Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Reflecting on the 'Smash' Rollercoaster...


With the first season of Smash winding down, what better time than to look back over the roller coaster that was the first thirteen episodes? When the pilot was sent for early consideration after the upfronts in May 2011, I felt like I had found my new purpose in writing about television. It was stylized; it was modern; it was meta; it was fast-paced; and it was full of complex characters. Setting it in the world of the arts was just the icing on top of an already very sweet cupcake for me. I was sold from the opening parade of auditioners, and I was silently kicking myself for not sticking it out in production long enough to get a shot to actually work on such a show. 


As the season unfolded, though, even all of my identification with the world of Smash wasn't enough for me to blatantly ignore the flaws that began to pop up. I was with them-- admittedly longer than most!-- until "The Workshop." I felt everything moved smoothly until then. It was great to get to learn which woman had won the role of Marilyn in only the second episode so we could get into the meat of the process of making the musical. Watching the bad behavior emerge as Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty) were seated mere seats apart in the studio offered a unique look into the psyches of those ensemble players who are truly team players-- and those who aren't. And all the while Julia (Debra Messing) and Michael (Will Chase) were reigniting a spark that clearly had never been fully snuffed out.

In truth, I know I cut Smash some slack because of how personal the story was to me and how much I *wanted* it to be something very specific, but I also didn't think it was fair to pan it if it *wasn't* living up to what I wanted it to be. Because just because I wanted it to be something didn't mean the show itself set up realistic expectations that it's what it would be. The show was always set up as a relationship drama set in the behind-the-scenes of Broadway. So when there were moments that I wanted more of the inner workings of the industry, I pushed them aside, knowing it's always better to get to know the characters before the world. The characters are king, after all.

But then "The Workshop" happened, and much like what was happening to the show-within-the-show, Smash itself seemed to retool, in some areas completely needlessly. Suddenly it focused on needless characters rather than continue development of the ones in whom we were supposed to be most developed. I could draw comparisons to the meta nature of art imitating art here-- Smash itself certainly drew a number of such parallels between Ivy and Marilyn-- but I think that would be reading too far between the lines. I don't think it was intentional for Smash to thematically go off the rails just because the Marilyn musical itself did. That's a dangerous game to play, and I can't imagine any writer would create an intentionally lackluster project.

Suddenly the very things that once so endeared me to the show exploded. For instance, the pace: the entertainment industry is extremely fast-paced; it's all about timing (yeah, okay, and who you know), and if you wait even a day to call your connection back or sign on the dotted line, sometimes that's it for you: you've lost the opportunity altogether. I was glad to see Smash embrace the sense of urgency in the world, and getting to "The Workshop" only mid-way through the season certainly exemplified this, but there was a sense of "Now what?" that came after that appeared to not be sussed out behind-the-scenes. Suddenly, there was no time to even offer reasons for actions. Why Boston for where the show was tech-ed when New York is full of theaters? Why does Derek (Jack Davenport) run so hot and cold with the women he works with? Why are we not allowed to sit with any character for a minute to get inside their heads anymore? Suddenly, attention was turned away from Karen and Ivy's struggles and placed, instead, on fleshing out peripheral characters. I'm all for making every character a well-rounded, fully three-dimensional, believable human character but not when it's at the expense of evolving the protagonists.

Take Ivy, for example. When Smash wanted to show her as another Marilyn, a cautionary tale, they went really hard into it. She was pill-popping all the time. She was stumbling around, lashing out at everyone, laughing too hard. And then when the show shifted focus, she just stopped. Well, she probably didn't actually stop, but the show stopped portraying even the slightest bit of that aspect of Ivy's fragile state. It was bothersome to start such a serious story, only to see it dropped a few episodes later without any mention, let alone resolution, of why. Should we have believed Ivy herself stopped taking the Prednisone? That might explain her sudden and random befriending of Karen for a minute. Or maybe the problem is still there, underlying, but the show didn't want to beat us over the head by showing her swallowing a pill in every scene. The problem lies in the fact that we shouldn't have to assume, and stories shouldn't just stop and start without merit or provocation.

Out of all of the characters, I think Julia was the one who suffered the most from this fast-forward spree. Well, actually, I guess it was Michael, considering it left him on the cutting room floor for awhile. But their relationship in general when from red-hot to super cold in a way that made him seem like he had multiple personalities and reduced her to a stereotype. I fought so hard for him in the beginning, citing subtle nuances in his already brief scenes as to why he felt inferior at home and would therefore allow an exploration of his passion with Julia. I fought so hard for her, almost desperate to believe she was trapped in a relationship of comfort and convenience but finally saw what she was missing when "the one that got away" returned. But in the end, the show didn't valid my claims, and that was the start of my consideration that maybe, just maybe I was project more of what I wanted to see in Smash onto the show than what it was actually providing on-screen.

Especially watching the evolution, or the de-evolution, as it were, of Julia over the course of the back-half of the first season of Smash-- from the way she enabled and coddled and swept the immaturity of her problem child, and her own problems themselves, under the rug-- made me realize that all of the strong attributes I assigned to her in the beginning may have just been me seeing what I wanted to see and creating the character I wanted her to be. I can’t be disappointed, therefore, in how Julia actually was written or portrayed on screen because I did that to myself. I set an expectation that the show never truly promised to which to live up. And that taught me something: I may be more mature, I may be a technical adult now; I may work in this business as a professional in the entertainment industry-- but I still consume television the same way I did when I was twelve years old.

Right around "Tech," when the ratings were dipping lower than ever because everyone was frustrated with where the once-promising show had fallen, it seemed to embrace its manic soap opera nature a little bit more. Some didn't want the show to be that, but at least that was one solid genre. Ivy and Dev (Raza Jaffrey) sleeping together; Julia potentially being pregnant with Michael Swift's (Will Chase) baby after trying so hard to adopt; someone putting peanuts in Rebecca's (Uma Thurman) smoothie. The back-and-forth of the relationship entanglements, romantic or otherwise, of course was the clearest indicator. Early in the season, it seemed like Derek and Ivy were just going to be a fling while the real tension would be between Derek and Karen, but the show diverged from that as chemistry clicked with Davenport and Hilty, and the story allowed for a softer side of Ivy to emerge. But at the end, in the season finale, it seemed the show was returning to that original concept, playing with the idea of Derek finally building Karen up to be the strong woman she will need to be to take Broadway by storm.

The season finale, "Bombshell," itself felt right on par with those first few episodes we-- or at least I-- fell in love with in the first place. Normally I bemoan the fact that an eleventh hour "save" is way too late for a show to get good, but here it was a matter of Smash getting back to when and how it was good, so I don't think the same commentary applies. The season finale got back to basics: after a season of ups and downs for both Karen and Ivy, the audience was asked to choose sides again for who they wanted to see step on stage in Marilyn's shoes, gloves, and wig. And perhaps the answer you found when you looked inside yourself was different from at the start of the season. I know that's what happened to me, which ultimately makes the subsequent season that is still to come all that more exciting. It also made you consider how far the characters had actually come, even if disjointedly. After a season of getting to know Ivy and understand what makes her tick, you couldn't help but feel bad for her, even give a pass to her bad behavior, when Derek told her she was just missing something even he couldn't put his finger on, and that's why she couldn't be his star.

But perhaps more importantly, "Bombshell" finally found its balance-- for the musical itself and for Smash as a series. It was able to deliver exciting character twists, and intensely dramatic decisions with chill-inducing vocal performances. It highlighted every important character in relation to each other, rather than lingering on something that had no bearing on the overall emotional arcs for our leading ladies. It wrapped on-going conflicts while still leaving the promise of more to come later. It didn't linger, but it didn't rush, either. It ended on a high note (and literally!) and left you-- or at least me-- wanting more. Just like the pilot, I couldn't take my eyes off the screen, and when the final scene faded to black, the applause that broke out was in my living room, not just on-screen. Once again I found myself saying "You can't end it now!" After so much tinkering, it finally seemed to be the right fit. And I can only hope it is used as a template or outline for the season two scripts.

The first season of Smash wasn't all I wanted it to be. It wasn't revolutionary; it didn't master character elements that glee fails at; it took too much screen time to figure out what it was and stick to it. It had more growing pains than a show is usually allowed to have and still see another season these days. At times it seemed that the writers were often focused on preemptively anticipating and responding to what is usually the season two note of expanding the world. Hopefully in the actual season two, they will dial back a bit. Keeping the characters at arm's length by engaging them in action after action, plot point after plot point, it's too easy to sit back and judge or critique them when really, we should be engaged in and feeling for them.

Smash will return to NBC for mid-season 2013.

1 comment:

Joe said...

Agree that the show returned to a better balance with this final episode. And also agree that there were certain things that still didn't work (Julia, Ellis, Dev as always).

Glad they pulled the trigger on Karen as Marilyn early on. Now if they can trim the fat for S2, it could still be salvageable.

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