Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Maybe There's a Lesson Here

I’m going to miss Smash. In spite of itself.

Writers need a break from the reality of their writing lives. As most any writer will tell you, when you commit to writing, you don’t get many diversions. Deadlines (self- and publisher-imposed), your family, the chores, and the other career (the one with the 401k and health insurance) don’t leave much room for other activities. You don't get to read for pleasure or see friends as much as you’d like. You go out less; you entertain less. Sometimes, it feels like you don’t do much except work and the laundry.

At times like that, I need a reboot. I need to shut down the creative part of my brain for an hour. When I start it up again, whatever froze my imagination and enthusiasm has usually disappeared. In addition, my eyes spend so much time going back and forth across my computer screen or printout that, if the reboot diversion also gives me a chance to roll my eyes for a while, so much the better.

And Smash was a worthy diversion on both counts. In the beginning I watched in sofa-lolling relaxation an undemanding melodrama with excellent singing, and then I watched – my eyes circling my sockets – plot twists so contorted that I just had to see what the next bizarre pretzel-turn would be. Which isn't necessarily all that easy with your eyes rolling around in your head.

Smash was (actually still is, for the rest of the month) about getting a musical to Broadway. Maybe I should have been warned when a series has enough, dare I say, hubris to give itself a title like Smash. And to think there was much left to be said about Marilyn Monroe.

But hey, I wasn't looking for art. And as a bonus, I got to hear some terrific Broadway voices, performers who know how to interpret a song, and don’t think that as-loud-as-I-can-belt and as-long-as-I-can-hold-this-note are the hallmarks of singing. And I got to see some pretty fair dancing for a TV series (at least in the first season).

I was charmed by Christian Borle. In awe of Megan Hilty. Eager to see what Jack Davenport would get up to next. And I was certain Anjelica Huston’s facial muscles would eventually move.

And I could pair the show with a wonderful blog by Broadway actress/dancer Sharon Wheatley called SMASH: Fact or Fiction, a valentine to Broadway, full of fascinating tidbits and insight about what it’s really like to create a show on the Great White Way. And, unlike so many entertainment bloggers, Sharon doesn't seem to have a snarky bone in her body. But eventually, the parade of implausible plot points and absurd motivations forced even Ms. Wheatley to give up on Smash


Maybe Smash never really had a chance. Ultimately, its premise was deeply flawed: that there could be a believable competition for the role of Marilyn between the characters of Karen and Ivy. It says something about network-TV desperation, the lure of cross-marketing and the demands of “media-ready” casting that American Idol runner-up Katherine McPhee (as Karen) was thrown mercilessly into the ring with Broadway vet Hilty (as Ivy). Yikes, what alternative universe have I wandered into that this fight could be fair?!

Even if one accepted the premise that a woman with no Broadway experience who looked and sounded nothing like Marilyn could be a contender, the show swung off the rails a few times in season one. Then the swinging turned to careening in season two. Karen quit the lead (the lead!) in the Broadway show Bombshell – a role in which she was called “brilliant” by other characters though the TV audience was never granted the privilege of seeing these on-stage moments – for a role in a black-box theater downtown because…  Oh, it doesn’t matter, it made no sense. The renowned Broadway director Derek (Davenport) leaves Bombshell, too, in a huff, then agrees to direct the downtown show, which isn't really finished and was created by a couple of guys who've never had a thing produced before. And Bombshell’s composer (Borle) is suddenly, with no experience, Bombshell’s director. Whaa??

And although I could have gone on rebooting my brain with Smash, NBC has pulled the plug.

What can I salvage? As with any failed relationship, one asks: Is there at least a lesson to be learned here? Can I find any bits of wisdom to pass on to, say, a reader of this blog who’s an aspiring writer? One working on a mystery novel and not, say, a network TV show?

No square pegs in round holes. In mystery novels, you don’t get cut much slack for these. Your characters aren't allowed to go off and do something that makes no sense because, you know, you need them to. Your protag can’t just decide to investigate a crime because, well, she found a body and you need her to be an amateur sleuth; and she can't do dumb things because you need her in peril. She can't go into the house when she finds the front door open; continue into the deserted parking garage even though she thinks she’s being followed; or agree to meet a mysterious informant in a place not flooded with light and witnesses. When your writing starts to feel like hammering, it’s time to stop, rail at the wall for an hour, then admit your needs aren't really important here. What does your character need? A better motive.

Obnoxious does not equal a character readers love to hate. Smash didn't learn its lesson in season one with the character of Ellis Boyd, the uber-obnoxious assistant. They doubled down in season two by making uber-obnoxious a main character, Jimmy Collins (played by Jerome Jordan exactly as the writers/producers/directors must have wanted him to play it, because he’s capable of nuance and charm). They chose to make Jimmy not only a ^%#*, but a callow ^%#*. And callow and ^%#* are pretty much impossible to make compelling. They made poor Karen his doormat, so maybe we were supposed to hate him while at the same time intuit that there was a good man underneath all that because, uh, Karen fell for him and he's cute. Doesn't that count? Not in mystery novels. Not unless you want the reader to throw your book across the room. Readers see people who are uninspiring, unintriguing and unbearable every day. They probably work for one. They don’t want to read about them when they get home.

And so Smash will be gone soon. What will I do for a reboot? Where can I find another show that will render me alternatively brain flat-lined and yelping at the TV?

I mean, other than Castle. (My devotion to Nathan Fillion is not unmotivated. Since Firefly, a woman is justified in following him practically anywhere.)

Other suggestions for reboot candidates are welcome.

Sheila York


  1. Sheila, my friend,I'll be indebted to you for life for showing me how to write ^%#*... plus the last three sentences of that paragraph! My reboot is C-Span! Call me dull, but we can't all be brilliant!! Thelma

    1. I have a friend who does the same thing. Actually, she used to be a C-Spanaholic. She's in recovery now. Taking medication. C-Spandex, I think it's called.

  2. Ah, Sheila, I don't think I can be much help either. I am a Netflix addict. Any television I watch pretty much is on DVD's(hopelessly old fashioned), except for Sunday evening on Thirteen. I have been watching Mr. Selfridge, which did not engage me much at first, but now has me fixed on finding out the next twist in the story. I am a sucker for those period soap operas. Other than that, disc by precious disc, I am watching, AGAIN, the fabulous Foyle's War. Michael Kitchen is a man I would follow anywhere.

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    1. I'm with you on Mr. Kitchen, ever since I first saw him in OUT OF AFRICA. Friends suggested I try PERSON OF INTEREST. Which I didn't care for when I watched first season, but second season, I'm watching. I'm really into Jim Caviezel acting with only his eyebrows. If you haven't seen FREQUENCY, one of his first movies, I recommend it for a Saturday night bowl of popcorn. He's acting with his whole face in that one.

  4. Hey, there folks, while we're talking TV, be sure to read the article on Barbara Walters today in the Grey Lady --- and see what the predictions for TV are! The dwindling of what we've cut our teeth on!!! I REFUSE to watch a show on something the size of a petit four!!! But, then, maybe the alternative is to be those gimmicks on our eyeglasses - but, wow, what do we do if we don't wear glasses???? TeeJayStraw

  5. I never would have thought, but 'Game of Thrones' has me captivated; watch it on pay-TV reruns, sometimes 2 at a time. I guess it's Sword & Sorcery & Fantasy & Sex. Good plotting & Acting, even though I can't pronounce most of the character's names (rendered in Targherian or is it Valeryan?); great theme music intro; a dwarf main character whom I used to see around Williamsburg, Brooklyn; and 3 of the cutest, meanest teenage Dragons, obedient nevertheless to their Dragon Lady "mother"
    (broadly speaking) whose name I can't pronounce, etc. No surprise how well-written since David Benihoff wrote and produced. He wrote a couple good novels, before he found the New World. Bob K.

  6. Alas, I was looking for a guilty pleasure, a reboot-the-brain-by-not-challenging-it-too-much candidate, and there you go, picking something well written and well acted. You're just too classy, mister. My husband is addicted, and can even pronounce the names. If you haven't seen Peter Dinklage is The Station Agent (2003), I highly recommend it.

  7. Sheila,
    If you're looking for a reboot with singing (I too compulsively watched every episode of SMASH, writhing in pain at the ridiculous plot twists and unbelievable choices), try NASHVILLE. It's country, not Broadway, but it's actually a really good soap. I'll still miss SMASH.
    Julia Pomeroy

    1. Thanks! Yes, I think that has possibilities!