(For the next several days, some of our writers will be swapping duties on some of our most popular shows. Some of them will like what they see, but for different reasons. Some of them will have vastly different opinions from the regular reviewers. And some of them won’t be all that different. It’s Second Opinions Week at TV Club.)
When I watched Smash’s second-season première, I honestly didn’t read the criticism of Julia’s book as a self-reflexive reaction to criticism of the show’s first season and the work of Theresa Rebeck. Once it was pointed out, I saw where that connection was coming from, and I understood how it made some critics uncomfortable: While producers wax poetic about how they respect Rebeck’s work in interviews, they can not-so-subtly use the text itself to take digs at her, which is a low blow. However, the reason it didn’t register for me at first was that I never considered Smash’s problems to be so easily isolated (which is why I also didn’t read Buzzfeed’s extensive report on the show’s creative struggles as an attack on Rebeck so much as an attack on the production culture as a whole). The problem with Smash was not about one element or one storyline or one tendency; rather, it was that the show as a whole never became cohesive enough to tell the story it wanted to tell. Put simply, Smash never developed into a good television show, and that’s far from being the fault of one element or one person.
What has struck me about Smash’s second season to this point is how it strives to be a better television show, or rather to be a television show in a more traditional sense. The introduction of Hit List, Jimmy and Kyle’s more contemporary musical, provides another narrative engine to keep the action from having to center around Bombshell, adding musical diversity and expanding the series’ character base. The arrival of Veronica Moore provides another “star” to contrast with the cast’s younger performers, while also offering a different angle into the limelight of Broadway. Meanwhile, the continued focus on revising Bombshell allows Smash a sense of continuity while simultaneously pushing the narrative forward incrementally. If the first season was largely content to force each and every storyline through Bombshell as a framing device, the second season wants to be a more wide-ranging character show connected less by a singular goal and more by thematic continuities. It’s a change reflected in the show’s new—awful—credit sequence: where once there was simply a stage and a title, there are now characters, the actors who play them, and the variety of stages that bring them together.
This is no clearer than with Ivy, who wins the part of Cécile in the newly introduced Liaisons, adding another Broadway musical into the mix for the season. Megan Hilty has long been the most consistent element of the series, and so the writers’ willingness to allow her a storyline of her own is a good sign for the season ahead, but it’s a storyline that bugs me for a few reasons. Ivy’s big musical number is a stripped down version of Robyn’s “Dancing On My Own,” a song that offers interesting material as Ivy reflects on her departure from Bombshell. But the way the number is staged doesn’t tap into the complex nature of Ivy’s relationship with that part, reducing the song and Ivy’s season one storyline down to her relationship with Derek, and her jealousy of his continuing work with Karen. Although I’m open to arguments that the staging was meant to suggest his directorial genius rather than his romantic affection, the number left a sour taste in my mouth because of how it made Ivy’s storyline seem important less because she’s stepping away from a difficult time in her life and more because she’s stepping away from this genius she fell in love with.
As much as the episode features Ivy stepping out on her own, that performance still needs to frame it as part of a love triangle rather than something independent of her romantic life. That we never get to see her audition for the part is a bizarre choice, one that undercuts the character development; in addition, her post-audition phone call with Tom is less about Ivy and more about how Tom would make a great director, her moment becoming less about her character and more about what her character’s triumph means to the larger arc of the series. And because “The Dramaturg” is about how we really need support to move forward—hence the title—Ivy isn’t able to have a triumphant moment “on her own”: rather, she’s going to get a triumphant moment that she can share with Tom.
It’s the challenge of thematic storytelling: for every episode where everything comes together perfectly (which isn’t often), another episode will work too hard to fit everything into the same idea. Julia’s time with Peter is the theme’s most logical application, and it lands where you’d expect: lots of tension, much of its sexual, and then a resolution that promises more tension in future episodes. One does not cast Daniel Sunjata as a dramaturg if not to explore his relationship with the female writer in question, and the characters fits in nicely with the stubborn, self-righteous characterization of Julia the new writers seem to prefer. It’s also the most direct evocation of the theme, Peter’s presence a necessary push for Julia to explore Marilyn in new ways.
Where the storyline suffers, though, is when you look at what it actually accomplished for Bombshell, as opposed to Smash. I’d argue it’s a decent enough development for Smash, a storyline that while cloying and on-the-nose in its discussion of dramaturgy nonetheless presents a logical way to make revising the show into something borderline dynamic. The problem is that I don’t have a clear grasp on what’s being revised: although Peter spent a lot of time running down Bombshell’s problems, I still feel I’ve seen too little of the show—or know too little about Marilyn Monroe—to have any context for his criticisms. When they stage a scene from late in the musical featuring JFK—“Our Little Secret”—and everyone talks about how much better it is, I feel like I’ve got nothing to work with in order to evaluate this claim. Although Smash moves in a way that suggests this isn’t necessary, I don’t know why I’m supposed to care about Bombshell other than the fact that these characters care about Bombshell. I don’t have enough of a grasp of what Bombshell is other than a collection of uneven songs, and while they’re talking a lot about the book I don’t think that quick scene is enough to actually get me invested in the revision process.
It’s not dissimilar from the disorganized state of Hit List midway through “The Dramaturg,” a collection of crinkled paper and different colored cue cards that Jimmy and Kyle have collected. After a literal fetch quest to grab a notebook from an abusive figure from Jimmy’s past, and a storyline where Jimmy gains some degree of nuance in his desire to help Kyle make his dream come true, they sit in front of Derek and give him their pitch for a contemporary musical. For the episode’s theme, it’s a promise of a future: Like Derek says, it needs an act two, and he’s had a lot of those, and is happy to help. Just as Julia needs someone to push her to explore the “heat” of Marilyn, and just as Ivy needed Tom to help guide her onto her own path, so too do Jimmy and Kyle need Karen and Derek to bring their work to life.
It’s a solid theme, but there’s one problem: Hit List sounds really, really terrible. The songs we’ve heard to this point haven’t been bad—although “Good For You,” which opened tonight’s episode, is a low point—but the story Jimmy describes sounds laughable to me. The reason it sounds so terrible is that it’s the bloody plot of Smash. Jimmy is the brilliant writer, Karen is the beautiful muse who shows up and steals his songs (see: last week’s episode), and then their self-destructive relationship is every cliché that Jimmy and Karen are about to live out in the weeks ahead. While it makes sense that Jimmy would be telling his own story, the degree to which the writers have hamstrung Hit List by grafting it onto the show’s narrative makes it impossible for me to take it or the people who believe it to be genius seriously.
What it shows, though, is that Smash hasn’t actually learned any lessons from what went wrong in the first season. The reason Bombshell doesn’t feel developed as an actual musical is that its numbers always felt cobbled together for a particular moment or a particular character: the Bombshell album NBC released—which has some cool retro disc design for people who still buy CDs—is framed as a cast recording of the entire musical, but it’s filled with numbers where Marilyn was asked to stand in for specific characters in specific moments. While “Let’s Be Bad” and other numbers showed that Bombshell could be useful for the series, the hit-miss ratio was more than a bit wonky, and everything suffered: the songs, the characters, the show.
With Hit List, the show is making the same mistake. Its songs are not-at-all veiled outlets to push Jimmy and Karen together, the success of the musical dependent on the success of the characters, and vice versa. And while the songs themselves have been fine, Jimmy’s characterization has struggled to move beyond “total dick,” and Katharine McPhee remains out of her depth as compared with Megan Hilty, Jennifer Hudson, and what the script is asking of her. If the season’s emotional hook is meant to be a narrative focused on how Jimmy and Karen’s relationship defines a generation of talented ingénues and the tortured musical geniuses who derive their power from each other, then Smash still seems incapable of finding a way to make the musical as an idea function within a television show.
Joshua Safran and company have made a collection of changes that should technically give the show a more stable base to work from, but if they have failed to iron out the most fundamental concept behind the series they will need more than a new showrunner to fix Smash’s problems.
- Fun story: NBC sent three hours of Smash out to critics earlier this year, but this one wasn’t one of them. Perhaps the greatest criticism I can level at “The Dramaturg” is that I really didn’t feel like I missed much when I went from last week’s episode to next week’s. Everything that happened seemed pretty easy to either intuit or predict based on what happened in the premiere. (For the record, I think they sent next week’s because it has Jennifer Hudson’s biggest number.)
- Speaking of Hudson, she appears briefly to sing a few bars of “Home,” place extra pressure on Derek’s rehearsal, and set up the circumstances for her concert, which serves as the foundation for next week’s episode.
- Eileen’s “Hey, remember my deposition! We should probably mention that somewhere in the script” phone call is hysterical.
- I’m always interested in how the show chooses to stage certain scenes. Julia, Peter, and Tom’s walk through Times Square was entirely unnecessary, but it added a forced layer of chaos to a scene that otherwise tossed out various specific details of Bombshell that I didn’t care enough about.
- Part of me wishes that Second Opinions Week could have brought someone who is more positive toward the series (as I enjoy hearing from the other side of the aisle), but I still appreciate the chance to explore the changes between seasons. Noel will be back next week to break down Jennifer Hudson’s Billy Joel cover.