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  • Seven Steps to Saving “Smash”

    March 30th, 2013

    By Danny Manus

    I realize I’m in the minority (vast minority according to Nielsen numbers), but I’m a big fan of Smash. Critically loved in its first 2 or 3 episodes, it’s been painful to watch what the network, the creators, and the producers have done to this once-promising show. If ever there was a case of a show that needed a total upheaval but deserved another chance, Smash is it.

    Why do I care? Well, besides being a total TV Whore and producer, I’m a born and raised New Yorker, brought up on musical theater. I sang in choir all through high school and even worked at the local performing arts theater (a theater that launched Hollywood and Broadway stars like Jamie-Lynn Sigler and Dan Domenech).  And I love seeing this world brought to the small screen.

    I also absolutely hate watching good (or potentially great) shows go down without a fight or without the right support, and it seems to be NBC’s M.O. to cut the cord without giving things a real shot (Prime Suspect, Boomtown, Studio 60, Southland, Awake, etc.).

    I was hooked to Smash before the first note was sung. The advertising, the wonderful cast, the promises made of an adult, less sappy version of Glee – I was in! It was exactly what should have worked on NBC at exactly the right time, especially premiering after The Voice.

    And when the pilot of Smash aired, and Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty belted out that big number “Let Me Be Your Star,” I was hooked. And so were millions of others. It was a hit!

    CUT TO: 8 weeks later…it was a flop. Now, I’ve read all the articles are reports of what went wrong. Everyone had a different vision for this show from Spielberg to Creator/Executive Producer/Psycho Bitch Theresa Rebeck to NBC Execs to the cast. No one was on the same page about anything – the tone, look, casting, music, storylines. It was a mess. It became a cheesy drinking-game inducing soap opera.

    But there are plenty of insanely cheesy shows on the air, especially on NBC, and they were doing OK. So it had to be something else. Yes, the character of Ellis was absolutely unwatchably bad as was the actor portraying him (who better hope a soap opera hires him or else he’ll never work again). The “actor” playing Messing’s son was painfully unable to act or emote and you could feel Debra Messing begging for her scenes with him to be over. And the show just didn’t GO anywhere past episode 6. It was stuck.

    And in its second season, despite a cast shakeup, it’s done even WORSE. Unfortunately, a third season is nearly impossible now. Though it hasn’t officially been cancelled, many in the cast (including Messing) have already signed on to other pilots.

    But IF—IF!—NBC was inclined to save one of its potentially more impressive and fun shows (which could make them tons of Glee-style money on the original music it produces), there are 7 things that would need to change to revamp the show and make it a hit.

    1.  The basic concept of the show needs to change. Instead of it being a behind the scenes look at a show as it tries to make it to Broadway, it needs to be about a behind the scenes look at a show that’s ON Broadway! The biggest issue with the series currently is that each episode is horrible repetitive and stale. How many times can ONE show (that isn’t Spiderman) come back from the dead and keep plugging away. It’s gone through 3 directors, 3 lead actresses, 2 lead actors, 2 producers, 2 writers, etc. There is nothing more you do to the show except PUT IT ON BROADWAY and see what happens!

    Plus, with it still in eternal rehearsals of the same 4 boring musical numbers, there’s nothing on the line. There are no stakes. No one has anything except sweat equity and passion invested in the project, except for Anjelica Huston’s ex-husband, whom we don’t care about. If it was playing ON Broadway and there was huge drama behind the scenes, there would always be the ticking clock until they had to go on every night and perform, and those performances would portray the drama going on off stage.  There is so much more drama, hi-jinx and fun to be had with a show that’s playing on Broadway rather than a show that just wants to.  The difference between Smash and Glee is that the characters on Smash are supposed to be professionals – so let them be!

    The alternative to putting ‘Bombshell’ on Broadway immediately? Kill Marilyn. Marilyn was a great set up to the show when it started, but she’s over now. She was over the second Michelle Williams didn’t win the Oscar for My Life With Marilyn. No one gives a shit about Marilyn Monroe except old queens. You’re supposed to be targeting a younger demographic, but they’d rather watch a musical about the life of Minaj than Monroe.

    2.  For the love of God, stop regurgitating the same four ‘Bombshell’ songs in every damn episode. I love “Let Me Be Your Star,” but if I ever hear it again, I’m going to bleed from my ears. Because it’s not just sung in every other episode, it’s also in every single commercial and advertisement – there’s nothing left to love about the song! You’ve killed it. Dead. And the other handful of Marilyn songs we’ve also heard 100 times. I like that producers have created a second show this season to play off of so we get some new music, but now we’re just going to hear those same 3 songs for each of the next 6 episodes. They need to use more popular music like Glee does if you want people to be able to sing along. And if they REALLY wanted to set themselves apart, do what they did in Les Miserables and let the talented actors who are used to singing live, actually sing LIVE! There’s nothing worse than bad lip synching, and Megan Hilty is the only one who seems to have mastered the task. Glee works because every week we get 5-6 new songs. If they kept singing that one damn Journey song every episode, no one would watch that either.

    3.  The Producers need to go watch Noises Off!  The show or the movie. Either one will do. And then they need to work much more comedy into the show. I’m not saying make this a sitcom, but Debra Messing and Christian Borle are fantastic comedy actors and their roles feel SO stifling to their talent. Messing has barely broken a smile since episode 4 and Borle ONLY looks happy when he’s given the chance to sing and dance. In case you forgot, Messing won an Emmy for Best COMEDIC Actress. Let the woman play to her strengths. Which brings up the next point – LET DEBRA MESSING AND CHRISTIAN BORLE SING! Messing has barely done ONE number since the pilot by herself and the woman can sing. Borle has only done a handful – and the man won a Tony! Debra Messing is the star of the show – give her something to sing. And if Anjelica can hold a note, give her a song too.

    4.   No more Stunt Casting unless it’s permanent. It’s wonderful to put names like Jennifer Hudson, Uma Thurman, Jesse L Martin, Sean Hayes, Bernadette Peters, Daniel Sunjata and Joe Jonas in your commercials, but the problem is – putting stars like that in the show make us wish they were the stars of the show. Not only that, but only Uma Thurman and Bernadette Peters had natural entrées and exits to the storylines. The rest were basically forgotten plotlines that went nowhere. Some had nice storylines within the episode (like Sunjata), but then disappeared for no reason other than the show clearly couldn’t pay their salaries for more episodes.

    NBC put Jennifer Hudson on every poster, in every commercial, and featured her song and voice in every Season 2 promo there was. But she had no place in the story or series. She was just there, she sang her songs, and then she was gone. Her character in no way affected any of the others.  And the problem was, she was better than everyone else. I love Hilty with a passion, and McPhee is incredibly talented and sexy, but no one sings like Jennifer Hudson. So either you have stars that outshine your cast coming in for no reason, or you have stars come in that the audience is waiting to hear sing but they never do, like Jesse L. Martin and Joe Jonas. Trust the talents of your cast, or recast.

    5.   Speaking of which, Jeremy Jordan needs to go. Look, I like Jeremy Jordan a lot. In fact, he went to my alma mater Ithaca College and he is a SUPREME singing and dancing talent. He is a Broadway star if I’ve ever heard one and I could listen to him sing all day long and be very happy. But he’s painful to watch on TV. And I’m not sure if it’s because he’s just not ready for the small screen yet (Lea Michele is still figuring out how not to play to the balcony after 4 seasons of Glee), or if it’s because the character the writers have created is so flawed in the worst and most obvious of ways, that it’s incredibly hard to care or connect to him. Not only don’t we want Karen to fall for him, but we don’t even understand how she could. Despite his talent and brief glimmers of feelings, he’s an asshole that bites the hand that feeds him every time it’s offered. And for viewers who watch the show because they dream of being on Broadway, they can’t connect with a character that is being given the shot and decides to piss it away every week. If he doesn’t want it badly enough, then we won’t want it for him. He needs to learn the lesson I teach all my screenwriting students – this ain’t an artist colony, it’s the entertainment business.

    6.   The writers need to create empowered and strong female characters instead of the whiny, overpowered, overwhelmed, lovelorn, confused, slutty, low self-esteemed diva wannabes that currently inhabit the show. I think it’s pretty clear that the original series creator Theresa Rebeck created insecure characters she could relate to. Problem is, everyone hated her – and now they hate her characters. This is a show geared towards women and gay men – yet the female characters are some of the weakest on TV. Messing’s character is an adulterer-turned-basket case who has no direction, no confidence and no self-worth unless her husband, her male writing partner, her male director, or the male script doctor brought in to save her, tells her she’s good.  Anjelica Huston’s character is supposed to be this powerful producer type, but she’s really an emotional former gold-digger who can’t make a decision unless she gets the head nod from her ex-husband, whom she hates yet constantly relies on. And her romance with the mobster bartender was so implausible, it was laughable. Is she high society or just high maintenance? McPhee’s Karen was supposed to be the star-struck ingénue we root for but suddenly, after going through some rehearsals and a quick Boston run in Bombshell, is now the toast of the town and a celebrity who can get a new show going just by snapping her fingers. Plus, she finally gets out of her bad relationship with a cheater, and she jumps into bed with not only her Director (after being so strong to resist him in the first season) but also her new co-star, a drug addict with an anger problem and a chip on his shoulder. If ALL the women in the show have horrible taste in men, they won’t be characters women can look up to.

    7.   Bring back the competition aspect and make this show more like A Chorus Line. The show worked best when Megan Hilty and Katharine McPhee’s characters were battling each other, and now they are barely in one scene together per episode. Make us FEEL something as our characters FIGHT for something. Right now, the fight is over. They’re just waiting for things to happen, and that is boring for the audience. Hilty’s back as Marilyn, McPhee’s banging every guy connected to her new show, Huston’s got the show back from her ex-husband, Borle is directing Bombshell and Messing is….there too. But none of them have anything to fight for anymore. Give them something new to fight for and keep the competition aspect going.

    TV shows with truly new concepts that stand out amongst the crowd don’t come around too often, and they certainly don’t come around on NBC too much. This show had everything going for it, but bad producing and lazy writing has destroyed what could have been a solid 4-5 season run. It may be too late now, but if the NBC execs and show producers could wake up, acknowledge they screwed up, and follow the aforementioned steps, they might have one more chance to make Smash live up to its name.

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