For the past couple months, "Smash" (Mondays at 10 p.m. ET on NBC) has been the source of something pretty enjoyable.
I don't mean to imply that the show itself has been good. Actually, the fact that, after a quartet of good or pretty good episodes, it quickly became brain-meltingly awful has led to the birth of a brand-new form of entertainment: The group hate-watch.
When it comes to group hate-watching, "Smash" is the gift that keeps on giving. You couldn't really ask for better cannon fodder, because in order to get a quality snark going, you have to have cared at some point (my initial "Smash" review was glowing), but you've also got to be tremendously disappointed or annoyed by whatever a show is doing (and what possessor of eyeballs isn't, at this point?).
But the group hate-watch allows former fans to glean at least a little something from the wreckage. Gabbing about "Smash's" flaws on social media with your fellow disappointees allows viewers to create their own personal "Mystery Science Theater 3000," but with ham-fisted Broadway intrigue replacing killer robots gone amok. Don't get me wrong, I'd much rather love the show, but at least this way, it's possible to share the communal letdown with other witty people who feel just as hacked off by the show's spectacular failure to live up to its potential.
The great thing is, live viewing of the show isn't even a prerequisite for group hate-watching. In the middle of one day last week, I live-tweeted my reactions to the episodes I was catching up with, and the "Hell, yes" reactions kept on rolling in. Not only did I receive hilarious confirmations that I was far from alone in thinking "Smash" had cataclysmically screwed almost everything up, but by the end of the Twitter session, a new version of the show had taken shape. More than one follower suggested that "Smash" become "SMASH," a musical about a large green fellow with rage issues. That show I would watch with a song in my heart. (Especially if Joss Whedon wrote it. A girl can dream!)
Sadly, we didn't get to watch "SMASH" (and probably won't in Season 2 either). What we got for much of the NBC show's first year was a program so broad, illogical and inept that I wondered on Twitter if "Smash" was being written by kindergarteners with access to a compendium of script cliches. In the interest of saving time, I'll list only my top five complaints about "Smash" (of course, the show's mistakes are not limited to the following):
- It kept introducing characters who were either boring or irritating, it failed to service or deepen those one-dimensional people in any way, and it ended up making me hate most of the individuals on the screen. The scene in which Karen's boring boyfriend proposed and she responded with "I'm in tech!" has already entered TV legend, but I get the sense that "Smash" wanted to give us intentionally campy pleasures, not unintentionally hilarious attempts at character moments.
- I would rather be hit in the face with a brick, repeatedly, than ever see any member of Julia's family again, especially her jaw-droppingly awful son, who is so spectacularly wretched (and given such wretched material) that he inspired a comical Twitter feed. (It will be duly noted here that the talented Broadway veteran Brian d'Arcy James is completely wasted in the thankless role of Julia's husband.)
- Ellis. This show promised to bring us delish backstage shenanigans and insider showbiz gossip. Instead, it brought us this irritating jackass, whom everyone in creation just wanted to go away from Day 1. NBC could have reversed its financial decline by selling off the chance to write Ellis out of the show.
- Nothing made much sense, logically, tonally or emotionally. Ivy took so many pills in one episode that she fell down on stage, then she drank some booze, but she was able to, minutes later, perform a perfect duet with her sudden BFF (WTF?) Karen in the middle of Times Square. What? The sudden turnabouts and inexplicable developments kept on coming, as did tonal shifts that were migraine-inducing. "Smash" could never decide if it wanted to be a catty melodrama, a realistic Broadway coming-of-age story or a splashy show tunes vehicle. And even as the last of those, God (or preferably Sondheim) save us. Did I really hear that clanky number about method acting? Or was that a nightmare I had?
- But "Smash's" biggest, most cataclysmic mistake had to do with the two leads: The show was built on a rivalry between Karen (Katharine McPhee) and Ivy (Megan Hilty) that was never really a rivalry. It certainly wasn't a convincing one after the first few episodes.
Emily Nussbaum was perfectly on target when she called the lackluster McPhee a "human humblebrag." Sure, she can sing, but so many people around this charisma vacuum seem to think that she is some kind of unicorn-angel hybrid that the audience was bound to be mystified and ultimately insulted by the constant Karen worship. As Nussbaum noted, McPhee "was given a one-note character, then took it down a half-note."
The fact that the allegedly respected professionals making "Bombshell" don't acknowledge that Ivy is so much more suited to the lead role makes them look like morons. Adding insult to injury is the show's continual efforts to demonize Ivy, who, despite all the attempts to turn her into the villain, has emerged as one of the show's few engaging characters. She's the battle-hardened but still-hopeful Broadway striver we want to root for, not the non-entity from Iowa.
Despite all that, "Smash" still had a shot with me -- at least, that's what I realized while watching the May 7 "Previews" episode, which was streamlined, coherent and well-paced. It reminded me that I still don't dislike Derek (Jack Davenport, who's been great despite patchy material) or Tom (Christian Borle, ditto). It gave a lovely number to Anjelica Huston -- a song that gently underlined several of the hour's storylines -- and there were even some believable stakes and a few moderately credible character scenes. And it reminded me that when the show isn't saddling Julia (Debra Messing) with that disastrous infidelity storyline and puts Tom and Julia to work, they're actually kind of fun.
Finally, I thought, they're getting it right. At last, "Smash's" team is acknowledging the problems that have long plagued this drama and they're moving to correct them.
And then I watched the "Smash" season finale, and I won't spoil it for you, but it was about as tone-deaf an hour as I've seen this year. Not only did the show return to making several of its most notable mistakes, it doubled down on some of its worst choices. The hour is proof that those making "Smash" haven't been listening to or watching their own show, not with the critical distance true professionals needs to have. It's highly ironic that a drama about the process of learning from mistakes is so arrogantly committed to laughably indefensible choices.
NBC gives this show a 13-episode tryout and those making it fix absolutely nothing?
The end result is a show in which the people behind the scenes and the people on the screen keep making the same misguided choices; it's a Moebius strip of arrogance and idiocy. To top it all off, the superficial final song of the season sounds like it was written after the songwriters looked at the Wikipedia entry of a famous person for about three minutes, if that.
When will I finally learn to stop being disappointed by "Smash"? There's a new showrunner taking over, but short of ditching almost everyone and starting over with a mostly new cast and a brand-new show, I don't see the point; it won't even be worth hate-watching if the show isn't radically revised.
Unless gigantic changes are in the works, bring down the curtain and move on.
Follow Maureen Ryan on Twitter: www.twitter.com/moryan