem immature, unfaithful and wishy-washy. TV shows need Plot. They also need relationship and character arcs (if those aren’t there, you better believe I’m not watching) but without plot, the relationship and character arcs have no shot at developing with any sense of realism, subtlety, or the sort of pacing that makes characters seem thoughtful and grown up. By adding more shows to the mix, the season two iterations of the Smash characters have something to occupy their time other than complaining about their love lives and silly casting concerns (now they only spend about 60% of their time on such things, as opposed to 90). Some of the relationship and character storytelling isn’t actually as interesting as it was in season one, but the pacing makes all the difference.
The expanded landscape also takes the pressure off the fact that Bombshell– with the exception of a stellar song or two- looks pretty darn terrible. Actually, all the shows in the Smash-verse seem pretty terrible, which is strange considering that season one MVPs Shaiman & Wittman have been joined by the hip and likable songwriting duo Pasek & Paul to produce a catalogue of pretty decent hits. Liaisons was purposefully bad and made for an unobtrusive and enjoyable subplot that was a little amusing and a little bittersweet in a nice way. Bombshell, on the other hand, is supposed to be great (because Tom & Julia are supposed to be theatre legends) but it’s just too shiny and filled with alienating moments like that truly awkward JFK scene. But at least the mid-season decision to switch stars (again!) gives its leading lady actual star power (and a little bit of believability in the role). What actually looks Really Bad is Hit List, the scrappy off-broadway show that thankfully pulled Karen away from Bombshell, opening the door for Ivy to finally have the role she obviously deserved after a season of the least realistic casting battle in the history of the world.
To the halls of the Manhattan Theatre Workshop, she brought scruffy director Derek Wills with her, which I have mixed feelings about. On one hand, the early-season-two idea that Derek would ever be fired from Bombshell is just silly, but the directional dispute over which he quit in favour of directing Hit List actually really worked for me as a story (after the somewhat strange dramaturgical meandering that led up to it). It’s completely unrealistic that he would leave Bombshell, and it’s even stranger that the composer would take over as director having never directed before, but the result was that Derek ended up on Hit List where he could do less standing up to producers and more moral quandary-ing, allowing him to finally tap into a fair amount of the hidden depth he only hinted at in season one. One crazy intense moment or two dragged him back down (namely the “you stay away from Karen” moment, that was bonkers) but, for the most part, Derek’s had a pretty good season because he got to step away from just being a hot shot who slept with his leading ladies (the direction his relationship with Ivy has taken, I think, has been really pretty interesting).
The one thing I don’t really approve of in terms of Derek heading up Hit List is that it revealed a bit more of his actual directorial skills, which- because the Smash writers and directors are not geniuses like their characters are supposed to be- don’t appear to be all that impressive (in fact, the only characters who come off as nearly as talented as they are reputed to be are Ivy, Tom and Jimmy- the former because Megan Hilty is killer and the latter two because they are composers and for the most part Smash‘s composers are actually pretty great). There’s a lot of metaphorical dancing and angsty nonsense in Hit List (most of which would be Derek’s fault) and the story is pretty darn terrible, which is entirely the fault of the highly flawed Smash writers but really ended up hurting the very sweet character of book-writer Kyle (more on him in a moment). So here’s this show that’s supposedly making a huge splash without the famous-story/big-money/big-name(aside from Derek) backing of Bombshell and it looks like a pretty bad show (that stupid aerial ballet “Diva” number? Idiotic), so all the characters involved look a little silly for investing in it so whole-heartedly.
That said, what Hit List has given us (apart from the Great Gift of prying Karen away from Marilyn once and for all) is the addition of two new, crucial characters who have made all the difference in season two. Now, this review hasn’t actually been all that critical but I do feel the need to stress that season two of Smash is not good. At all. In fact, the first couple episodes were actually terrible and, unlike in season one, there have been almost no moments that have gotten me excited and swept up enough to look past the flaws in the writing (and some of the characters- Eileen is a ridiculous drag this season and Karen is still just The Worst). But if you put Smash‘s first and second seasons side by side and asked me to choose which is better, I might- possibly against my better judgement- choose season two, and the reason for that is about 90% Jeremy Jordan (the other 10% is my continuing love for Tom, Ivy and Julia- in that order- and some guest stars to be mentioned later). This was the single greatest casting decision I’ve seen in ages (though Megan Hilty as Ivy was pretty smart). Jordan is one of those certifiable Broadway breakouts who is (along with Aaron Tveit) pushing the limits of the kind of star a Broadway star can be. Even beyond theatre dreamboats like Gavin Creel, Jordan and Tveit are becoming known amongst people who don’t know the difference between “rush” and “lottery”. And Smash caught him relatively early, after making a crazy impact in Newsies (where he was Incredible, by the way, earning a My Theatre Award nod) but before landing the potential career-making role of Jamie opposite Anna Kendrick in the film adaptation of The Last Five Years (one of the greatest roles ever written, and Jordan’s about to succeed Norbert Leo Butz to become the most famous version).
The character of Kyle is a mighty important addition for tone and plot too, but it’s Jimmy that’s made this season worth watching. Jeremy Jordan is freaking fantastic and is one of those refreshing people who somehow manages to be a polished triple threat while maintaining a naturalistic edge. He’s got the chops of a true theatre guy (even the dancing ones, which are the hardest to find) but he’s completely believable on screen, even when playing someone with edges so rough that they’re actually perhaps a bit over-dramatically sharp. Show me another smooth tenor who can pirouette then pay off his drug dealer. Yeah, I thought not. His character of Jimmy is written as “talented but troubled” with the trouble far outweighing the talent (which is saying something). There’s very little reason the character should work as well as he does but he Completely works to the point where I’m tempted to fastforward to find his scenes. Jordan makes Jimmy worth the trouble and seems to be able to sell anything from a deep friendship with complicated off-screen history to unlimited potential to a love story with the world’s worst working actress (McPhee! *shakes fist*). He’s so captivating he almost makes me want to go see the fictional Hit List (which, again, just to reiterate, looks Terrible).
… which brings me all the way to the most recent episode. The show has been moved to Saturday nights- the night where expensive TV flops go to die- and is busy burning off what’s left of this season. It was slow starting but I ultimately have enjoyed watching this season, especially lately. As I said, I’m enjoying what’s going down between Ivy and Derek; I like how they’ve worked in Bernadette Peters and even Daphne Rubin-Vega is somewhat enjoyable as a publicist who can’t turn off her business brain. The guest star I like most, however, is of course Jesse L. Martin. The actual character himself if perfectly acceptable, if not particularly notable. He’s a fairly innocuous love interest for Julia and a helpful plot-mover in terms of helping out Hit List and causing a rift about future work between Julia and Tom. But I mostly just like him because he’s Jesse L. Martin and anyone who knows anything about musical theatre loves him because he’s Jesse L. Martin. They also, surely, love seeing him as the head of the “Manhattan Theatre Workshop” standing in front of an early poster for Rent (which originally played at New York Theatre Workshop). When the character was first introduced, that little in-joke was cute (especially considering that Martin’s Rent-Original-Cast-mate Rubin-Vega was also hanging around) but at this point it’s actually kind of baffling. I still like the character (and I actually did like the moral predicament he faced in this most recent episode when it came to his motivation for not cancelling the show) but what is up with this writing staff? Who’s idea was this “Everything is Rent!” business? We get it, Hit List is supposed to be a small, contemporary musical written by undiscovered talent that the characters (wrongly) believe could be a Broadway game-changer (no way in hell, but whatever); a little nod to Rent (like casting Martin) is smart and thoughtful. But who do these writers think their audience is? The parallel was fun at first and made the Smash demographic feel in on the joke (let’s face it, if you’re watching this show, you know your Rent history and can spot all the easter eggs) but at this point they’re either hitting the note like a gong or outright stealing the story and hoping the audience won’t notice (which is not possible, every single person will notice).
This most recent episode was literally just a staging of the Jonathan Larson tragedy. I can’t imagine what it must have been like to be Jesse L. Martin participating in this story (Rubin-Vega’s storyline was elsewhere) but I’m sure he must have some strong opinions either way. Here’s how it went down: just before Hit List was about to make it big, one of its writers (in this case, Kyle because of the Cordelia-Landingham rule and because killing off Jimmy is a bad business decision) died suddenly (in this case, he’s hit by a car after throwing Jimmy out of their apartment after a massive falling out). He was a theatre lover whose dreams of Broadway success will only happen after he’s gone and, instead of cancelling his show the night after his death, the cast and crew decide to sing through it as a tribute concert but partway through end up getting it up on its feet.
I’m not opposed to killing off a character (it’s brave storytelling, I like brave storytelling) and if the writers had actually thought up the way that the rest of the characters deal with the sudden passing of Kyle, I would be applauding them whole heartedly- it’s a lovely and bittersweet story. But it’s a true story, about the death of the writer of Rent, and it’s told almost verbatim in this episode of Smash. And I hated that. I know that the writer’s room probably thought of it as a tribute to Larson (with Rent vets in the cast and Jonathan Larson Award recipients Pasek & Paul working on the show, his legacy is very present at Smash) but it felt like commercializing a story that didn’t need to be fictionalized (it also feels very strange that Martin’s character took the commercial angle- it’s a strong storytelling element but feels weird in the context of reality). Jonathan Larson’s story belongs to Jonathan Larson and to Rent– it’s part of the power of that musical- and its re-appropriation in service of a struggling NBC primetime soap feels trivializing and cynical. It was a beautiful moment, I suppose, and honestly emotional to watch (Jordan, in particular, nailed it) but I’m willing to bet that the percentage of the Smash audience who weren’t thinking of Larson in that moment was pretty small. The character of Kyle deserved his own tribute instead of cheaply glomming on to the emotional residue of a true and iconic story.
So it’s been a mixed bag this season, as it always seems to be with Smash. I’d say that the very fact that this show is responsible for introducing Jeremy Jordan to an audience beyond Broadway is enough to make season two a worthwhile endeavour, and he has honestly provided some truly memorable moments (making out in the wardrobe closet? *blushes*). But there is still plenty that’s infuriating about Smash (especially that first slew of season two episodes- yikes!). I still love Tom and Julia but they keep hitting the same notes; I still love Ivy and Derek is developing into a real Don of a character, but Karen’s still there dragging everyone down. And now, with Kyle gone, it’s hard to tell if there are enough people worth watching in fictional New York to even get me through the 2 weeks that are left in this show’s existence. I guess it’ll have to be for the love of Jimmy, or rather for the love of Jeremy, ’cause that Jimmy kid is trouble.