Theatre’s Problem With “Smash”

February 11th, 2013 § 6 comments

smashIf you are looking to read yet another blog post filled with snark for, or describing the “hate watching” of, the television series Smash, this is not the post you’re looking for. Move along.

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.

newsroomThere’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?

slingsSmash 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.

 

§ 6 Responses to Theatre’s Problem With “Smash”"

  • My distaste for SMASH has absolutely nothing to do with how inaccurate it is… and everything to do with how poorly-executed it has been. (All too often, to my mind, but not always; the first episode of this new season was a low-light.) The characters are thinly drawn, the dialogue is laughably trite, and the stakes are continually flattened. It’s a disappointment, but not because I wish it had made our profession look better or more appealing to young artists. It’s just really — unlike SLINGS & ARROWS — not all that good.

  • I’m with Gwydion. I know too much about broadcast tv to have expected anything even remotely as good as Slings & Arrows. My problem with it has been in the execution and the writing. That was my problem with the Newsroom as well. Both are laughable.

    This season’s new regime was supposedly going to look at the problems of season one and eliminate them. They “fixed” the wrong things. They amped up the soap, tamped down what dimension the characters had, and hey, they got rid of those scarves. (I may not have been a fan of season one–goodness knows I expended a lot of snark during every episode–but in this season’s opener, the meta-jokes about the lousy writing on “Bombshell” & other references to last year seemed unnecessarily cruel. Let that thought sink in.)

    My wife and I used to watch CSI etc–she trained in forensic anthropology before it was cool, and I sat in on a number of classes for writing research. (This was long before “Bones” or the books the series was based on, and well before CSI.) It’s great fun to watch and hear where the writers are making stuff up. She used to watch ER with med students and doctors–they’d howl through the episodes. But in each case, ask why they kept watching, and it came down to good characters and good stories told well.

    Smash lacks either.

  • Laura Burgos says:

    I don’t know what I expected, but I think you hit dead on what my disappointment is: I don’t think this will a) make people reconsider their stereotypes about theatre in any way and b) convince anyone to go into theatre. I didn’t see SMASH as a show made for theatre professionals, so I don’t quite care that much what bad quality it is: I think I was hoping that others would see and love theatre the way that I do because of it.

  • DangerMouseBen says:

    Thanks for an intelligent and well-reasoned piece. I did try watching in the first season but gave up after a couple of episodes, for many of the reasons you mention. I have a friend in England who loves the show and watched Season One with great excitement. She’s just as excited about the upcoming episodes. I’m glad she enjoys it and I know that it’s scripted television and reality isn’t all that exciting, but the “exciting” that they have devised to make Smash a “hit” doesn’t work for me.

    I, too, look forward to another season of Slings and Arrows (if it ever comes about).

  • Austin says:

    I had unrealistic hopes that it’d be THE WEST WING of our business, or at the other end of the Sorkin spectrum, the STUDIO 60 ON THE SUNSET STRIP. But it just sat there, blah, in the middle, neither as great as the former or as execrable as the latter. My NEXT unrealistic hope is that some enterprising writer/producer will learn from its mistakes and build something great from its ashes.

  • Sara says:

    Can I admit to enormous trepidation about a season 4 of S&A? Seasons 1-3 were perfect, we don’t need to add to the canon. I’m happy to re-watch the show endlessly and would prefer for all those super-talented actors, directors and writers to move on to ever more new, exciting projects, rather than re-visit New Burbage. But I also not-so-secretly hope they prove me wrong and a Season 4 is the awesomest of all. Oh, the fickleness of artistic idealism and the watching public!

    I’m someone who continues to enjoy SMASH for what it is, and doesn’t need it to be more than that. I also am delighted to see any mainstream TV or movies that celebrate theater arts, because like you I think that pop culture can have a real influence on re-setting peoples’ ideas about a profession or avocation. It doesn’t need to be perfect to contribute something new to the culture at large.

    Thanks for a really interesting, thoughtful post!

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