NBC’s ‘Smash’: Weak Writing, Terrible Characters, and Painful Subplots

While the pilot was a hit with critics, few have been happy with NBC’s Smash since. How could things have gone so wrong, so quickly? A Jace Lacob rant.

Patrick Harbron / NBC

What has happened to Smash?

Despite a pilot episode that was praised by critics, Smash went from must-see TV to stumbling, face first, into the orchestra pit in a matter of weeks. While the show will be back next season after a renewal last week, the show’s creator, Theresa Rebeck, won’t be returning.

That has to be a boon, given how uneven Smash has been. For every well-done and lavish musical number, there have been countless appalling elements each week.

One of the concerns about Smash going in was that it would be too insular: that its depiction of the rush to stage the Broadway launch of Marilyn: The Musical would prove to be too inside for a mass audience. But, in an effort to downplay the specificity of its world, Smash has instead spent the majority of each week’s episode focusing on the home lives of the characters and on the often tedious battle between the two would-be Monroes, jaded Ivy (Megan Hilty) and sunny ingénue Karen (Katharine McPhee).

Even in that retreat, Smash has proven itself to be weak-willed, attempting to cram earnest drama and over-the-top soap operatics into 40 minutes. When unstable Ivy began to suffer prednisone-derived hallucinations and fantasy musical numbers kept cropping up in the midst of rehearsals (not to mention that ghastly Karen-does-karaoke number in Iowa), well, that’s when the ability to suspend disbelief in Smash began to falter considerably.

Its very absurdity springs from the one-dimensionality of the characters and its inability to get the power players of Marilyn: The Musical to participate in anything remotely resembling an interesting plot. Instead, we’re forced to suffer through an extramarital affair involving perpetually sour Julia (Debra Messing) and her former flame, Michael Swift (Will Chase), an inert adoption storyline, and a subplot involving Karen’s three-figure credit-card debt, while Anjelica Huston’s Eileen slums it with criminally awful assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero), sipping “$7 martinis” and playing Big Buck Hunter at a dive bar called The Bushwack. (Big-shot producer Eileen, sadly, seems to spend the majority of her time name-dropping Broadway royalty, i.e., the Nederlanders, every episode, but seems to have no friends other than Ellis and the random guy he’s been hanging out with.)

Ellis is one of the most grating elements of Smash, an intentionally oily character that Rebeck clearly intended audiences to love to hate. But hating Ellis is not fun. He’s forever lurking on the periphery, eavesdropping like a scheming social climber in a melodrama or some sexless Victorian spinster. Whereas Downton Abbey’s yarn-haired lady’s maid Miss O’Brien (Siobhan Finneran) more or less fulfills the same role, her machinations are insidious and amusing to watch; she’s so damaged and lonely that she’s creating hell just to have something to do. Ellis, on the other hand, remains dull, the sort of television character that you hope gets crushed to death under a heavy stage light, freeing up the show from spending so much time fixating on him. Seriously, the level with which one can take Smash seriously fades precipitously when you imagine that this no-name kid could threaten to take down some Broadway power players. How he even keeps his job, regardless of whom he’s reporting to these days, is beyond understanding.

Ellis isn’t the only thing dragging down this show, which typically results more in eye-rolling and mocking laughter than serious viewing. Julia’s teenage son, Leo (Emory Cohen), drags down the plot every time he appears on screen. It’s one thing to give Julia a home life as she struggles for balance, but it’s another to give her a cypher for a husband (Brian d’Arcy James) and a son who is painted alternately as a rebellious youth (nearly getting arrested after smoking pot in the park; smoking up at home) and a 3-year-old who is sobbing when he learns his parents won’t be adopting a little Chinese girl as a sister for him. Likewise, Leo’s emotional breakdown at the end of last week’s episode—after catching his mother and her illicit boyfriend making out right in front of the house and then being told it was over between them—seemed to come out of nowhere, wasn’t earned within the story, and threatened to emasculate this character even further. Not helping matters is Cohen’s line delivery: he overemphasizes every word while speaking in a monotone. It’s even more disconcerting to see such terrible acting on an expensive, pored-over show like Smash, which counts Steven Spielberg as an executive producer.

Leo’s shortcomings are emblematic of subplots that viewers just don’t care about. Why is Smash spending so much time on the tedious goings-on at work of City Hall press secretary Dev (Raza Jaffrey), Karen’s on-the-fringes-of-the-story boyfriend? But forget about the tertiary side characters, the main players are also saddled with catastrophically absurd stories as well. Take Karen’s recent gig on Long Island, for example. Despite being late, wearing way too short of a dress, and not speaking a lick of Hebrew, Karen manages to dazzle the 13-year-olds with a cover of Florence + The Machine’s “Shake It Out” and walk off with a recording-producer contact. Where was any semblance of consequence or obstacle? If Smash is going to strand us at a Long Island bar mitzvah, there had better be a point other than introducing a deus ex machina means for building Karen’s confidence and potentially getting her out of the ensemble. Likewise, saddling Eileen with a subplot involving a foreign plumber, a nameless bartender, and a broken boiler was an even bigger crime.

When faced with these egregious moments on the show, it’s hard to imagine just what Rebeck was thinking or how she plotted out the season. The quest to mount Marilyn: The Musical seems paradoxically both rushed and sluggish. Perhaps because it could be perceived as being too insular, viewers are denied the ability to see the creative process (embodied by writing duo Julia and Christian Borle’s Tom) unfold and are instead forced to jump through increasingly awkward hoops to see the personal lives of those involved crumble as they’re forced to “sacrifice” for their “art.” Tom’s allegedly motivational pep talk to Ivy—“You were born to do this, you have ice water in your veins!”—while a backhanded compliment, perhaps, sums up my own feelings: there’s no real heat here.

Inexplicably, Smash has found an audience: after a big drop from its heavily marketed premiere, it has settled down, and is averaging 7.7 million viewers per week, a huge number for NBC. Are we all hate-watching, though? Because ultimately, Smash is a Broadway show that hasn’t lived up to its pre-opening hype. Unless Rebeck’s replacement can turn it around creatively in the second season, we’ll be demanding a refund.