Why ‘Smash’ Doesn’t Work—And What NBC Needs to Learn From It

I very much wanted to like Smash, NBC’s show about the making of a Broadway musical, and not just because I’m eager for the generally well-intentioned network to be repaid for Parks and Recreation and Community with some huge commercial successes. I’m interested in people’s artistic processes, and I adore Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, who star as the show’s book writer and producer, respectively. But the show isn’t drawing the kind of numbers NBC would have hoped for, particularly for a show they would have loved to monetize the way Fox has turned Glee into a cash cow, with iTunes sales and a spin-off live show. And it’s not really working creatively, either.

Perhaps the central problem of Smash is that it’s predicated on a rivalry that the show is contorting itself to make plausible. There’s no question that Ivy (Megan Hilty) deserves the lead in the Marilyn musical under development over Karen (Katherine McPhee): she’s a more polished Broadway singer, a more accomplished dancer, she has much more experience on the stage, she’s a physical match for Marilyn, and she’s a more dedicated professional. So how does Smash make it seem like an emotionally engaged contest? By making Ivy a shallow bitch. While we get Karen’s home life with her devoted boyfriend and trips home to her friends and supportive family in Iowa, Ivy gets a single phone call home, where it’s clear that things aren’t all right, but we never get any details. Even though she’s clearly more qualified, we’re told Ivy only really gets the part because she slept with Derek, the director, a convenient drama-driving plot device that also happens to reduce a talented performer. Now that we’re in rehearsals, we see Ivy pushing Karen (now a member of the chorus) to the side, even though she’s not exactly doing her job. It’s contrived and irritating.

Then, there’s the show-within-a-show itself. The characters talk endlessly about Marilyn Monroe without revealing anything particularly interesting about her character. The numbers themselves are charming, but ultimately light—maybe it’s just me, but I’m not particularly moved by a faux Marilyn cooing about manipulating men with her sex appeal. The show tells us, rather than shows us, that these artists are having profound experiences with the material—though it does a nice job of showing us how sexy artists can be to non-artists when they’re in their zones.

And I wonder if that combination of material and setting is what’s preventing Smash from becoming the grown-up version of Glee—and would prevent it from being that show even if everything else was clicking. Glee is a hot mess these days, but it can be genuinely daring and moving when it takes on the subject of gay teenagers. But it does so in a setting where everything else is familiar: this is a small town populated with relatively familiar archetypes, the students attend an essentially typical high school, and they’re singing songs almost everyone in the viewing audience has heard before. The gay characters are a minority in a largely straight world. It’s a show that is sometimes about tolerance, and asking to do that from a very safe space for straight, middle-American viewers.

Smash, on the other hand, is asking viewers to come into a world where women and straight men are dominant, framed by music that’s original rather than familiar. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that, per se—shows shouldn’t have to star straight dudes to be successful. But I do think that it might be a sign of NBC’s unwillingness or inability to accept that it’s going to have to make some genuinely popular entertainment to score a smash hit. What makes Glee easy to consume isn’t just the renditions of popular hits—it’s the setting. It’s not actually a natural sege from the cover extravaganza that is The Voice and its quartet of judges who represent the full spectrum of the music business to a show about the making of a Broadway musical.

NBC needs to recognize the difference between the two and decide what kind of entertainment it wants to make. If it’s going to make quirky shows or shows that imply that rivals like Glee aren’t grown-up enough, NBC may be consigning itself to a smaller but wealthier group of viewers who are desirable to advertisers. But if it’s going to make big, mass entertainment that it endeavors to make somewhat smarter than its competitors offerings, it needs to do so without giving the impression that it resents having to do it.