A few weeks ago, I asked if NBC’s new-and-improved, Theresa Rebeck-free Smash had a chance at becoming a hit. Despite its general crumminess, the show’s first season was a modest success, and at the sick man of broadcast television—a big four network that is currently ranked #5, behind Univision—modest success was nothing to sneeze at. In theory, losing the show’s crackpot showrunner couldn’t hurt. People watched the show when it was awful. If it got better, maybe they would get their friends to tune in.
Not so fast, NBC! In February, I summed up season one of Smash thuswise:
Much of it was bland, nutrition-free network television. Some of it—the Ellis storylines; the unending focus on Rebeck’s charisma-free son, whom I nicknamed Carpet—was truly the worst stuff I had ever seen on television. And then, once an episode, usually when Jack Davenport or Christian Borle or any of the rest of the show’s truly excellent leading cast was given an honest moment, there would be something amazing.
98% garbage with 2% brilliance? That’s a ratio that will keep me coming back. But will improving the rotten 98% destroy the 2% as well? Will Smash become merely average?
Five episodes in, the answer is yes. Having ironed out its highs and lows, the show has become a great big “meh.” And why bother with “meh” when you could be enjoying the crackling excitement of, I dunno, The Americans? (More on that next week.) I’ve watched every episode this season, and I couldn’t list the major storylines without slipping into a nap. (“Derek and Kevin team up with a pair of up-and-coming musical writers to…zzzzzzzzzzzz”) No longer catastrophic, the show has become a mediocrity, and even at NBC—the network that’s losing out to Talking Dead, a show where people talk about Walking Dead—mediocre won’t cut it.
Last season’s least-watched episode of Smash attracted 5.34 million viewers. This season, even the premiere couldn’t match that high. Without The Voice as its lead-in, Smash has been forced to stand on its own two feet. Like a shit-covered toddler trying to walk himself to the bathroom, the result hasn’t been pretty. Ratings have been sliding like a clipart stock market graph, this week coming in at a nauseating 2.6 million. Rumor has it that a commitment to the show’s granddaddy has NBC locked into airing the entire second season, but apparently the season finale has been reshot to give the show some “closure.” If ratings keep plummeting, expect the show’s remaining episodes to be quietly burnt off in a Saturday afternoon marathon. It’s possible the series will end before any of its major questions are answered, namely, will Bombshell ever make it to…zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
Ironically, the only compelling storyline in this season is the meta-commentary on the showrunner’s departure. In season one, Debra Messing’s character, Julia, served as Rebeck’s stand-in—a relationship between character and creator that hamstrung the show. As Kate Arthur reported in Buzzfeed, “Rebeck based the character on herself, and yet wouldn’t allow Julia to have a good arc that would satisfy or endear her to the audience.”
If the writers wanted to give Julia something to do that was hard and that she would eventually get through, “Theresa would say, ‘It’s not a struggle! She doesn’t have a problem! She’s the hero! She saves everything!'” said someone who witnessed this oft-repeated discussion.
Another source added: “The writer had such a strong identification with that character that she couldn’t actually write well for her, or allow interesting stories to develop. The writers were trying to push into more interesting territory for that character, and Theresa blocked that creatively. Even if she might think, Well, I wanted Debra Messing to be the star, she didn’t allow that to happen.”
Without Rebeck there to keep an eye on her, Julia has been rewritten as a writer who is crippled by arrogance. Blind to Bombshell’s problems, she is so unwilling to rewrite her own work that she threatens to destroy the show. Dedicating a storyline to shaming a fired employee is twisted, infuriating and quite possibly insane—in short, everything we hate/loved about Smash in the first place. As the network flails, perhaps a desperate attempt to save the show will lead to more of this weirdness. Smash may get awful again, but I don’t think it could ever get bad enough to make a comeback.