February 6, 2013

Is Theresa Rebeck a demonic control freak, whose Broadway-nourished arrogance and lack of people skills ruined her one shot at stardom? According to Buzzfeed, yesKate Arthur’s piece, shot through with anonymous chatter about the behind-the-scenes tensions that led to the uncanny weirdness that was the first season of Smash, is a ripping read. It’s gossip writing in its highest form, taking us behind the curtain and showing us that the oversized egos on NBC’s peculiar backstage melodrama are nothing compared to the monsters that created it.

It’s also, I suspect, a bit unfair. As presented in the article, deposed showrunner Theresa Rebeck is as paranoid and narcissistic as an embattled dictator. Neither she nor NBC would cooperate with Arthur, which makes me think that, now that she has been ousted, the Broadway veteran who was originally brought in to give Smash its 42nd Street cred has been converted to its scapegoat. Everything about the first season that didn’t work, Arthur is told, was Rebeck’s fault:

Specifically, the Messing character, Julia, became enmeshed in an adoption subplot that had been established in the pilot to create tension with her husband (Brian d’Arcy James), who wanted her not to work while they concentrate on getting a baby; Ellis (Jaime Cepero), the scheming assistant of Tom, began to evolve into a main character, always lurking in the background and plotting something (by the season’s end, he literally poisoned someone); Leo (Emory Cohen), Julia’s sullen teenage son, also started to have an odd prominence; and the insertion of the non-Marilyn-related musical numbers were awkward and inorganic.

Rebeck is gone now, and so is—we’re promised—all that nonsense. But can Smash survive without it? Although the show’s first season was massively hyped and critically praised, much of its repeat viewership was due to hate-watching. I liked the show all right, but not enough to set a DVR season pass. I kept coming back because it was truly one of the strangest things I had ever seen on TV. 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?

To find out, I’m going to live blog last night’s two hour premiere. Because of space constraints, and because my girlfriend will get mad at me if I watch the whole thing without her, I’m going to restrict myself to the first sixty seconds.

:01—Apparently this episode is called “On Broadway.” I know that because there’s a title card that says “On Broadway.”

:05—It’s Katherine McPhee! Dressed up as Marilyn! In black and white! She still doesn’t look the part; she still can’t sing. I wonder if the whole season will be in black and white. That would be a poor decision of Rebeckian proportions.

:19—It’s not black and white any more. Rats.

:22—Marilyn McPhee is singing a song inside of what appears to be a diner. Presumably she is on stage…possibly on stage on Broadway? Hopefully the other people are dancers who can dance better than she can, and I will get to watch them dance.

:39—I did not get to see any dancing…yet. A title card has informed me that this is the Boston closing night. This show will never reach Broadway! Or will it?

:46—All of the actors are running around backstage, presumably to avoid the extreme McPheedium of this first sixty seconds. Almost over now, guys!

:51—Now I see dancing!

1:00—There was a shot outside the theater of K. McPhee giving M. Hilty a dirty look. I guess those two haven’t made up during the off-season! How nice to know that that tedious rivalry will continue into season two. McPhee’s song continues, still blandly bland, and I turn the TV off when the timer hits sixty. The last thing I hear is, “And if a duckling never swims, she’ll never become a swaaaaaaaan.”

Phew! That was exhausting, and only slightly less detailed than your average linkbait TV recap. It appears I wasn’t the only person who yanked the plug after sixty seconds. Last night’s show drew 4.48 million viewers—approximately seven million less than the original premiere, and (more tellingly) over a million less than last season’s finale. Apparently all of this “Smash won’t suck any more!” hype has proven a bad thing. Viewers don’t want quality television—they want garbage to gawk at. Based on their spring lineup, I assumed that was something NBC already knew.

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