Tuned In

The Morning After: Smash Ends Its Season, With a Bombshell and a Whimper

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Quick spoilers for the season finale of Smash below:

…and so Smash concludes its first season as it began, wildly applauding for itself. The season-ender (NBC has announced the show will return in midseason next year) wrapped up the Karen-or-Ivy question by declaring itself Team Karen, and, apparently, assuming that we all were too. As Bombshell made its hasty Broadway Boston debut, and Ivy contemplated a bottle of pills in her dressing-room mirror, the girl from Iowa performed the starring role to a standing ovation, staged in a way that you can only assume was meant to bring us on our feet for her as well. Did anybody stand up?

Smash’s season was shot, in the manner of many cable series, before the first episode ever aired, meaning that the producers could make no course corrections in response to audience feedback. So when you watch the season play out, you’re also seeing the assumptions made by the creative team (especially creator Theresa Rebeck, who will not be back next year) as to how we would receive the show. Those included, apparently: that Ellis would become that villain we just loved to hate; that we would be transfixed by Julia’s efforts to salvage her marriage; and that we would ultimately get behind Karen as the rightful star of the show, because she’s one of us—the middle American nice girl—even though she, and by extension Katharine McPhee, showed not a boop-be-doop of the firepower that Marilyn Monroe demands.

I’ll admit that, though the show launched to a lot of critical hype, I was not a fan from the get-go, and to me the end of the season demonstrated the same problems as the beginning—a sense of self-congratulation and heavy use of showbiz clichés for a supposedly “sophisticated” drama about Broadway. (Broken up, occasionally, by a genuinely good musical sequence.) But even leaving aside the whole good-Karen/bad-Ivy dynamic, the whole season was marked by a tin ear as to what aspects of it the audience would like, and what we would care about: Leo’s emotional investment in a new little sister from China, say, or the travails of the highly successful Broadway artist who is oppressed by his or her assistant.

The other glaring problem was the balance of the characters’ personal and professional lives. I’m not one of the people who believes that there was “too much personal drama” in Smash; the problem to me is that the personal drama was too often disconnected from what was going on in producing the musical. The Canadian comedy-drama Slings and Arrows, about a Shakespeare troupe, is one of the best things I’ve ever seen on television, and it had its share of personal stories too. But they were always deeply intwined with the pressures and conflicts of work, in a job that consumed most of the characters’ waking hours. In Smash, the personal and romantic stories too often felt detached from the work story, and took us out of the production of Bombshell—they felt tacked on, like something that the writers felt they had to give us, because otherwise why would we possibly care about a story about putting on a Broadway show?

I can’t say I’m eager to see a second season, but with a new creative team running things, I will at least watch the beginning out of curiosity. The one advantage they’ll have is that the show already had a built-in challenge of reinventing itself: it could no longer be about creating the Marilyn musical a second time. So if nothing else, that should give the team a lot of latitude to make big changes. If they have a Bombshell to work with, they may as well blow it up.