Don’t get me wrong here — when it cames to “Breaking Bad” and “Mad Men” and “Homeland,” I tried to tune in as soon as possible to avoid spoilers, but the idea of watching the shows as they initially aired never mattered to me in a way that “Smash” did, thanks to Twitter. An episode of “Breaking Bad” demands attention, both visual and audible, so I turn off all other media during the show, leaving the conversation for after. But NBC’s “Smash,” which kicked off in February as a barely passable mid-season replacement about the makings of a Marilyn Monroe musical, demanded mocking as each questionable song appeared and each character made another infuriating decision. I was less watching the show for what was happening on screen than for how my friends were poking fun of it.
“Smash” was never the worst show on television — it had many moments that were effective drama and occasionally fun musical numbers — but for every step forward it took at least four back. But can “Smash” remain “Smash” when it returns for its second season on February 5th, or should it? Over the break since May, the producers at NBC have drastically changed the series, most notably by replacing showrunner Theresa Rebeck with Josh Safran, an executive producer at “Gossip Girl.” Additionally, many of the drama’s more questionable supporting players have been replaced with a series of new participants, among them Sean Hayes and Jennifer Hudson. This begs the question: what type of show will “Smash” be, and will it be worth watching if it isn’t worth hate-watching?
As I like to see it, “Smash” could go one of two ways. The first would be to double down on its camp and trashy drama. The presence of Safran suggests that could be a route — “Gossip Girl” was built as a teenage soap opera, with a new twist every 10 minutes. Those plot developments were less important in quality than quantity; the show essentially ran on not having any sense of normalcy, constantly forcing its audience to react to the fact to the sheer amount happening in a single episode. This could be one solution to the way “Smash” has struggled to blend its musical bits together with its melodrama. The moments “Smash” has sadly been remembered for are the silliest, such as Karen’s (Katharine McPhee) response to Dev’s (Raza Jaffrey) awkward and nonsensical proposal: “I’m in tech!”
This show should be a musical — let the drama go over-the-top, don’t let us take anything serious. Nobody goes to see “Bring It On: The Musical!” for anything resembling a grounded human narrative. “Smash” could embrace its silliness more — the running gag of Elaine (Anjelica Huston) throwing martini after martini into her ex-husband’s face was a great start. Give us trashy melodrama and don’t even try and hide it. But such an approach by Safran could be a double-edged sword. The cult fan base for “Smash” developed out of the fact the audience figured out the writers often had no idea what they were doing whatsoever. If “Smash” becomes self-consciously aware of its own badness, will it have the same impact? What will be the point of mocking something that asks to be mocked? Perhaps “Smash” needs to stay languidly bad in order to keep its vocal online following.
Safran and company do have another option — they could try to make a good show. “Smash” was never terrible. Songs like “Let Me Be Your Star,” “20th Century Fox Mambo” and “I Never Met a Wolf Who Didn’t Love To Howl” were catchy songs I found myself humming on my way to the office. And when the show dove into some of the various actual backstage processes of making a musical, it could feel authentic and perhaps even insightful. Even with its hollow characterizations, “Smash” has plenty of the potential to be a great show. Certainly the dismissal of the awkwardly devious Ellis (Jaime Cepero), Karen’s now former boyfriend Dev and Julia’s robo-husband Frank (Brian d’Arcy James) signal that Safran wants to approach the show with a clean slate.
“Smash” doesn’t necessarily need to double-down on its silliness if it can give its characters stronger motivations and deliver a more momentous plot. The show could easily work itself out of a hate-watching audience and actually appeal to the theater geeks that want a show that reflects their life. But while I have faith that if Safran wants to, he can clean up “Smash” quite well, the show has limitations it will have trouble escaping. Can it actually overcome Katherine McPhee’s wooden performance (less her fault than one of the writers not playing to her talents)? Can the show actually develop a meaningful romance?
If the revised drama is simply mediocre and has none of the first season’s irresistable risibilities, the show will commit an even worse sin: it’ll be boring. And if that’s the cast, “Smash” needs to stay “Smash”: a collection of sometimes fun and enjoyable songs peppered with questionable melodrama and all too silly written lines, perfectly designed for open provocation on Twitter. I don’t see “Smash” as a literal hate-watch; I wouldn’t watch the show if I actively hated the experience. It’s a fun, ridiculous hour break. For it to change that too much would be a shame — “Smash” might not have the audience it wants, but why abandon those already on board?