Exit Stage Left

‘Smash’ Ends Its Run: What Happened to This Once Promising Show?

‘Smash’ ends its run on the Sunday night. Jason Lynch on what went wrong with this once promising show.

In February Smash kicked off its second-season premiere with a bold, infectious new anthem called “Broadway, Here I Come!” At the time, the song—the centerpiece of what would become the show’s second fictional musical, Hit List—seemed a confident declaration of the heavily retooled NBC drama’s having righted itself after an increasingly preposterous debut season, confidently welcoming disillusioned viewers back into the fold.

It turns out that the song was actually a warning: take cover, Broadway, because this is going to get ugly.

Smash, on life support for much of the season after viewers rejected all its new organs, finally draws its last breath Sunday. NBC is dumping the two-hour season finale—now officially a series finale—over Memorial Day weekend, one final indignity to a show that appeared to be overstuffed with promise and talent and managed to squander away almost all of it. Twice.

Last year Smash was the beacon of NBC and newly installed entertainment chairman Bob Greenblatt’s brave, ambitious new vision for the struggling network. The show’s intoxicating pilot—which revolved around the creation of a new Broadway-bound musical about the life of Marilyn Monroe, and the two women vying for the lead role: jaded veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) and naive newbie Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee)—sizzled with vitality, culminating in Hilty and McPhee’s powerhouse duet “Let Me Be Your Star.” NBC slotted it behind The Voice, its top-rated show, and launched it the day after it aired the Super Bowl. Seemingly nothing could stop it.

Except for Smash itself. As the season progressed, and its multitude of producers battled behind the scenes, the Broadway drama became bogged down by deadweight supporting caricatures like cartoonish villain Ellis, Karen’s wet-blanket boyfriend Dev, and writer Julia’s (Debra Messing) one-note son Leo. But Smash’s biggest problem was the platinum-blonde elephant in the room: it was clear from the pilot that Ivy, played by the uber-charismatic Hilty, existed in her own stratosphere and was clearly the only choice for Marilyn, but the show stubbornly insisted that McPhee’s Karen was the show’s real dynamo.

As viewers fled that season (many of those that stayed, like me, began “hate watching,” our only defense against dialogue like, “It’s this kind of crap that made me want to flee to Micronesia!”), creator and Season 1 showrunner Theresa Rebeck was sent packing, and former Gossip Girl showrunner Joshua Safran was hired to perform triage. At first Safran’s moves seemed to be just what the script doctor ordered: Ellis, Dev, and Leo were all jettisoned.

It should have been addition by subtraction. Instead, it was just subtraction.

Rebeck’s vision for the show may have been flawed, but it also exhibited a willingness to take risks that has largely been absent from broadcast television. By reining in the show’s most outlandish impulses (like Season 1’s Bollywood and bowling-lane musical sequences), Safran also ensured viewers would never again see anything approaching the dizzying heights of Season 1’s “Let’s Be Bad,” which captured Broadway numbers at their most spectacular. Instead Safran shifted the spotlight to guest stars like Jennifer Hudson and Sean Hayes, who dropped in, snacked on some scenery, belted out a few numbers, and then abruptly exited stage left.

Also lost in the shuffle: Bombshell itself. The Marilyn musical, the very heart of Season 1, became largely an afterthought in the second season, as many of the characters moved on to other projects. Chiefly, Hit List, a musical about ... well, what exactly? Safran has subsequently revealed the synopsis, but judging solely by what was glimpsed on Smash, this gritty, allegedly groundbreaking downtown musical, which eventually landed on Broadway alongside Bombshell, featured little more than two hours of star-crossed lovers singing ballads while dancers writhed on stage between them. When Karen decided to leave Bombshell for Hit List—on what planet would an ingenue give up the chance to be Broadway’s biggest sensation for a starring role in a tiny production?—her decision is met with a collective shrug from Bombshell’s creative team, even though the show’s entire first season was devoted to the bitter fight to get her in the role.

And while Hit List was a more appropriate use of McPhee’s talent, the character of Karen remained a cipher: squeaky clean and perpetually optimistic with seemingly little background or motivation. But at least McPhee had something to do. Angelica Huston, whose primary raison d'être last season was to splash drinks in people’s faces as Bombshell’s producer, was reduced to skulking around on the sidelines and planning Bombshell’s ad campaign. (They did better by Christian Borle, as Bombshell’s songwriter turned director, who was smartly given more musical numbers, and Debra Messing, whose embarrassing affair storyline in Season 1 was upgraded to more grounded material as Julia struggled with several career crises.)

As the Karen-versus-Ivy battle fizzled out with Karen’s Bombshell departure, we were left without a vested interest in any other plotline or role. Certainly not in Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan), the songwriter and star of Hit List as well as Karen’s new love interest, and, oh yes, the most whiny, ungrateful new character on TV this year. I spent much of this season hoping he would be hit by a car, a fate that instead befell his writing partner, Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus). Kyle’s sudden death drove home the parallels between Hit List and the Broadway phenomenon Rent (whose creator, Jonathan Larson, died suddenly of Marfan syndrome just as his show was opening off-Broadway). It also lead to the show’s most embarrassing episode, in which Kyle was deified as the greatest writing talent since Shakespeare, even though just a few weeks earlier, his Hit List dialogue had been recognized as so atrocious that it was scrapped entirely from the show.

Kyle, and Mientus, got off easy. Everyone else was stuck playing out the string as Smash, at this point banished to the TV wasteland known as Saturday night (where some nights the show drew as few as 1.8 million viewers), staggered toward its inevitable demise. At least last season’s hate watching had come from a place of intense emotion: how could a show that started so powerfully lose its way so quickly? What happened this year was far worse: I stopped caring about everything and almost everyone. Instead of hate watching, it was, why am I still watching?

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For much of Smash’s run, the answer to that question was Hilty. Put her in front of a microphone, and transcendent magic was still possible. But the dream that Hilty could somehow rescue the show solely on her charm and talent died around the time that she began filming Ford Focus commercials, in character, on the show.

On Sunday, Smash—which once carried the promise of an entire network on its back (NBC had subsequently christened Go On its new signature series, but then canceled that show as well. Your move, The Michael J. Fox Show!)—limps to its final curtain call, with an episode set at the Tony Awards. It will pit Hit List versus Bombshell, and for one last time, Ivy versus Karen. But there are no winners here. Only a sad reminder of the glorious moment when Smash asked us to let it be our star, before it subsequently faded away.