A tribute to NBC’s Broadway drama, the worst TV show I’ve ever loved.
When NBC rolled out its midseason shows earlier this year, the network had a lot to prove. Of the new fall series on which it had pinned its hopes, one was critically reviled (the sitcom Whitney), and the other was dead (the procedural Prime Suspect). But executives had Smash, a new show they thought could help rescue the network from shameful fourth place by taking viewers behind the scenes of the production of a fictional Broadway show; building on the success of Glee (since Smash would also feature lavish musical numbers); and attracting audiences on the track record of executive producer Steven Spielberg.
NBC spent a reported $25 million on promotion for Smash—not just the usual billboards and magazine ads, but also a lavish 40-page program, which was printed on heavy cardstock and sent even to the likes of me, a laid-off TV writer. TV spots made Smash look expensive, with performers bathed in the same golden glow that enveloped the actors on another prestigious NBC drama, The West Wing. The early buzz was rapturous, with (for instance) Maureen Ryan of the Huffington Post calling it "an astute exploration of big-city aspirations and showbiz dreams from people who very clearly know their chosen topics intimately." But by last week, Ryan was tweeting about Smash with a markedly different tone: "So I figured out 1 goal of #Smash--introduce & fail to adequately service 2ndary/tertiary characters, then make people hate them. Done&done!"
Ryan isn't wrong about Smash: It started out extremely strong, and ended up extremely terrible. Emily Nussbaum of The New Yorker also wrote recently about the way the show's abrupt drop in quality has led her to “hate-watch” Smash. Though I agree completely with every criticism she levels at the show, I don’t hate Smash. I love it. Smash is the worst TV show I've ever loved; it might be the worst thing I've ever loved.
Remember, I'm a laid-off TV writer. No one can make me watch anything I don't want to. If watching Smash were an unenjoyable chore, I would just stop. I'm unsentimental about quitting shows, whether at the end of a bad season or in the middle of an episode. Remember what happened on The O.C. after Mischa Barton threw a chair into the pool in the Season 2 premiere? I don't, because that's when I turned off that series, and I never laid eyes on it again.
Instead, as Smash spirals ever further downward into irretrievable failure it's become the show I most look forward to each week. Why? Because of the endless entertainment provided by the yawning chasm between what the makers of Smash think they’re doing and what’s actually on the screen. Watching it, one can list every decision that went into making each episode, and one can easily see how every last damn one of them was completely wrong. Smash is that most delightful of misfires: the crummy show that thinks it's important.
Despite its glamorous setting and elegant veneer, Smash is not the new West Wing. It's not even the new Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. In actual objective quality, the show it reminds me of the most is Beverly Hills, 90210. On both Smash and 90210, every character is involved in an enterprise (producing a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe; graduating high school) that’s enormously momentous to her, but trivial to outside observers. The characters hang out together constantly, whether it makes sense for them to do so or not: Everyone from West Beverly went to the same college, and two weeks ago, everyone on Bombshell, Smash's show-within-the-show, went to a church service (even the show's songwriter, who is Jewish).
Most of all, just as on 90210, there's not a character on Smash you can root for unreservedly. Though their positions on any kind of likability ranking change depending on each episode's storyline, they're all assholes. Ivy (actual Broadway star Megan Hilty), one of the two actors angling to play Bombshell’s Marilyn, once seemed like a fun spark plug, before the Smash writers turned her into a director-screwing pill-popper. Karen (Katharine McPhee), her competition, started out a droopy doormat and has pretty much stayed that way. Julia (Debra Messing), who writes the show’s book, presents herself as a scarf-swathed earth mother, but then we’re asked to hope she and her barely visible husband can adopt a Chinese baby when we can see the evidence of their awful parenting in their extant mopey stoner runaway teenage son. And producer Eileen (Anjelica Houston) seems to be putting on Bombshell primarily to spite her ex-husband.
To its credit, 90210 didn't put on airs as if it was anything more than a soap opera targeted at dumb teenagers. Smash thinks it's fancy—thinks I am as invested in Julia's marriage as I am in Walter White's, thinks I care as much that Bombshell secures its financing as I do that Sterling Cooper Draper Pryce makes payroll. I'm not; I don't. I'm just waiting for Julia’s next display of breathtaking selfishness or Ivy’s next ploy to undermine Karen, so I can consider both sides and rule everyone a dick. After that, there'll probably be a song! And that song will probably be pretty great! Basically, Smash has taken the formula of a series I already loved, added musical theater, and varnished the whole business with a coat of hilariously unearned gravitas. The result: perfection.
The finale, which airs tonight, is exactly the right capper for the season. One of the two would-be Marilyn Monroes gets the part in Bombshell; the other ends up moping backstage, playing Marilyn in real life with her bottle of pills. The show gets a new closing number (which, weirdly, exhorts us all to remember Marilyn every time we sing Happy Birthday?) and brings the preview punters to their feet. It all ends in triumph, but what if a character’s pre-curtain nausea ends up being, gulp, morning sickness?! (Another fine series that ended its first season with a pregnancy scare: Beverly Hills, 90210.)
Smash was picked up for a second season months ago, but not everyone who worked on it will return. The replacement of series creator Theresa Rebeck with Joshua Safran of Gossip Girl suggests there will be even more of the things I love: Who better than a Gossip Girl alumnus to preside over the marriage of high-schoolish intrigue and misguided pretension? It’s not clear yet whether Season 2 will continue following Bombshell’s path to Broadway, or if we can look forward to the creation of an entirely new musical production about some other tragic starlet (Karen Carpenter? Janis Joplin?). It’s possible that sometime soon Smash will be unable to continue walking the stylistic tightrope that makes it such enjoyable crap and will just turn into crap. But for now, I’m sad to no longer spend an hour each week with Smash and all the dopey goofs in its cast. Smash may be dumber than your average golden retriever, but its eager need to entertain me is no less endearing.
Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Previously.TV and has written about television for Yahoo, Vulture, the New York Times Magazine, and TelevisionWithoutPity.com, which she co-founded. She lives in Los Angeles.