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I watch NBC’s musical television series “Smash” every single week. But judging from its recent switch from Tuesday to Saturday night airings, I may be the last one doing so. About halfway through its first season, once-hopeful critics abandoned constructive criticism for “hate-watching” the show, focusing the majority of their reviews on mocking the absurd scarves Debra Messing’s character Julia wore to appear playwright-ly. The network fired then-showrunner Theresa Rebeck at the end of last season, replacing her with TV veteran and former “Gossip Girl” showrunner Josh Safran. And while “Smash” version 2.0 still isn’t good by “Mad Men” standards, it’s created a new vision for the series with much lower aims which, for the most part, it seems to achieve.
Old “Smash” had lofty goals. The brainchild of Steven Spielberg, the show focused on the creation of a fictional Broadway musical. It was originally purchased by current NBC Chairman Robert Greenblatt at his previous post at premium cable network Showtime, home to critically acclaimed series like “Weeds” and “Homeland.” Though “Smash” inevitably took on a different tone when Greenblatt moved the project to NBC, it was still poised to become an acclaimed network drama. And early on, critics had hope. It had flaws from the start, but reached legitimately cathartic moments. Episodes came together in songs that deftly captured the struggles of being young and confused and trying to make the dream work. But as the series continued, Rebeck ignored the most compelling aspects of the show, focusing instead on an array of storylines featuring Julia’s relationship with her son Leo, a pointlessly whiney, emotional teenager who is possibly the worst written character in television history, and Ellis, a scheming young assistant who ruins everyone’s lives just for the sake of being an annoying, evil human being. The great moments that “Smash” could achieve occurred with less and less frequency.
With the network’s attempts to abandon this legacy, a lot weighed on Safran’s new reboot this past February. In the first few episodes, he swiftly wrote off the problematic characters from season one (read: Leo, Ellis), and replaced them with a set of young, hip Brooklynites that over the course of the season come together to work on a second, edgier musical to compete with season one’s Marilyn Monroe biopic “Bombshell.” The new season is much cleaner and it has less (though not zero) random elements and characters with nonsensical motivations. But critics have remained unimpressed. In the best moments of season one, “Smash” could be an interesting and empathetic look into young artists’ lives, examining passion and disappointment through a fresh lense. The TV series of which critics and viewers dreamed, the one full of these moments, is still nowhere to be found in Safran’s re-envisioning.
But if evaluating a show means considering how close it comes to achieving its aims, I wonder if some of “Smash” 2.0’s flack would disappear if we divorced it from the goals of the show’s initial season. Old “Smash” aimed for a lot, and it got muddled in the process; new “Smash” aims for much less, and it comes closer to hitting its mark. The show is not meant to be an accurate window into the Broadway world; see, for example, the way the term “dramaturg” has been used this entire season to refer to people who doctor scripts. It’s definitely not an attempt to achieve any kind of subtle resonance.
What the second season of “Smash” basically aims to be is “Gossip Girl” plus songs. And I can appreciate that. “Gossip Girl” had Blair scheming to take enemies down, scandalous exposes shaking the Upper East Side, and love triangles (Blair, Dan, Chuck/Serena, Dan, Nate) coming to head amid people running around black-tie masquerade balls. “Smash” has rival musicals competing against each other, melodramatic casting switcharoos, love triangles reaching across generational lines, and Krysta Rodriguez singing fun songs in spunky outfits. Sometimes we want to watch television to change and challenge our perspectives. But other times we just want to get lost in fake people’s lives and listen to great singers belt high notes in the process.
If “Smash” wants to be the best version of this particular vision for the show (like, for example, the first season of “Gossip Girl,” its obvious peak), there are a few clear moves it can make. It should focus on sharpening its romantic elements, especially the relationship between Karen and Jimmy (played by newcomer Jeremy Jordan). Jeremy is the least compelling of Safran’s additions, huffing and puffing his way through each episode, demanding veteran treatment though he’s working on his first off-Broadway show. Karen’s feelings for him motivate multiple season two storylines, but his lack of appeal makes it difficult to understand what exactly she finds so magnetic. In “Gossip Girl,” the believable, slow burn of Blair and Dan’s will-they won’t-they relationship sustained viewers even through a season of 19-year old Chuck unearthing the mystery of his father’s death by trailing clues surrounding an underground high-class escort ring. A compelling relationship seems something within “Smash” 2.0’s reach and it could carry us through even the more ridiculous points of contention in its Broadway storylines, like new character Scott’s 15-year grudge against Julia for taking a career opportunity that any realistic human being would have taken in her place. But even if the show doesn’t manage to fix its romantic elements, it has one consistent thing going for it that “Gossip Girl” could never have: that Megan Hilty sure can sing.
—Columnist Lily F. Karlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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