The time has come to answer the question we’ve all been waiting to answer with bated breath; is Smash really any better? After all the dropped characters and the fired show runners has this critically acclaimed turned publically ridiculed show turned itself around? To quote another musical, the answer is yes…and no.
The exclusion of Dev, Michael, Ellis, Frank, and most thankfully Leo made a noticeable shift towards validity. And the tongue in cheek references to the show’s past criticism (like Tom telling Julia to lose the scarves) showed that Smash has listened to its detractors and is making real attempts to placate them. As always, the musical numbers were excellent (except the weird Derek delusion that made absolutely no sense) and the new original songs were wonderful (although at the rate they add songs to the show I have to assume it’s a five hours long at this point).
But, much like Bombshell, the problems never really lay with the musical numbers, but with the story. The plots of last season wandered far too often into campy territory without ever actually committing to campy enough to seem like they were in on the joke. Much of those flaws still abound in this reboot. In this two hour premiere we were tortured with yet another obstacle in getting Bombshell to Broadway, this time in the form of a federal investigation into the funding of the musical. And once again the obstacle was overcome by the credits. If Smash is actually interested in being taken seriously as a drama (and by all accounts they do) they need to employ less comedic tropes, such as setting up a problem and then solving it by the end of the episode. There is no sense of urgency (or drama) if it becomes understood than every problem has an easy solution.
Side Note: While I enjoyed the little nod to Debra Messing’s past with the joke about her and Tom living together being like a sitcom, I did not enjoy how they completely stole a storyline from Will & Grace. Julia’s method of taking to bed to deal with emotional turmoil was an exact replica of Grace hiding away after her breakup with Nathan. And in both shows it boiled down to the same sentiment; everyone deals with upheaval in different ways and you can’t rush someone into facing life again. I’m all for paying homage to classics (and yes, I consider Will & Grace a classic), but this was distractingly derivative.
Plot issues aside, the biggest problem of Smash can’t be swept away and forgotten because unfortunately, they’ve built the show around it. Katherine McPhee, while a wonderful singer, is not at actress and no matter how much they may have worked with her in the hiatus (I’m guessing a lot), she remains woefully unsuited for scripted television. What makes this fact all the more glaringly obvious is that the only discernable characteristic (besides being really, really nice and embarrassingly naive) they’ve decided to give Karen is an ability to incite fevered emotions in others. When the actress can’t even muster up an emotion for her own line delivery it’s hard to believe that she’d inspire anyone to stage an entire Broadway musical.
But, as I said, it wasn’t all bad news and the Smash team is clearly committed to righting its past mistakes. The plot that gave me the most hope was the introduction of a rival musical. Another major issue with the first season was the reality of a show like Bombshell being on Broadway in this current theatrical climate. Having the unique experience of watching Smash directly after seeing Book of Mormon (which was amazing and I cannot recommend strongly enough), a musical we can all agree is one of the most successful in recent history, and it made the unlikely aspects of Bombshell all the more noticeable. Book of Mormon uses classic musical tropes, but in a satirical way, whereas Bombshell feels like a throwback that doesn’t have the self-awareness to use that fact for a laugh (although “National Pastime” is pretty hilarious, though probably not intentionally).
So, if you’re not going for laughs, a musical in this era needs to feel a little grittier to feel authentic; more along the line of Spring Awakening (or Rent as Karen compared the cocktail napkin scrawled musical destined to be a hit, because even people in Iowa have heard of Rent). It’s still a little hard to buy that a few notes of a song are enough to convince everyone that the show (whose actual plot is a complete mystery) is a surefire hit. But, the idea of pitting Bombshell against the type of musical it would feasibly have to face is an obstacle that seems realistic and (hopefully) one without an easy solution.
Of course, even with all these changes (and lack thereof) it’s not a guarantee Smash will succeed. The inflated numbers that bought Smash a second season were a result of a strong lead in (The Voice) and a growing number of people tuning in to make fun of the floundering series. The type of people who would devote an hour of their life each week on something they don’t enjoy just to mock it are not the type of people who change their mind easily and are not a demographic likely to be won over. Smash has the hard decision to appeal to the people already watching the show and embrace it’s campiness with all the enthusiasm of a 90s star in Lifetime movie or it can attempt to attract more serious viewers by itself becoming more serious. Right now its straddling that line pretty firmly, but the time will come when a side is chosen and only then will we really be able to answer if it is indeed any better.