05/16/2012 05:14 pm ET Updated Jul 16, 2012

Art Imitating Life Imitating Nothing

I really really REALLY wanted to like Smash.

How could I not? My creative start was as a theatrical lighting designer, so anything that suggests "backstage" makes me as goofy as a 4-year-old with a brand new Tickle Me Elmo. I even giggle sometimes. It's pretty embarrassing.

So let me say it again, just so we're clear. I honest to God wanted to like Smash. But an entire season of overwrought & implausible episodes later, I watched helplessly as my beloved Elmo turned into Chucky. And then set the place on fire.

There's been enough hate-watching bile spewed about how Smash failed to live up to it's towering expectations (Spielberg! McPhee! Messing! Broadway! Shiny Pretty People singing and dancing!), so I won't pile on. I'll just say that I'm hugely disappointed.

Ok, That's an outright lie. I'm fucking pissed off.

On Monday nights when I stopped screaming at the television ("Seriously? SERIOUSLY!?!") I'd vent on Facebook with my former MFA classmates. All of us hated the show. But we couldn't stop watching it. Maybe theater people are idealists to the bitter end.

Or maybe it's because the show started out with such potential. It even danced around the edges of deeper themes with a few quasi-self-referential nods to the conflict between art and commerce. The musical numbers were good. The characters hinted at depth and teased a glimpse of chemistry with the promise of back-story. And the acting was even decent (that is, until everyone started sleeping with each other and singing Karaoke).

But the opportunity to engage a mainstream audience in something more profound than reality TV is what made me hopeful for Smash in the first place. It was exciting to think that a network show might actually encourage the TheaterCurious to cast off mass-produced and manufactured celluloid drama in favor of watching a carefully crafted labor of love come to life on "stage". Color me naïve. That was never going to happen.

Instead, theater as an art form got roundly bitchslapped. Rather than pull back the curtain to reveal the magic of creation, Smash's "play within a play" conceit transformed a creative process into nothing more than a string of "Watch What Happens" bumpers. I'd bet my MFA that the "Broadway show" plot was always meant to play the dumb trophy wife to some network executive's bullshit notion of The Theater. And why? Because focus group data suggested that people who watch TV are stupid, lazy, and art-less. But we all know better.

To make matters worse, audiences suffered constant whiplash as NBC alternately denigrated, romanticized or threw Art (with a capital A) under the short bus of Nielsen ratings.

In the season one finale alone, we hear this in one scene:

Shallow Director (in 'pissed off' mode): I don't do collaboration! I'm an artist! A Storyteller!

... This in the next:

Stereotyped emo songwriter: Tell me why we do this again?

Stereotyped wise-beyond-his-paygrade-performer: Oh you know. Art.

SES: Art, what? Art is a sick compulsion. Art is an ego gone haywire. Art is...

SWBHPP: Art is beautiful. It brings you joy to write a song. It brings us joy to sing it. Brings an audience joy to hear it. Now get back to work.

And then finally this:

Shallow Director (in 'nice' mode): Art isn't therapy. We're not here to work out our personal problems. We're here to take those problems and completely exploit them, to hell with how much we hurt. Actually, the more we hurt, the better.

No wonder people don't "get" theater.

Let me attempt what NBC failed miserably at this season: being honest. Smash turned the noble pursuit of creative truth into a self-fulfilling prophecy with a weak-ass punch line. As long as networks delight in turning art into soap opera under the banner of entertainment, the almighty dollar will win every single time. Why? Because they don't want you to think there's any alternative.

Let's prove them all wrong.

[Fade to black]