I gave it one full season, plus a good part of the second season. But I can’t take it anymore. It’s just gotten too stupid.
Oh, sorry, I’m talking about Smash. Just can’t deal with it.
Smash is a TV series, on NBC, following a group of New York theatre artists as they write and produce a musical about Marilyn Monroe. Main characters are Debra Messing as Julia, a writer, Christian Borle as Tom, a composer, and Jack Davenport as Derek, the show’s director. Anjelica Huston is Eileen, the producer. Katherine McPhee, of American Idol fame, plays Karen, one of the two actresses vying for the role of Marilyn; the other is Ivy, Megan Hilty. These actors are not, BTW, the problem. Borle’s terrific, Messing is fine, and Davenport does a nice job portraying a complete jerk. Hilty’s brilliant, and McPhee sings well and looks great. The acting is more or less fine.
The premise has tremendous promise. The Karen/Ivy battle for the leading role could be dramatically exciting. Two exceptionally talented young actresses fighting for a Broadway lead–that could be awesome. Plus, the story of Marilyn has dramatic and musical possibilities. And the fact that the Smash creative team soaped it up some didn’t bother me; I get that it’s television. So Julia, the writer, once cheated on her husband with Michael, an actor the producers all like for the role of Joe DiMaggio. Well, that could be interesting, especially when he reignites the affair, destroying her marriage. Like I said, it’s a soap.
There were several story threads the show followed, some of them more compelling than others. One involved Eileen’s relationship with her ex-husband (and former producing partner) Jerry (Michael Cristofer). Cristofer is a wonderful writer (I still love The Shadow Box), and I suppose he was okay in this moustache-twirling soap villain part. I just couldn’t care, though. Part of it was the bangs. Poor Anjelica Huston was given the single most hideous hairstyle I’ve ever seen on a middle-aged woman, with these awful bangs. It was distracting, how horrible she looked. Let me put it this way: every scene involving Eileen and Jerry, I wanted to fast-forward. Nothing happened of dramatic interest in any of them, and if you skipped ahead, you didn’t have to see that hairstyle. Probably a wig. I hope it’s a wig. I hate the thought of Anjelica Huston looking like that all the time.
But the one thing that should have been interesting, the Ivy/Karen duel for Marilyn, turned out to be peculiarly uninteresting. In part, it’s because it was such an acting mismatch. Katherine McPhee is a lovely young woman, with a beautiful voice. But she just didn’t have the acting chops to compete with Megan Hilty. So when Derek, the director, threw a fit and got Karen for his lead, I lost a lot of my interest in the show.
But the second season got so much worse than the first season, it finally defeated me. I love the theatre, love this art form. I wanted desperately to like the show. But its multiple crass stupidities finally wore me down.
In the second season, for example, it was decided that the show was close to ready for a Broadway opening, but the book was the weak link. Julia was going to have to re-write, and Eileen hired a dramaturg to assist her. And she gets this really great, first class, super famous and accomplished dramaturg–not just a dramaturg, but a Dramaturg. Peter, played by Daniel Sunjata.
Dramaturgs, apparently, are sort of a combination life coach, S/M torturer and play-whisperer. At first Julia resists his blandishments, but eventually Stockholm syndrome sets in, and she re-writes to his specifications. So let me describe to you the scenario that transpires next:
Julia writes this brilliant script. They have a reading; everyone agrees, it’s superb. Wonderful. We don’t get a lot of details, but here’s what we’re told: it tells the story of Marilyn Monroe through the eyes of the main men in her life–DiMaggio, Arthur Miller, JFK. A series of vignettes, each narrated by a different guy.
But Jerry The Evil Producer doesn’t like it. In fact, he wants to go back to the earliest draft of the script, about Marilyn, and her fight to succeed in a world dominated by men. The show has to choose between these two scripts; version A: Marilyn’s battle to succeed, and version B: the Dramaturg-inspired one in which we see Marilyn through the eyes of these powerful men. Julia wants B. Tom wants A. Anjelica Huston’s bangs will decide. They even turned it into a mini-cliff-hanger, dragged it over two episodes. Which will she choose?
Do you see the problem? Have you gotten the difficulty here? Do you see why this episode is one of the main reasons I refuse to watch the show anymore?
You have two versions of the Marilyn story. And one of them is about a strong, volitional protagonist making choices. And the other one is about . . . a woman who is the creation of men.
A is better. In fact, A is so much better, it’s hard to imagine why absolutely everyone can’t see it. B is rubbish. B is non-volitional. B is bad playwriting.
Which Julia was forced into by her Svengali-like dramaturg.
I’m a playwright and I’ve worked as a dramaturg, and this is just rubbish. Insulting, idiotic nonsense. A good dramaturg CAN be helpful, immensely helpful, if a good collaborative working relationship can be established between dramaturg and playwright. This is NOT HOW IT WORKS. And plays require dramatic action, which means characters making choices and decisions and then dealing with the consequences of those choices. A script in which none of that happens is not, by definition, great.
Also, Jerry the Evil Producer is, without question, evil. We’re told that many many times, usually by Anjelica Huston’s bangs. But what exactly is the nature of his perfidy? He likes the dramatically stronger, probably more commercial version of a script he’s planning to produce. He wants to produce a financially and artistically viable show. He also wants to protect his ex-wife from producing a show funded by highly questionable and probably criminal money sources. In other words, he’s not actually evil at all.
It got worse. In the second season, we meet a young composer/lyricist, and his book writing friend, Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle (Andy Mientus). They’re collaborating on
Rent a musical of their own, called The Hit List, and we’re consistently told that Jimmy’s music is the shiz and Kyle’s book, not so much. And, I’m totally not kidding, Karen quits Bombshell (the Marilyn musical, which is a couple of weeks from opening on Broadway), so she can do this little workshop production of Hit List, because she Believes In Jimmy. (Hit List gets compared to Rent so many times, I lost count, which come to think of it, is kind of bad news for Jimmy, considering what happened to Jonathan Larson!). (If you don’t know what happened to Jonathan Larson, look it up.)
(But, okay, one specific: Derek gives Jimmy a note: the show needs an opening number establishing the show thematically. Jimmy’s response is his go-to, default mode response to any note, by anyone–he throws a whiny little hissy fit. Then he goes ahead and writes the song. Which everyone compares to Rent. Now, in Rent, that opening number is “Seasons of Love.” “Seasons of love”, one of the greatest songs in the history of musical theatre. Now here’s Jimmy’s song, meant to be the “Seasons of Love” equivalent: “Caught in the storm.” Generic, mediocre pop song. But nobody on the show thinks so–they think it’s, typically, brilliant.)
Anyway, yeah. An actress cast in the leading role of a Broadway musical quits three weeks before opening night because she’d rather do a workshop show. This is presented to us as a completely plausible and even admirable decision. It enables Ivy (stuck in a horrendous production of a musical based on Les Liaisons Dangereuses) to take over Marilyn, the role she was anyway born to play. I threw a shoe at my television set.
But worst of all is the character of
Jonathan Larson Jimmy, the Genius. His show has a slot in the New York Fringe Festival. They’ve got a tiny space, and 10 hours to load in their show, tech, and open. They walk in the space, and Jimmy sits down at the piano, and plays one of the songs from the show. And cast and crew join him singing, and dancing.
I would punch him in the face. I seriously would punch the little dweeb. We have ten hours, people! We have work to do! We have X number of tasks to perform, Y number of hours to do it in, and Z number of people to do it. You just changed the equation, unilaterally reducing the value of Y and the value of Z. Seriously, you little jerk. Get to work. Now!
Have none of you ever actually done live theatre?
And the answer is obviously yes. I have no doubt that the talented actors in the cast of Smash have all done some theatre. The show-runner, Theresa Rebeck, is a produced playwright. They all know better.
But they think the television audience is, oh I don’t know, obsessed with the Tony awards. So all these characters are, like, preposterously obsessed with Tonys. And rehearsals are boring, obviously, unless they’re excuses for working out people’s personal neuroses. And of course it’s not remotely a problem, say, to turn a book musical into a sung-through musical in two weeks (while also rehearsing it). And every note composed by a show’s composer is brilliant, while those playwright types are The Problem, what with their dissolving marriages and multiple affairs and various insecurities.
It just got too stupid. I couldn’t watch it anymore. It just astounds me that people who have worked in theatre, who love theatre as an art form, could possibly produce a TV show about theatre that gets absolutely everything wrong about how theatre works and what it is and how shows are created. I want them all to die.