Saturday, March 16, 2013

Smash & Grab

I've had Smash on the brain a lot these last couple of weeks. Anybody who still watches the show - and the ratings out of America suggests there aren't many, but we are out there! - knows this is probably a familiar place to be since the NBC series about the mounting of a Broadway musical is a brainworm if ever there was one. A show of such thrilling, exhilarating highs and yet such crushing, baffling lows - Smash is a show that I know and hope can be truly amazing and yet has settled into a rut of being complacently mediocre. At least season one had a ridiculous edge to it that made some deliciously hilarious soap opera moments. Season two had Jennifer Hudson. It's as if the makers are living up to the advice of their show's crowning moment - "Let's be bad!"

The songs of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman have been on regular repeat lately as I, presumably, try to telepathically impart wisdom upon the makers. And, really, if one were to listen to them outside of the context of the show they appear it then it'd be hard to picture how the series itself went so odd. That now famous article from Buzzfeed about the behind-the-scenes dramas of season one certainly lifted the curtains on several aspects, and yet season two is perhaps even more baffling. Season one at least felt as if it was headed in a direction: season two appears to be faffing about, as unsure of itself as the makers of Bombshell, the show-within-the-show that is Smash's predominant fixture. Whether a writerly coincidence or an act of supreme self-awareness, Bombshell has spent the six episodes of season two being kicked around like a football, hailed as a series of great songs, but with a dud book keeping it from potential excellence. It's hard to argue that the series as a whole suffers from the same problem. And if the in-show production team of Anjelica Huston and Michael Cristofer's choice of a more frivolous take on Marilyn rather than the so-called brilliant one that Messing's character came up with (telling, discussed yet never actually seen) feels like an act of Bombshell sabotage, then they're merely aping their real life counterparts. Furthermore, characters are seen preparing to abandon ship much like many of the series' fans have thought about once or twice. Alas, we (and they) stay because there's nothing quite like it out there, not even on a network like HBO.

How did the makers react to the flurry of concerns that viewers had over season one? They threw in a Jennifer Hudson subplot that literally went nowhere and just wasted everybody's time in sidelining Bombshell yet again. They also had a SECOND(!) musical fall into the lap of Katherine McPhee's smug, virtuous bore of a chanteause, Karen Cartwright. A second musical, by the way, that not only avoids the musical theatre traditions that the show was seemingly based upon, but also the Rent pop-opera stylings that it's supposedly trying to mirror. The original songs of Shaiman and Wittman have dried up and been replaced by more radio friendly pop rock tunes that are apparently the greatest thing we'll ever hear in our human ears. Give me a break! Megan Hilton - far and away the show's greatest asset - has been sidelined with a terrible version of Dangerous Liaisons opposite Sean Hayes, her powerful voice and expressive face getting minimal airtime front and centre. Even when it was established her character has an obvious history with the newly introduced Jennifer Hudson character, Ivy Lynn gets lumped off in the background with McPhee's Karen is moved to the front of the advice dispensing fan queue. Ugh. There's a reason why McPhee was never shown singing, amongst others, "Let's Be Bad", you know? She's inarguably better suited to the musical stylings of The Hitlist - the second show-within-a-show... this is getting confusing! - and hopefully the writers have set the story up so that Ivy Lynn's return to Bombshell is inevitable and we'll be right back to where we should have been an entire season ago. Oy. Still, Nathaniel Rogers put it right: they seem more interested in creating an "American Idol" than they do a theatre musical. Sigh.

Smash has been shunted to Saturday night in America, an apparent dead zone that will surely see its ratings shrink even further. It will most likely be axed unless its ratings move up and its budget can be shaved - thankfully, Smash never *looks* anything less than a million bucks. That would certainly be a shame given the hints of brilliance that it has exhibited throughout its brief history. It is those slight glimmers of hope that keep me watching even though it appears the series makers' are deliberately setting out to make the worst possible decisions at every turn. Last week's episode six was a nice turn back towards where it should be, dealing with the politics of making a Broadway show, rather than the boring romance between McPhee and whoever she's cooing over. It was also nice to see them sideline the jukebox aspects of the show - a street rendition of Billy Joel's "Everybody Loves You Now" by Hudson was the best of its kind since Hilty banged out a slaying rendition of "Crazy Dreams" way back at the start of season one.

Also: can we discuss the lack of homosexuality in this second season? Tom's boyfriend got sent on a national tour, Ellis was kicked off the show, the ensemble players have been ignored, the friend of McPhee's new love interest is sexless, and... well, for a show set on Broadway in New York City, there's a startling lack of sexuality at all. Yet another curious development on an increasingly curious show.


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