Whenever a new season begins of one of the shows I cover, I re-read my reviews of the previous season, to remind myself of all the various plot threads, and to get a sense of where my head was at throughout the run. And I’ve got to be honest: This was a grueling, dispiriting endeavor when it came time to reflect on Smash’s first season. Remember how full of hope we once were? Even though in retrospect the problems with the series were evident from the pilot episode—and not unremarked upon, I hasten to add—in the early going any weaknesses were counterbalanced by the novelty of Smash’s premise, and the overall brightness and bustle of the production. And then: “That Bruno Mars thing.” “I’m in tech.” Micronesia. And lord God, the endless circling around the same boring, clichéd romantic subplots, while everything that made Smash interesting—the particular difficulties of mounting a new Broadway show—dripped slowly.
Yet I stood up for Smash often, even as its promise dwindled. And looking back over the whole of season one—especially in comparison to the first two episodes of season two—I don’t think I was entirely wrong to do so. For one thing, there was a lot that Smash got right last year. The scripts were frequently terrible, but the directors and crew gave them a cinematic polish that’s rare for network television. Some key performances were fairly awful, but others had real zing. Some of the musical numbers—in particular the cover songs, performed in what I dubbed the “Dream Theatre”—were laughable, but many of the original songs were legitimately spine-tingling. The relationship drama was pretty sophomoric, but Smash was one of the few shows on the air last season to show gay relationships with a strong sexual component.
More importantly, when Smash was bad it was spectacularly bad, in ways that bring to mind my friend Scott Tobias’ argument last week that truly awful movies are preferable than merely mediocre ones. And the first two episodes of Smash’s second season? Well, a few scattered highlights aside, they’re also pretty bad. But a few scattered lowlights aside, they’re bad in a boring way—not in a “come check out the trainwreck” way.
I’m going to treat “On Broadway” and “The Fallout” as one big episode, though they’re actually fairly distinct in tone. “The Fallout” is… I’m going to say “comic?” Certainly the bouncy “Oh, life!” score indicates that the episode is meant to be funny. At the end of “On Broadway,” Julia moves in with Tom and he jokes that this will “be like old times… or a sitcom.” (A nod to Will & Grace?) And then “The Fallout” features a dopey Julia/Tom plotline that’s sub-sitcom.
But first, the basics. “On Broadway” picks up at the end of Bombshell’s Boston run, with the production having earned mostly great reviews on its way to a certain Broadway booking. But complications arise: Michael Swift is leaving; Karen wants Ivy fired; the critics loved the music but hated Julia’s book; Derek’s being sued for sexual harassment by Rebecca Duvall and several chorines from past shows; and the government is investigating Eileen because she’s been financing the show with mob money. Meanwhile, everyone’s personal relationships are in a state of flux: Ivy’s anxious over Derek’s ongoing infatuation with Karen; Karen’s moved in with new roommate Ana Vargas (Krysta Rodriguez) after breaking up with Dev; Tom has encouraged Sam to take a job as a featured performer in the touring company of The Book Of Mormon; and Julia has learned that her husband Frank has been having his own affair, which prompts her to move in with Tom.
At the end of “On Broadway,” Bombshell is put on extended hiatus as Eileen and Derek become increasingly embattled and ostracized by the theater community. Then in “The Fallout,” while Karen attempts to befriend young composer/playwrights Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus), Eileen rallies the Bombshell creative team to crash an American Theater Wing shindig that they’ve been disinvited from, and thus let Broadway know that they’re not going to go away quietly.
As I said, there are moments in this two-hour première that recall Smash’s first season highs. The opening montage—set to the likeable Bombshell number “Cut, Print… Moving On”—is efficient at doling out backstory, and is energetically edited to boot. A brief glimpse at the Broadway show Beautiful—starring Veronica “Ronnie” Moore (Jennifer Hudson) as an Etta James-type R&B belter with an overbearing mother—brings the rollicking “Mama Makes Three.” And right at the end of the almost irredeemable “The Fallout,” Ivy rouses the American Theater Wing crowd with “(They Just Keep) Moving The Line,” a Bombshell song about resurrection that’s so electrifying that I actually muttered “damn” to myself when it was over (and adjusted my grade accordingly).
As for the howlers, they’re mostly related to some astonishingly stilted exposition and character-introduction. After that fleet opening montage—which, among other things, includes a shot of Ivy tossing her bottles of pills away, thus shutting down that storyline in five quick seconds—the next two hours of Smash features one scene after another of telling instead of showing. It’s Karen saying “I loved the speech you gave when you won your first Tony” to Ronnie, and Ronnie assessing her upcoming part in a The Wiz revival by sighing, “Another good-girl role for Broadway’s sweetheart.” And it’s Tom telling Julia “I am so glad it’s workin’ out” between her and Frank (right before he sees Frank being affectionate in public with another women). And then it’s Frank and Julia having a spat in the middle of the big Bombshell party that’s meant to reassure the Broadway luminaries that the show is not troubled; and it’s Derek being accused of “sleeping with everybody in a Marilyn wig” just as New York Post Broadway gossip columnist Michael Riedel walks up and says, “Can I quote you on that?” (Cue GOB Bluth: “Oh, c’mon!”)
After the first Smash showrunner Theresa Rebeck was let go, reports emerged about her unorthodox way of running a writing staff, and how that led to a lot of unnecessary repetition, and terrible ideas proceeding further than they should’ve. New showrunner Josh Safran has been giving a lot of interviews over the past few weeks, and has been very diplomatic about his predecessor, saying that Smash already had a lot going for it (which is true), and that he feels like his job is just to tweak the show, not overhaul it. That’s why he so quickly dispatches the domestic drama—goodbye Dev, goodbye Sam, goodbye Frank, goodbye “off looking at colleges” Leo—and gets back to the business of show. But there’s a moment late in “The Fallout” when Tom decides to be honest and tell Julia, “It’s time to retire the scarves,” and rather than the “Hell yeah, Smash is back!” moment I’m sure Safran wanted, the line just made me sigh. Julia’s scarves were goofy, sure. But no matter how much the Smash hate-watchers made fun of them, the scarves weren’t really what was wrong with this show.
Let me tell you what was wrong with Smash that has not been fixed (at least judging by these two episodes): Julia is still a character whose personal drama gets in the way of her work for no good reason. A sensible person would wait to confront her cheating husband until they were in a private place. A sensible person, when informed by her collaborators that her presence is essential at an American Theater Wing gala, wouldn’t claim that she was too lovelorn to go, and ask for “the night off.” (The night off from what? Going to this one party is pretty much the only thing on your to-do list right now, Julia. What are you, Santa Claus in The Year Without A Santa Claus?) This is what made the Julia/Michael storyline so aggravating last year. It’s not that people don’t get swept up in passionate affairs and lose focus; it’s that as dramatized by Smash, the characters kept making dumb mistakes solely for the purposes of the plot.
And so it goes with Smash’s solution to the Julia no-show problem—that preposterously sub-sitcom business I referred to earlier. Tom runs into Harvey Fierstein on the street, and makes up a spontaneous lie, saying that he and Julia are giving a speech at the ATW event. The news then gets back to Julia, who not only suddenly gets all pumped to go to the gala, but also embarrasses herself by telling the confused ATW director (played by Margo Martindale) about how excited she is for their big presentation. This is the idiot plot in extremis—like something that Ann Sothern and Don Porter would’ve rejected for their ’50s farce Private Secretary.
Here’s something else about Smash that’s still broken: Karen Cartwright is still a notion, not a character. And Katharine McPhee still has idea how to play that notion. The show seems to be heading in a direction that’ll have Ivy taking over for Karen in Bombshell—as happens when Ivy fills in for her at the gala, to sing “Moving The Line”—while Karen works with Jimmy and Kyle on their work-in-progress show. (Jimmy and Kyle, we’re told, are “Jonathan Larson good.” And then we’re told, “Maybe they’re writing the next Rent,” in case we didn’t know who Jonathan Larson was.) Even though Ivy’s a much better Marilyn than Karen, I almost feel like these storylines should be reversed, because the scrappy Ivy would be the kick in the pants that Jimmy and Kyle need—at least more so than the milquetoast Karen, whose big idea to woo the acerbic Jimmy is to sing one of his own songs to him. At a hipster party. In Brooklyn.
Also, why does Jimmy have to be such a prick? Beyond the fact that the “it’s hate at first sight… no wait, they’re in love!” setup is about as lazy as it comes, Jimmy’s obstinance—like Julia’s crippling self-absorption—is utterly contrived. Whether he’s tsk-tsk-ing that Karen couldn’t possibly be hip enough to know anything about Brooklyn, or pooh-poohing her praise for The Strokes, Jimmy is the idea of a snobby Greenpoint hipster, not a rounded-out, natural human being. And I’m sorry: the prospect of watching a drawn-out love story between a notion and an idea does not thrill. (Also: What’s Jimmy’s big plan for his life, exactly? He’s written this reportedly awesome musical with Kyle, but then when Kyle tries to bring it to people who could get it produced, Jimmy hisses, “We do it on our own. We don’t need anyone’s help.” Does he have any idea how show business works?)
The biggest problem with these two Smashes isn’t that they’re dumb; it’s that they’re dull. The location footage is lovely as always—and now encompasses Brooklyn as well as Manhattan—but neither of these episodes seems to have the overall visual polish of season one, at least to these eyes. And outside of “Cut, Print… Moving On,” “Mama Makes Three,” and “Moving The Line,” the musical numbers are neither imaginative enough nor crazy enough. Karen and Ronnie vamp through a weak version of “On Broadway” the way only two American Idol also-rans can. Ivy croons Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” to eye-rolling casting agents (who apparently just arrived in New York a week ago, since they’ve never heard of the woman who almost starred in Bombshell and collapsed on-stage in Heaven On Earth). And the only trip into the Dream Theatre is inspired by Derek’s sexual harassment suit, as the Smash ladies sing Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie To You” while dressed as dancers from a Robert Palmer video, for no reason except, um, “’80s,” I guess.
Mostly though, it’s dismaying to see Smash still content to muddle along with well-worn dramatic conceits, such as when Ivy wanders by just when Derek and his “muse” Karen almost kiss. And it’s dismaying to see Karen, the show’s main character, continue to be such a non-entity, more reactive than active. It’s telling that Karen never actually demands that Ivy be fired. She just lets Derek know that she’s not happy having Ivy around; and she doesn’t even do it in the kind of awesomely devious, passive-aggressive away that Ivy would’ve when she had the power. Smash still won’t bloody Karen’s hands. It’ll embarrass her, but it won’t weaken or deepen her.
Look, I’m not asking that Smash be as brilliant as Breaking Bad, or as sophisticated as Mad Men, or even as rich as top-drawer network dramas like The Good Wife or Parenthood. I’d be fine if it were in the same league as a Switched At Birth or even a Royal Pains: a solid-to-very-good mainstream crowd-pleaser that knows what it’s doing and does it well. Thus far, I have no confidence that this new Smash is going to be any more cohesive or mature than last year’s Smash. Worse, it looks like it’s going to be idiotic and tedious. It’ll be interesting to see how quickly last year’s anti-fans move from hate-watching to not-watching.
“On Broadway:” C-
“The Fallout:” D+
- From now on, I would like Smash to be the story of Lisa McMahon, stationery mogul.
- I’ve fallen behind on Nashville, which initially seemed like it was going to be the smart music-biz show that Smash has failed to become, and then started falling into a lot of the same traps as Smash. (Bland romantic subplots, generic complications, general corniness, et cetera.) I did however find it interesting that “On Broadway” ends pretty much the same way that the Nashville pilot does: With a character discovering a talented new singer-songwriter and holding up a cell phone so that an industry mogul can hear it.
- There are not one but two scenes between Ivy and Julia in these episodes, which is a substantial improvement on last season’s… was it none? (I want to say none.) I particularly liked the second scene, where they commiserated about the hard knocks of show business while dipping spoons into what appeared to be a jar of paste.
- I’m guessing there’s only one bar in New York, now, and it’s Table 46? Is Bloomberg to blame for this somehow?
- After Derek sniped at the awesome Clash By Night last season, I was pleased to see the show make amends by having the Bombshell party serve a “Clash By Night” cocktail.
- Throughout both of these episodes, I kept hoping somebody would say “broadWAY,” like Jenna Maroney on 30 Rock.
- “I know you guys are super-successful now, but did you ever feel like giving up?” Ivy’s question to Julia sounds like one of those letters to Billy Graham’s daily newspaper column. (“Reverend Graham, reading The Bible may have been good for your generation, but I don’t see how it could make a difference in the lives of today’s young people. What would you say to that?”)
- This has been a long-enough review without getting back into Garson Kanin’s super-smutty Smash: A Novel. (There’ll be plenty of time of that in the weeks to come.) I’ll only remind you that when we left off, our narrator/heroine Midge Maghakian had just met the grizzled writer Gene Bowman, the man who wrote the book on which the musical Shine On, Harvest Moon is unofficially based, and she was describing her level of arousal upon spending time in his company. She has now had something like a date with him, which she describes thusly:
A complex man, the best kind. Funny and sad. Serious and playful. Mature and childish. And, in a strange, esoteric way—sexually attractive. No, not attractive. Magnetic. … He had not touched me. Why not? I began to resent the fact, to feel insulted. This gentleman junk can be carried too far, damn it. … What would he be like, lying there stripped on the enormous bed in 2110? Would the gray hair on his head be matched by gray hair on his chest? Elsewhere? Yes, of course. Why were my nipples hardening? And pressing against my bra? Why was I wearing a bra?