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Smash Gets an Encore. Its Creator Doesn’t. Can the Show Change Its Tune?

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Will Hart/NBC

A scene from Monday's Smash, ironically titled "The Coup."

I would not have been surprised to hear that NBC musical Smash had been picked up for a second season; it’s ratings have not been great, but in NBC-land “not great” is cause for a tickertape parade these days. I also would not have been surprised had the show been put through a creative shakeup, given that both its ratings and its critical esteem have fallen sharply since the immensely-hyped debut.

I would not have guessed that both would happen, on the same day no less, but that’s what we got yesterday. NBC announced that it would order a second season of Smash, but word also broke that its creator and chief creative force, Theresa Rebeck, would be stepping down as showrunner next year. (The current season is already in the can.) So if you’re keeping score, that’s one vote of confidence, one vote of great concern.

So what gives? Let’s start with the simple part, the ratings. After a months-long, $30 million promo campaign and the lead-in of NBC’s most popular show, The Voice, Smash debuted well enough, with over 11 million viewers. By this week, though, that number was down to under 7 million, with Smash finishing third out of three broadcast dramas in its time slot in total viewers and the 18-49 demo. For this, the show costs a reported $3.5 million an episode to produce. But again—NBC-land. That still qualifies Smash as NBC’s best-rated drama, and you’ve got to take your good news where you find it.

Having given NBC its best-rated-even-in-a-relative-sense drama, then, why is Rebeck stepping down? (She’ll stay on as an executive producer but won’t be running the show’s production.) A report from Deadline.com cites concerns over the direction the story took over the season, becoming too focused on the inside-baseball of Broadway on one hand, and soapy plots like Julia’s affair on the other. What does that leave? The competition between Karen and Ivy, I guess, though that raises the question of how you dramatize that without either soapy complications or theater inside-baseball. In any case, the message seems to be that NBC feels Rebeck took a promising show in the wrong direction.

I don’t think this is fair to Rebeck, and I say this as someone who was not crazy about the show from the get-go. Actually, I say this because I was not crazy about the show from the get-go. Smash was probably never going to be the show for me: the characters were too stock, it was too earnest and self-satisfied in its celebration of the stage, and it did way too much telling-not-showing. (How many times do we need to hear that someone in the production of Marilyn is great at what he or she does?)

But that was the show Smash was. It was the show that NBC bought and that new president Robert Greenblatt visibly championed. It was the show Rebeck delivered, and if NBC had issues with it when it launched (by which time the season was essentially wrapped), it hid them awfully well. And despite the talk of “creative direction,” I would submit that Rebeck delivered exactly the show the pilot implied: big, broad, kind of corny and unapologetically earnest.

To me, that’s not the most creatively interesting kind of Broadway show to do, but it’s Smash, and I don’t quite see how you make the show into something else at this point—nor how you do that while taking the show away from someone who had a fairly auteur-like level of involvement with it from the beginning, writing the episodes and coordinating a complex effort involving songwriters and a show-within-a-show. There are examples of a series removing a showrunner at this stage and thriving, most recently Frank Darabont’s ouster from AMC’s The Walking Dead, but there, Darabont was adapting someone else’s creation, not his own.

Maybe removing Rebeck as showrunner will remove some problems, but what then do you add in, and who’s going to do it? What alternative vision is there for this show? The idea of narrowing the show’s focus to Ivy vs. Karen seems especially ill-advised. Maybe it’s what the show would have been better off doing in its first season, but we don’t have a time machine. By its second season, the show should be growing, fleshing out supporting characters who have not been that well-drawn to begin with.

I’m simply speculating here on the motives behind the decision, but this has the feel of face-saving, for NBC or for Greenblatt, who staked a lot on Smash by bringing it to NBC from Showtime and making it his first marquee project. To cancel it after one season—if the relatively-decent ratings didn’t justify the expense—would have been a big black eye. The show needed to stick around, and it needed to do something to acknowledge its trajectory.

So Rebeck leaves as showrunner, evidently for delivering pretty much the show that NBC giddily promoted at a Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark level of hype. That’s showbiz, I guess, and as I wasn’t a Smash devotee at this point, it’s not really my battle.

But for those of you who stuck with the show, do you think it was broke? And how would you like to see NBC fix it?