Friday, September 5, 2014

Revisiting Smash a Year after its Demise

Many, many things of note happened while I was taking a break from the blogosphere, and one of the most interesting (at least to me in relation to this blog) was the strange creature that was Smash. When it was first announced, people were taken with its solid pedigree from both the film/tv (Stephen Spielberg! Anjelica Huston! Debra Messing!) and theatre (Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman! Theresa Rebek! Megan Hilty!) worlds, and its premiere opened to a lot of fanfare and some solid reviews. However, almost from the beginning, the show was plagued with numerous problems in front and behind the cameras.

A lot has been said about the rise and fall of Smash, including an intriguing behind-the-scenes look by Marc Shaiman, the insightful and delightfully dry review by The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum,  and a series of recaps from The A.V. Club, the latter of which includes the wonderfully snarky (and accurate) summation of the series as a “long parade of talented people and Katharine McPhee realizing the show with such promise they signed on for has become… this.” Given all of this and the fact that the show lasted a mere 32 episodes, it seems like everything that needs to be said about Smash has been said. However, thanks to the magic of YouTube and its “Watch It Again” section, I found myself revisiting some of Smash’s highlights and lowlights, which got me to thinking about the show as a whole.

One of the issues with Smash is that it often garnered the wrong kind of attention, especially near the end of its brief tenure. After a thrilling pilot, which culminated with Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen (McPhee) vocally duking it out with the rousing “Let Me Be Your Star,” the show made a series of missteps that alienated its natural fanbase (theatre people). The characters lacked subtlety and consistency, deus ex machina seemed to happen every week (Grace Gummer comes to help her mother [Anjelica Houston] see the error of her ways before going off to count trout or salmon or something), and even the most basic plot points and details seemed ridiculous. By the show’s end, the small audience that remained mostly consisted of hate-watchers who wanted to comment on Karen’s awfulness or Julia’s (Messing) questionable scarf choices and annoying son. In all honesty, reading the recaps and forums at places like the departed Television without Pity were much more entertaining and lively than anything depicted in the Smashverse.

However, thinking about the show and watching clips a year after it ended has been an enjoyable experience. Yes, the show is still deeply flawed, and yes, Karen/McPhee continues to be its weakest link, a distinction that is impressive since the show had so many problems. However, minus the animus and the derisive, if often deserved, commentary surrounding the show in its death throes, Smash is indeed entertaining in a non-ironic way. There are some very good performances that transcend the terrible character development; Hilty, Messing, Jack Davenport, Houston, and even Jeremy Jordan, who was saddled with a character that seemed custom-made to be awful, did the best they could with what they were given. Hilty, by far, was the highlight of the show, and she was able to give Ivy dignity despite the character’s whiplash-inducing turns. The other aspect of the show that truly stood out to me upon rewatching the clips was the musical numbers. There were some stinkers, to be sure (I had a very hard time connecting to Hit List, a show whose dislikable characters rival the ones found in Smash), but many of the songs are quite good. Shaiman and Wittman’s contributions, including the Bombshell songs and the wonderfully campy “A Thousand and One Nights” (ignore McPhee's contributions and concentrate on Raza Jaffrey and the rest of the cast), stand out. The second season brought some stellar numbers from Andrew McMahon, Joe Iconis, and Pasek and Paul. Even when the show’s plot was cause for secondhand embarrassment, the musical numbers, for the most part, were interesting and sometimes even excellent.

A great deal of blame has been heaped on McPhee, and she (or at least her character) was a major part of the problem. While people formed factions along party lines (Team Ivy or Team Karen), the issue of Team Karen was the Karen was very difficult to root for. Set up as the person that the audience was supposed to identify with and want to see succeed, Karen ended up being not the likable everywoman or even a flawed if ultimately sympathetic protagonist but an object of scorn who managed to be both insipid and incredibly unpleasant. McPhee isn’t blameless when it comes to Karen’s awfulness, but she also isn’t entirely at fault. Although another actress (Laura Osnes, a true Broadway ingĂ©nue who also got her break from reality television, was considered for the role and would have been a better fit) could have brought out Karen’s more likable characteristics and perhaps even a sense of genuine goodness and vulnerability, the writing for the character undermined the ultimate goal of making her relatable. As Nussbaum cogently puts it in her article, Karen is a “human humblebrag” and “a one-note character [who McPhee] then took… down a half-note.”

McPhee’s acting chops are decidedly not up to the job of transforming Karen from a passive-aggressive Mary Sue to an actually likable character, but that isn’t the only problem at work. Despite Smash’s attempts to tell us that Karen is the most awesome, most special, most talented actress ever to appear on the Great White Way, McPhee doesn’t have the incandescent sparkle needed to match the rapturous praise her character receives in heaps. She also suffers by comparison to Hilty and the head-to-head competition between Karen and Ivy that is dictated by the script. In most cases, Hilty wins hands down. However, this isn’t to say that McPhee is untalented; there are moments where she did an okay job with Marilyn (please don’t throw things at me), and numbers like “Public Relations” show moments of the sparkle that the other characters constantly attribute to Karen. Unfortunately, this small glimmers do not an entire character make.

Over 365 days and 1,000+ words later, I’m still awed and entertained by the rapid rise and fall of Smash. The awe comes from the fact that such a talented group of people was able to assemble and make a television show about musical theatre in the first place, and the entertainment comes from both the show’s better moments and the enmity it inspired in its implosion. However, despite hindsight being 20/20, moments of Smash remain thrilling. With that in mind, I’m ending with two more of my favorite moments:
Yes, this is a little too "Up with People," especially since the song is about suicide, but I enjoy this version of song a great deal. If only the rest of Hit List were as raw and energetic as this.

It was a toss-up between "Let's Be Bad" and "The National Pastime" for this slot, but Hilty has so much great subtext in this number that it wins.