A review of the “Smash” season finale – and some thoughts on where the show should/could go in its second season – coming up just as soon as I hate it when you get literal…
“The good. It’s bigger than the bad.” -Julia
Well, not so much on that, Julia.
I didn’t want to spend too much time rehashing the many failings of “Smash” season 1, but after a pretty good episode last week – which focused on the thing the show generally did well: depicting the creative process and logistics of mounting a new musical – “Bombshell” felt like a greatest hits (greatest misses?) of all the things that annoyed me throughout the year.
At one point, Derek insisted, “Art isn’t therapy. We’re not here to work out our personal problems.” And yet so much of this season, and this finale, suggested that this was all art is good for. So we got more Julia personal drama, now with the added anvils of her having morning sickness. We got Karen once again having no agency of her own and having to be told everything by others (Ivy tips her off about Dev, and Derek tells her she has what it takes to play Marilyn). We got more forced comparisons between the characters’ lives and Marilyn’s (“It’s very Joe DiMaggio of him”).
With the exception of Tom and Sam in the last handful of episodes, there wasn’t a single personal relationship on this show that I would have rather spent time on than watching scenes about the making of “Bombshell.” And even Tom and Sam got off to a rough start, as the show took 57 years hinting at what was blatantly obvious to all of us, and involving Tom in one of an endless series of love triangles.(*) I don’t mind romance stories mixed in with my workplace drama, but “Smash” did the romance stuff badly over and over and over again, usually undermining its characters in the process. Julia became incredibly hateful in the wake of her affair with Michael Swift. Not that the show ever did a good job of making Eileen seem like a tough, savvy Broadway veteran, but her relationship with the bartender reduced her to a swooning 14-year-old girl most of the time.
(*) Mystery novelist Laura Lippman noted that triangles had become the show’s go-to move, and to illustrate her point, she made up this handy diagram right after “Tech” (which ended with Dev and Ivy hooking up). Note that all the characters are referred to by the initial of their fist name, but it’s pretty easy to follow if you’ve been watching this mess.
Most irritatingly of all, “Bombshell” once again attempted to play suspense games with the question of who was going to play Marilyn, even though everyone who has been watching the show has known forever and a day that it was going to be Karen. Forget for a minute whether you’re Team Ivy or Team Karen; “Smash” itself is constantly wearing its own line of Team Karen t-shirts. Every time Karen sings, her audience reacts to her as if Kat McPhee has been sent from Heaven above to permanently change their lives for the better. Derek has been hallucinating her as Marilyn. She is good and noble and pure, and always being wronged by the likes of Ivy and Dev, while Ivy slept her way into the part, drinks too much, has problems with pills, and has blatantly sabotaged Karen. “Smash” wanted there to be no dissent about who was most deserving of the part, nor any question of who was going to get it, so to suddenly do multiple fake-outs in the finale was one final miscalculation in a season full of them. This is supposed to be entertainment for smart people, so don’t treat us like we’re stupid. There was enough suspense already in dealing with whether Karen could learn all the details at the last minute, whether Tom and Julia would get the new closing number done in time, etc., without having to go back to that silliness.
But at the same time, the show being so entirely on Karen’s side creates the problem of alienating those who aren’t. If you think Megan Hilty is a better performer(**), and/or if you think Karen is a limp dishrag of a character who has things happen to her rather than instigating any change in her own life, then “Smash” is more or less telling you it doesn’t want you to watch it. It’s not a show that ever allowed for the possibility that its audience wouldn’t value the exact things that it values – see also everyone’s unrelenting hatred of Leo, Dev, etc. – and because this first season was largely produced in a bubble, there was no time or opportunity to course correct.
(**) As someone who thinks Hilty is much better-suited to this style of performing, I thought the finale did itself absolutely no favors by intercutting Karen’s version of the USO number with Ivy’s performance from the birthday party episode, because Ivy’s was vastly more lively, sexy, etc. And then to follow that up immediately with Derek telling Ivy that Karen has a star quality she lacks is, again, “Smash” telling us one thing while showing us something else entirely.
Obviously, fans of the character who didn’t get the part are going to be disappointed, but this reminded me more of those occasions in pro wrestling (Stone Cold Steve Austin vs. Bret Hart, for instance) where the fans outright rejected an angle the WWF was pushing and began rooting for the heel and booing the face. Eventually, the WWF writers had to adjust their scripts accordingly, and I’m going to tune into at least a couple of “Smash” episodes next season just to see how much new showrunner Josh Safran is willing or able to similarly adjust.
Theresa Rebeck gave Safran a fine parting gift by having Eileen fire Ellis; I imagine her intention was to have him return in season 2 with some kind of legal claim for having given Tom and Julia the idea, but if Safran’s smart, he’ll just never show the little sociopath’s face again.(***) For that matter, Karen breaking up with Dev gives him an out on another terrible character (Dev’s season 1 arc took him from useless but inoffensive to intolerable). And if we never have to go home again with Julia, it’ll be too soon. I’ll feel bad that Brian D’Arcy James got stuck in one of the show’s most irritating corners, and with very minimal opportunity to sing, but if Julia returns at all, it has to be entirely in the context of being Tom’s partner.
(***) Another example of the show making its priorities clear: it has Ellis – the clear villain of the season (even if he was intended as someone we would love to hate, when instead we just hated him, period) – vehemently champion Ivy over Karen. If you’re agreeing with Ellis, something has gone horribly awry.
But there’s just so much dead weight here – as I’ve said, the only characters I particularly care about seeing again are Tom (and Sam, I suppose), Derek and Ivy – and so many bad storytelling decisions in only 15 episodes, that I’m not sure how much Safran can accomplish. On the one hand, as a guy with more of a soap opera background, maybe he can do a better job with the personal storylines than the season 1 creative team did. On the other hand, if hiring him suggests that this is the part of the show NBC wants to emphasize more, then I can’t see myself sticking around very long, anyway.
What did everybody else think? When I wrote about “Tech,” the consensus was that most of you who had stuck around were doing it just for the opportunity to hate-watch. Was that ultimately satisfying, or would you rather have these 15 hours of your life back? For the smaller handful of you who genuinely enjoyed the show, how did you feel about how everything paid off in the finale? Were you applauding as wildly as the Boston crowd was at Karen and the new closing number? And what does everyone want to see in season 2? Do we want to follow “Bombshell” as it moves to Broadway, or start from scratch with an entirely different show? And who are you actually looking forward to seeing next season?