Sheltered by Speculation: How Smash Could Become a Different Show

How Smash Could Become a Different Show

April 17th, 2012

On the one hand, my opinion of Smash remains unchanged since the last time I dropped in on it: this is still a show that does not have a clear grasp on what it wants to accomplish, unable to move beyond the bounds of the musical with any confidence. While Uma Thurman’s arrival as Rebecca DuVall has helped flesh out the musical narrative, building on the detente between Ivy and Karen which makes them both more viable as characters, the show doesn’t know when to quit when it’s ahead: just as Julia’s personal life finishes imploding, Karen’s boyfriend Dev is elevated to a full-blown liability for both Karen and the narrative as a whole.

And yet I continue to watch. Part of me is simply riveted by the tone deafness of the series to its own creative struggles, and wonders how they believe this story should be resolved at the end of the season. However, more prominently, I am legitimately fascinated to see what this show looks like in a second season. Rarely has there been a case where that much hype has turned into this much vitriol, the squandered potential almost overbearing in our reception of the season’s final act (perhaps unfairly, even). And yet, despite all of this, the show has earned a second season since the last time I checked in on it, and so I find myself watching every episode wondering how much of this show, this near-complete mess of a show, will actually remain when it returns next season – the show, as the title suggests, survives on my DVR through its creative rough patches because it is sheltered by this anticipation for what might be to come.

Without entirely jumping the gun, given that the season isn’t yet over, I did want to offer a few thoughts on how the current model might need adjustment in the future, and why I’d argue this puts the show in a far more compelling place moving forward than its narrative alone would suggest.

With Theresa Rebeck stepping down, Smash is going to have a new showrunner next year, which in and of itself could create some level of change. However, more important than that, the show is going to be find itself in an awkward position. Pitched as NBC’s chance at a huge hit, Smash has done average numbers that still place it as NBC’s most successful drama series, but are those numbers enough to sustain the level of production values the show is aiming for with its musical numbers? Or with its guest stars? And if it is truly NBC’s most successful returning drama series heading into next season, is this a show that can be stretched to 22 episodes to air over the course of an entire season?

Say what we will about the creative fruits of Rebeck and Co.’s insulated labor, but you can see the show they were commissioned to make: a serialized 13-episode season featuring musical numbers that could be leveraged as money-making iTunes downloads. The problem is that the show hasn’t picked up any of the serialized buzz of cable dramas (based on its poor reception), and the iTunes downloads don’t seem to be lighting the world on fire either. While I don’t exactly have much sales data, I can’t seem to find any evidence of the show’s singles charting on the Billboard Hot 100, and the one piece of data I can find suggests that “History is Made At Night” garnered a grand total of 9700 sales in its first week on the market, charting at 197 on the “Hot Digital Tracks” list. The singles have also stopped appearing on Spotify, after being uploaded more consistently earlier in the show’s run.

Smash‘s ratings, at least for NBC, mean it earned a second season regardless, but its focus on big-budget musical numbers is predicated on the ancillary markets available to them. While I’m sure NBC is waiting to see how sales of the soundtrack album (coming out in early May) are before they make any broader judgments, I’m sure the bottom line has to play a role here. Simply put, Smash can’t continue to be the show it is without living up to NBC’s expectations for the show it could have been – it was a gamble for them to invest in it so heavily, and that gamble didn’t pay off in the way they hoped. Instead of becoming a Glee for adults, Smash became evidence that adults and Broadway fans will not buy digital downloads in enough volume to use music sales as either a profit engine or a substantial promotional tool.

The musical numbers have been more effective narratively, although they remain quite inconsistent – while the alt-reality glimpses of how the musical might look staged are generally evocative (including in tonight’s episode), the musical numbers motivated exclusively by characters and their emotions have fallen flat by comparison. While the former seem integral to the show’s future success, the latter seem like a forced effort to render the show into a musical for the sake of future commodification. While the show would lose its identity if it were to cease being about a musical, perhaps it could find its identity if budgetary restrictions forced it to stick to musical numbers justified by the show-within-a-show.While a survey of my Twitter followers is far from representative, I did think this response from Jessica Johnson (@witchyflickchic) supported the gap between these two separate strategies:

The problem with this strategy, of course, is that they’re going to run out of songs from Bombshell sooner rather than later. At the point where they’ve released every song from Bombshell in some form or another, what’s their next step if they’re stepping away from pop songs? In terms of longevity, despite the low sales, it was the pop covers that gave them some semblance of stability moving into future seasons, which may make them less expendable than their narrative success would indicate. It’s possible, of course, that the show will step away from downloads entirely should they run out of Bombshell numbers, another alternative that could drastically impact the way the show approaches its musical numbers…or not.

Indeed, this is all just speculation, so it’s difficult to say what Smash may or may not do in its second season. However, to be blunt, it’s far more interesting than what’s currently happening in the narrative. Yes, Thurman’s entrance has created some new dynamics, but they’re just that: new. Without any momentum from characters like Karen and Ivy (who feel as though they’ve been reset), and with every other characters heading down a cliched path, the show is effectively starting from scratch with a new creative challenge that will be their last chance to go out on a high note. At this stage, though, the quality of that final note might not matter: if the ratings don’t justify a show like the one Smash currently wants to be, they might be forced into changes for reasons beyond the creative struggles that have defined the first season.

Cultural Observations

  • For a show like USA Network’s Suits that is faking New York City in Toronto, the use of green screen is a necessary trick – even if they had the money to shoot in real offices above New York City, they’re filming in Canada at the end of the day. By comparison, Smash performs its NYC locations on a regular basis (although less here than usual, tellingly), which made the green screen in Eileen’s office that much more jarring. I’m fascinated by the choice to shoot the windows open with a green screen instead of using blinds to obscure it: if I could speculate, it seems that the producers believenotshowing the city would be more disruptive than the clearly fake backdrop, which seems incredibly backwards to me.
  • Uma Thurman has to show a lot of range here, and I thought she was appropriately flighty when necessary and cunning when required. In a world where Smash wasn’t flailing around half the time, she’d be a contender for a Guest Actress Emmy nomination.
  • Full disclosure: I fast-forwarded through most of last week’s episode, and anything dealing with Leo or Ellis in tonight’s episode – I might be fascinated to see where the show heads in its second season, but I have my limits.
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