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Salon.com
MAY 15, 2012 8:40AM

Imitation of Art: Why NBC's Smash Was a Classy Bore

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Being married to someone who not only worked in theater when she lived in New York but also has forgotten more about musicals than I'll ever know, watching the show Smash was as inevitable as its pre-debut commercials were unpromising. The key warning sign was seeing how many times the ads showed someone declaring that one of the female leads was a star. If you're putting that much effort into telling people something, it's a safe bet you haven't done a good job showing it. I regret not placing any such bets, because it would have provided at least something worthwhile related to the show, whose season finale aired last night.

There’s no question Smash is a classy production. They’ve got highly talented people on both sides of the camera, ranging from the team that wrote the (very good) score for Hairspray to Coupling star Jack Davenport with experienced Broadway performers like Megan Hilty and guest star Bernadette Peters also in the mix. Unfortunately, their talents are wasted in a show that’s neither dramatically engaging nor outlandish enough to be campy fun.

It’s a tight race to say which performer most exemplifies what’s wrong with the show, but Davenport as the libido-driven dictatorial-yet-visionary director narrowly edges out Anjelica Huston as the producer. A defining moment could be found in last night’s finale during a confrontation between the director and producer, when Davenport declared his character to be an artist and a storyteller while refusing to follow Huston’s directive. In a world where even acclaimed directors with track records are fired (e.g. Lion King director Julie Taymor’s departure from the Spider-Man musical), this scene defied any presumption of plausibility, while the deadly serious delivery robbed it of any entertainment value.  

I’ve declined to mention character names, not just because I’ve forgotten them but also because no one is really playing a character so much as a character sketch. Actually, it’s worse than that, because a character sketch could still be engaging if played with verve. For whatever reason, though, the writers have either by inability or design placed all of them in a limbo world of being too clichéd to be genuinely believable but not sufficiently out there to be entertaining.

That feeling permeates nearly every aspect of the show. There isn’t dialogue so much as pronouncements about theater and art and what great things people might achieve either for themselves or with others. Meanwhile, every melodramatic complication is a mockery of true dramatic conflict, driven not by characters but by a production team’s desire to push actors who are capable of much better around on a chess board because that’s what they think their audience expects.

Here again, Davenport as the director typifies the approach. It isn’t just that he’s presented as a writer’s idea of what a tyrannical director is like. He’s written to be the writer’s idea of what they think audiences expect this kind of character type to be like. Had those writers been willing to commit to making Smash a lighthearted romp set in a fantasy-land version of Broadway, broadly sketched character types would be not just forgivable but even preferable. Instead, they committed the deadly sin of wanting to make both art and entertainment, failing to realize that succeeding at both requires you to invest yourself in one and let the other take care of itself.

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Excellent review. Though I am a singer and theater lover, I never bothered with "Smash" because I had a feeling it might be just as you described. I find that shows from the major networks often suffer from this sponsor driven drivel. One must go to FX, AMC, PBS, and of course HBO/ Showtime to find any real originality.