The NBC show Smash is a show that I almost feel I like out of sheer force of will. I want to like it so I do, despite frequently being let down by it. Well, Smash will be returning for its second season on Tuesday, February 5 but a 44 minute sneak peek of the premiere is available on the channel’s website here. I’m looking forward to the premiere and following the show for another season, but there were a lot of issues with the show in season one, primarily due to its characterization and story development.
If you’re unfamiliar with the show, it follows the creation of a musical from conception to Broadway opening. The majority of the series, however, follows the personal lives of the people involved in the musical, from the creative team to the cast and this I believe is detrimental to the story. It’s not that the show couldn’t or shouldn’t focus on the characters’ lives outside the musical (though obviously I, personally, would like to see more focus on the theatre side of the story) but the problem is that the characters are so poorly written.
Let’s start with the main (?) character Karen, played by American Idol alum Katharine McPhee With Karen the problem is that she’s dull and pretty spineless. We’re meant to sympathize with her as the nice girl from the Midwest with the big city dreams, and I do, but that’s pretty much the extent of her character. She’s flimsy and frail and just seems to luck into her good fortune. Karen doesn’t do things, things happen to Karen.
The majority of her breaks in her pursuit of the role come because the musical’s director finds her inspiring, declaring her to be his “muse” (a fairly trite plot device, if I do say so myself) rather than through any determination of her own.
By contrast the antagonist (?) of the series is Ivy, played by Broadway actress Megan Hilty. Ivy is determined and goal-oriented and because of this she is portrayed as a bitch. Because she’s strong-willed and unwilling to give an inch to the newcomer who’s threatening her position in the musical she must be painted a villain and that’s not very gratifying to see. It would be nice if the woman who worked hard and kept her eyes on the prize would be rewarded by some respect from the writing team but instead it’s the meek and manipulable woman, the one on whom the director can project his fantasies, who is celebrated.
You may have noticed the question marks I put next to the roles I used to identify the characters. That’s because another problem I have with this show is its unclear focus. It seems like it’s supposed to be about Karen primarily, but so much time is devoted to other characters and other stories (such as the love lives of the composer, writer, and producer) that I truly don’t know who or what the show is supposed to be about. If it’s supposed to be about Karen it hasn’t tried to make her dynamic, if it’s supposed to be about the creative team it hasn’t made their personal stories seem particularly consequential, and if it’s supposed to be about the musical itself it has spent far too much time on unrelated plots.
In addition, I think the show has a problem with diversity since so far the only non-white characters have been third-tier characters who’ve existed primarily to be supportive of their white friends and co-workers. One notable exception was the assistant Ellis who was probably the most universally hated character on a TV show since Cousin Oliver on The Brady Bunch. He mainly existed to lurk behind doors and ruin everything he touched, but he was a fairly prominent character with his own goals so I guess there’s that. Thankfully I hear he’s been written out of the show because honestly, though it would have been nice to have a main character of color I really don’t think there was any saving this one.
The preview for the new season looks somewhat promising though. Karen actually does something rather than having things happen to her, Ivy’s given a little sympathy, and Jennifer Hudson looks like she may be in a recurring role so hopefully her character will be worthwhile and aid the show in the minority representation department. Unfortunately there are still some glaring problems with regard to the storytelling but hopefully the show can improve from here on out because I do like it, just not nearly as much as I want to.