With the second season of Smash now underway, to precipitously underwhelming ratings, I’d like to discuss for a moment how it has been received among the people I discuss it with most often, namely theatre professionals. There’s no shortage of criticism of the show from every angle , but I don’t know that I’ve seen anyone get at the overriding sentiment within the theatre community.
In a word: disappointment.
Just over a year ago, many theatre people were thrilled at the idea that a network television series would portray their lives on a weekly basis. Sure, it was loaded with the glitz and glamour that’s typically associated with commercial Broadway theatre, which is only a small portion of American theatrical production, but it was still theatre. Unlike cops, lawyers, private detectives, forensic analysts, doctors and many other professions, we don’t see shows focused the act of making theatre on American television. Maybe we’d finally get a chance for our stories to be told.
Yes, we’ve had a couple of “reality shows” about casting for actual theatre productions (Grease and Legally Blonde). There have been characters who work in theatre: Joey on Friends, Annie on Caroline in the City, Maxwell Sheffield on The Nanny. But Smash held the potential for being the U.S. counterpart to the Canadian series Slings and Arrows, little seen in its original U.S. airing but now a beloved touchstone for so many.
There are certainly many people in the business who are delighted to see Smash showcasing theatre talent and sharing it with the rest of the world (actors like Wesley Taylor, Krysta Rodriguez, Leslie Odom Jr., Jeremy Jordan and Savannah Wise; composers like Joe Iconis and Pasek & Paul) and people watch to cheer on friends and acquaintances. There’s also the frisson of recognition when real-life figures like Jordan Roth and Manny Azenberg turn up, in cameos meaningful to a very small number of potential viewers, but a treat for the insiders. Yet as the series has progressed, I’ve talked increasingly with the disaffected, who stopped watching, and the hopeful, who watch dubiously but religiously, with optimism that their dreamed of ideal may still appear.
There’s a recent corollary here, and that’s with the HBO series The Newsroom. When it debuted, I read scathing review after scathing review and one journalist friend even asked me if I had any idea why he hated it so much. “Because,” I explained, “You live the reality, and what’s on screen isn’t that.” I suspect that was the overriding sentiment behind so many of the Newsroom reviews, because (of course) they were written by journalists. And that’s the same scenario for Smash among theatre people.
Let’s face it, scripted television programming isn’t documentary, and for that matter, neither is reality TV. It’s created, contrived, scripted, edited and so on in order to compress plots into rigid time constrictions, with the goal of entertaining as many people as possible. So it is with Smash.
I wonder what police officers make of, say, The Mentalist. Can they detach from reality and enjoy the fiction? Were doctors watching House for diagnostic refreshers? Was Sam Waterston giving a master class in prosecutorial technique all those years on Law and Order? I wouldn’t be surprised if professionals find something laughable every week, but those staples of TV drama have been around since the days of Dragnet, Ben Casey and Perry Mason, so they’re probably so much wallpaper by now.
Journalists at least had Lou Grant (the series) once upon a time, but to be fair, they’re most often seen on TV as plot devices, often portrayed as nuisances, or worse still amoral. Theatre people are typically portrayed as elitists or egotists for comic effect, so we don’t have TV icons they can point to very easily, outside of performances and great speeches on The Tony Awards. Anyone remember the laugh-fest when Law and Order: Criminal Intent did its version of Julie Taymor and Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark? That’s our usual lot.
However inaccurate TV series may be, there’s no denying the fact that a hit series can have profound real-world impact. Since the launch of the CSI franchise, forensic science programs have ballooned in popularity; it’s hard not to watch a series like Blue Bloods and feel that a sense of bravery, duty and honor pervades police work. In real life, Greg House would likely have been fired after episode two, but people were mesmerized by a talented diagnostician whose only solace in a screwed up life was to cure diseases, even if it usually meant making vast mistakes until the last 10 minutes – for the sake of drama. There’s no denying that the cops on Law and Order: SVU want to get justice for victims, or that the doctors on ER wanted to save lives; they may be flawed, but they have real commitment. What do the characters on Smash represent?
Smash has tantalized with the “show” part of show business, while the business part is startlingly underrepresented (I’ll never forget the first episode of Slings and Arrows, when a managing director had a meeting with a corporate sponsor and I saw my life’s work on screen for the very first time). More importantly, it hasn’t given us any heroes; I wonder whether the show will actually inspire anyone to go into the theatre.
And that, of course, is what I suspect we all hoped for, a mass media means of showing the world at large what an exciting, challenging, difficult, compelling, fulfilling life can be had in the theatre. Journalists surely long for a weekly platform that reinforces the necessity of properly funded investigative reporting, and I’d certainly like to see a show that reminds us why teachers are the cornerstone of this country’s future, a latter-day Room 222, in contrast to the way politicians now paint them.
We’re probably too emotionally invested in Smash. It was probably never going to be a recruiting tool for theatre or the arts, or finally explain to our families why we do what we do. That’s the stuff of public service announcements, not drama, not mass entertainment. But it’s in our nature to dream, isn’t it? And every so often in our line of work, we make dreams come true.
So, whatever comes of Smash this season, whether it runs or wraps up, whether you love it or loathe it, I leave you with this thought: here’s to season four of Slings and Arrows. May it come soon.