Tuesday, August 28, 2012

10 Things: Advice for Smash Season 2

After analyzing Bunheads' first season in an effort to suggest improvements  for its sophomore year, I've decided to do the same for another newcomer: Smash.  Now, I reviewed Smash during its freshman run, and found my enjoyment of it to be sporadic and sometimes conditional.  I love the concept of this show, but the first season succumbed to a lot of poorly-constructed drama that took precedence over character development.  For every amazing musical number, there was usually at least one sloppy writing decision that muted the characters' potential.  So, for Season 2, I'd love to see the show work out its kinks and come back strong!  Here's some ideas as to how.

10.  Keep it on Broadway.  In Season 1, Smash gave a big storyline to Karen's boyfriend Dev and his Wall Street job.  Or was it a government job?  All I know is he wore a suit and had career drama.  Whole scenes happened completely untethered from the Broadway environment, and we were expected to actually care about a character whose circumstances were entirely peripheral to the core focus of the show.  And no one did.  (Taxes?  Did he work with money?)  Piece of advice: this is a show about Broadway.  Everything should tie back to the theah-tuh.  

9.  Let the characters be good at their jobs.  Most characters on Smash are supposed to be Broadway veterans: esteemed playwrights, songwriters, directors, producers, dancers, or actors.  These people are successful creative types!  Why not show them being good at their jobs?  The narrative often skips straight to the end result without showing us any of the journey.  We know Julia is struggling with lyrics, but we don't see her have any real breakthroughs, and then suddenly the lyrics are in place and being sung perfectly on stage.  Why not show how Julia maneuvers through the creative process, and let us feel the reward of a successful problem overcome?  (Showing Julia successful at work also solves another problem: it redirects focus from her terrible family life, where the writers refuse to let that lady catch a break.)

8. Stop screwing around with Bombshell.  How much more can this show's changes take the front seat in the narrative?  We've seen nearly every incarnation of the Marilyn musical up until Previews - a modern update, shadow Marilyns, and a revolving door of leading ladies.  Of course, it makes sense that changes will happen while workshopping a show.  But now that Bombshell is in Boston and doing well?  How much more screentime can we devote to the musical itself?  It's a tricky question; especially considering that Smash's best creativity comes in the form of Bombshell's original numbers.  But surely there aren't a whole slew of new Bombshell songs that we've yet to hear, and somehow we're meant to spend the whole next season with the same musical.  So the best option is to take focus off the show itself, and put it on the people running it.  With more character-based storylines, this won't be a big sacrifice - in fact, it'll make the drama stronger.

7. Be stingier and more purposeful with the romance.  In Season 1, Julia had an affair, Tom had two love interests, Derek slept with Ivy and Rebecca Duvall in rapid succession, and Dev cheated on Karen with RJ and then with Ivy.  Every pairing rose and fell in a disastrously haphazard fashion, and suddenly this show had tangled every character up in shallow romance drama.  Note to writers: it's about quality, not quantity.  Sure, it may seem like great sudsy drama to cross wires so many times, but really, it relies on solid writing.  And hardly any of Smash's romantic entanglement make sense.  It's impossible to like any couple on the show, simply because the writers are squandering any purpose with the relationships and instead putting them together only to blow them apart.  And guess what?  When there's no effort invested in building the relationships, the audience doesn't care when they blow apart.  Yawn, snooze; it's hard to sympathize with broken hearts when we don't understand their motivations.

6. Do right by your ladies.  It's almost inarguable: the female ensemble on this show is phenomenal.  There's no shortage of talent in the ranks of Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee, Debra Messing, and Anjelica Huston, and beyond that, their characters all have the potential to be well-developed and fully-realized.  And yet, Smash only treats two of those characters reasonably well, and seriously mishandles three of the four.  It is absolutely maddening to know what possibilities exist with these ladies, only to repeatedly witness Karen, Ivy, and Julia completely deprived of any agency in their storylines.  What's worse, Ivy and Julia in particular can't seem to catch a break in their arcs, and get crapped on week after week from sloppy writing choices.  It's annoying, and therefore should be no surprise to the showrunners that their male counterparts were so unlikeable to the audience.  Michael Swift, Ellis, Dev, and Frank are all set to make their exits from the show, which is ultimately a welcome turn of events for the female characters.  I can only watch Julia get guilt-tripped by three different men for so long.  Good riddance!

5. Introduce more POC.  Unfortunately, with the removal of Dev and Ellis from the cast, Smash's representation of POC will rest solely on the shoulders of secondary character Sam.  So let's bring a little diversity into the ensemble, shall we?  They've already hired Jennifer Hudson, which is a damn good start.  And Karen is also set to get a new roommate in Krysta Rodriguez.  Keep this going!  The Great White Way should not be represented literally.  (And while I'm asking for diversity, can we get an LGBTQ lady?  Smash has done wonderfully with gay male characters... any chance we can balance that out with a gay woman?  Just a thought.)

4.  Let Ivy win a few.  Ivy Lynn is, hands-down, the best character on this show.  I will go to the mat on that one.  She's driven, ambitious, and immensely talented.  She's been paying her dues in the chorus for years, waiting for her moment in the spotlight.  She has a complicated relationship with her mother, a former Broadway star quicker to criticize than compliment, and part of Ivy's drive for success directly connects to the desire to make her mother proud.  And ultimately, she's monumentally insecure, which often leads to her being petty, spiteful, sharp-tongued, desperate to please, and incredibly relatable.  But Smash really only manifests Ivy's flaws into bad decisions and unlikeable actions, and never rewards her strengths.  She's repeatedly crapped on by the narrative, and then when Megan Hilty flawlessly sings a heartbreaking solo, we're left wondering if the show means for us to feel for Ivy this much.  Regardless of intent, please, treat her less like a villain and more like a hero.  Let her win a few.  A huge swath of the audience loves her, flaws and all.

3. Give Karen a backbone.  For some reason, Smash is really insistent on portraying Karen as the wide-eyed Iowa girl trying to make it big in the city, and it's ultimately to the character's detriment.  Don't get me wrong; it's a fine starting point, but that's really all it is: a starting point.  It's a stereotype.  Why not dimensionalize Karen Cartwright?  She's not just the naive girl who might be too soft for the big city.  And that doesn't mean she has to show signs of hardness or bitchiness, either.  Just let her have a backbone!  Let her stand up for herself!  Let her be self-confident!  It's a great way to make the character pop off the page and away from the stereotype, and Katharine McPhee does great with those moments.  Basically, I want Karen to be strutting her stuff to "Redneck Woman" all the time.

2. For the love of humanity, quit it with this Ivy vs. Karen nonsense and make them friends.  Just do it.  I know it's a central conflict of the show but I'm tired of it - especially because it plays on two levels.  There's the ideological opposition between Ivy and Karen as performers, which gets discussed endlessly, and that bleeds over into actual opposition between Ivy and Karen as people.  This constant polarity between the two women is tiresome.  The whole point is that they're both great!  They have similarities, they have differences.  And there have been so many opportunities for these characters to relate to one another, but the narrative purposefully shrugs them away in favor of isolating the ladies in competition - both romantically and professionally.  Boo!  I'm over women-at-odds storylines.  Show me Ivy and Karen learning that they like one another, and supporting one another.  Show me that they can transcend the expectation that they'll hate one another!  Show me that there's mutual benefit in their being friends!  Of course, that's not to say that their relationship can't be complicated.  All the better if it is!  Any competition conflict becomes 10x stronger and more compelling when it's built on a real relationship with real flaws and strengths.  I'm all for nuanced lady dynamics.  And that's what the Ivy-Karen interaction has thus far lacked: nuance.  Final argument: Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty give Debra Messing and Christian Borle a run for their money in the chemistry department.  Why not let them show it?

1. Let the characters propel the drama.  Ultimately, this is the key to Smash being sustainably successful.  Develop the characters individually, with strengths and flaws, and let them interact with one another - for better and for worse.  Let there be real friendships.  Let there be differences of opinion.  Let there be emotions involved, and tough decisions made.  Conflict will come naturally when character interactions are at the wheel, and Smash is in desperate need of character livelihood.  These are real people with wants and needs, not just stage props for sudsy relationship drama.  If Smash expects to hold onto viewers beyond their flashy musical numbers, they need the characters to be developed, organic, and in charge of their storylines.

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