‘Smash’ – ‘Tech’: A Swift return

A review of last night’s “Smash” coming up just as soon as I magically take a train from Grand Central Station to Boston…

I haven’t written about “Smash” in a while, and the show hasn’t gotten in any way better, outside of occasional pockets of goodness like the piano song or tonight’s opening sequence with Tom singing “Another Op’nin’, Another Show” from “Kiss Me, Kate.” In some ways, it’s gotten worse, as Dev, for instance, has moved up from inoffensive non-entity to yet another case of “Good God, why did the writers think anyone would want to watch this character in this storyline without hating both the character and the show for it?”

That said, the show has done some decent work with Derek in recent weeks – outside of his implausible conviction that the spectacularly milquetoast Karen Cartwright(*) was born to play Marilyn – and I did enjoy watching him get repeatedly flummoxed when problems popped up left and right during tech rehearsals. At the same time, the show’s attempt to suggest how grueling tech is for everyone but Derek mostly amounted to people using “I’m in tech” as the all-purpose excuse for anything, up to and including Karen’s non-acceptance of Dev’s marriage proposal. The unfortunate effect of the show telling us about tech for the actors rather than showing us was to make most of them come across as the worst stereotypes of showbiz people who can’t handle real work. I’m sure tech rehearsals really are tough; “Smash” just fell down on demonstrating that for anybody but the director.

(*) Even as someone who quite liked Kat McPhee going into this series, Karen has become incredibly hard to take. It’s not even that she ever does anything particularly terrible – she would need to be capable of independent thought and agency for that – but that the show keeps begging us, over and over, to see her as a magical snowflake who can heal the world with both her voice and her dead-eyed stare into the middle distance. “Smash” over-relies on reaction shots to begin with – making sure we understand a particular performance is great by showing one background extra after another beaming in response to it – but it feels like the amount doubles whenever Karen is performing, possibly because the “Smash” producers realized they need to pull the Jedi mind trick on us to get her over as someone worth rooting for.  

And the inescapable black hole that is Julia Houston’s personal life keeps swirling and sucking the show into its gravitational pull. Just as Julia and Frank have finally reconciled, we’re going to be stuck with Michael Swift again, because (as a writer friend of mine observed recently) “Smash” only seems to know how to generate conflict through romantic turmoil, and then pretty much only through triangles. (See also Dev and Ivy linking up at the bar, though that’s more of a quadrangle.)

Why am I still watching? Emily Nussbaum wrote a piece for The New Yorker about how she’s now hate-watching the show, and that’s definitely a part of it: much as I love to celebrate good TV, sometimes it’s just fun to tear into a creative mess that deserves every barb thrown at it. But I also think, as an observer of TV, it’s instructive to watch a show like this, or “Studio 60” or “Heroes” where you go in with lots of expectations and it all starts going wrong, and continues going wrong, in so many different ways. I can look at the transformation that  a show like “Parks and Recreation” made between its first and second seasons, or the way “New Girl” went from fumbling around to firing all cylinders and see what it takes for a show to overcome early problems. But it’s also valuable to look at shows like these that don’t learn from their mistakes(**), because it helps you spot similar warning signs in other new shows as they go along.

(**) As discussed previously (incuding on this week’s podcast), nearly all of “Smash” was written and produced before the show debuted, and before opinion quickly turned on characters like Julia, Ellis, Leo, Dev, Michael, Eileen, etc., etc., so there was no ability to course-correct. The writers failed by not realizing they had given us so many unlikable characters, but they also couldn’t change anything this year. Since last I reviewed the show, Theresa Rebeck has departed as showrunner, and “Gossip Girl” producer Josh Safran has been hired to replace her. I have no idea if this thing is salvageable, but as Fienberg has pointed out, “Gossip Girl” was a show that wasn’t afraid to dump unpopular but relatively high-profile characters like Jenny Humphrey. If nothing else, he might be in favor of a purge of the ensemble’s biggest liabilities. The problem is that the only people I care at all about seeing anymore are Derek, Tom and Ivy.  

Mainly, I’m writing this because I’m curious how everyone else is feeling about the cast and crew of “Bombshell” at this point in the season. Is anyone still enjoying the show on a non-ironic level? If not, why are you watching? And what changes do you most hope Safran makes for season 2?