Let’s be brutally honest for a minute: the first season of Smash was, in a word, ridiculous. Save for the fantastic production numbers, the charming big picture (a Broadway musical has drama behind the drama!) and the welcome television debuts of Megan Hilty and Christian Borle, the show was teetering somewhere on the brink between realistic behind-the-scenes melodrama and hyperbolic baby-grabbin’, pill-poppin’, smoothie-poisonin’ foolishness.
New showrunner Josh Safran (Gossip Girl) had barely even joined the team last May when he decided to oust the most criminal perpetuators of the Smash ridiculata: eavesdropper Ellis (Jaime Cepero), boring lawyer Dev (Raza Jaffrey), eyebrow model/scorned husband Frank (Brian D’Arcy James, an unfortunate loss) and homewrecker Michael (Will Chase, a not-as-unfortunate loss). It’s fabulous that Safran is already making the most necessary of nips and tucks when it comes to revamping the show’s snoozefest array of guys — but what I’m most excited about are the changes coming down the Great White Way next.
You probably know that Jennifer Hudson (Dreamgirls, American Idol, Weight Watchers) is joining the Smash team as Veronica, a Tony-winning Broadway diva who peaked early and has since attempted to recapture fame on the stage. Then there’s Jeremy Jordan (Broadway’s Newsies), playing a square-jawed, angel-voiced singer from Brooklyn with a “self-destructive streak,” and Andy Mientus (Spring Awakening) as a poor writer with Broadway composing dreams. The newest bit of stage recruiting comes with Krysta Rodriguez (The Addams Family), who joined the cast on Friday as Karen’s sassy new roommate, and new series regular status for Sam, played by Leslie Odom Jr. (Leap of Faith), who will be bumped up from recurring guest star for season two.
I don’t have to spell out Hudson’s appeal or explain why she’ll add some much-needed likeability and diversity to the show, but as a lifelong fan of Broadway who actually knows these new cast members from their stage endeavors, I feel compelled to explain why these new casting choices are so brilliant. Frankly, I don’t know if the network television audiences realize just how lucky they are to have these monumentally-talented faces shining on their TV screens in just a few months.
Sexy Young Broadway Stars!
If Safran’s goal is to infuse some Gossip Girl sexiness with Smash’s talent pool, then he’s got a hit with Jordan, who broke onto the scene with a revelatory turn in last season’s Bonnie and Clyde and is currently slingin’ critically acclaimed papes eight times a week in Newsies. The Joyful Noise actor has quickly risen to stardom faster than most stage heartthrobs in recent memory, and I predict that when Smash returns to air next mid-season, there are going to be quite a lot of girls jumping on the already sizable Jeremy Jordan bandwagon. If Jordan fits the leading man archetype, then fellow show newbie Mientus — who made a pop with last spring’s criminally undervalued Carrie and has been a solidly ascending young ingénue since his Spring Awakening tour days — will no doubt be the adorable, quiet, sensitive one. Meanwhile, Rodriguez remains one of Broadway’s hottest firecrackers, delivering impeccably nuanced performances in In The Heights and The Addams Family. If Katharine McPhee’s biggest flaw is that she bores audiences, then I expect that Rodriguez — a fine character actress and a stunning talent — will do just the opposite as Karen's new roomie.
Older Yet Still-Talented Broadway Stars!
It’s not just new blood. Smash has long indulged in Broadway cameos, and despite being mostly ignored and under-lauded, some of theatre’s highest-caliber stars continue to deliver in bit roles. Did you know that Ann Harada, who plays Linda the stage manager, has a set of killer pipes that she displayed to hilarious degree as the original Christmas Eve in Avenue Q? Or that Norbert Leo Butz, who briefly popped up in a performance during Ivy’s drug meltdown, is a two-time Best Leading Actor in a Musical Tony Award winner (and my personal favorite stage vet)? Handfuls of theatre stars are being used to perfection, and I only hope that audiences perk up next season and notice the top-notch performances being given by some of Broadway’s biggest heavyweight names.
Optimism aside, there are quite a few interesting things cooking in the new crockpot that is currently Smash. Can't you see the signs? When you drop despised characters, add hot young sex appeal and de-scarf Debra Messing all in one move, there's bound to be some changes. The network has shown faith to the drama, as have audiences. Could the show go from being a guilty pleasure that you can't help but watch to one that you absolutely can't miss? With his brilliant new decisions thus far (it's only July!), showrunner Safran may actually stand to turn Smash into the rightful smash it deserves to be.
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[Photo Credit: NBC; Joseph Marzullo/WENN.com]
2012 Emmy Longshots: 'Smash' Singing Sensation Megan Hilty
Uma Thurman Joins NBC's Musical Drama 'Smash'
Jennifer Hudson Joins 'Smash': New Details of Her Exciting RoleSmash
Smash, NBC's busted love letter to Broadway, should know a thing or two about hate watching. Tons of people tuned into this show because we loved to hate it. It was wildly inconsistent, utterly unbelievable, more ludicrous than Debra Messing in a revolving wardrobe of sweater capes. It wasn't so bad it was good, it was so good because it was bad. Everything stunk to high heaven and made for as many mean-spirited tweets as there are light bulbs on the Great White Way. Well, everything stunk but the musical numbers, which is what everyone was tuning in for in the first place and always managed to deliver the thrills we were seeking. Now Smash going to get rid of its most hateful character.
Entertainment Weekly reported today that the characters of weasel-faced assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) and the Prince of Yawns Dev (Raza Jaffrey) won't be returning for the show's revamped second season. The Hollywood Reporter says that both Julia's cuckolded husband Frank (the woefully underused Brian D'Arcy James) and her married paramour and Joe DiMagio stand in Michael (Will Chase) are being kicked out. Sadly Julia's son Leo, the mopiest teenager on all of television, will still be central to the story. Yes, you can't get Dev out the door fast enough (hello, this is a show about the Rialto, not some minor functionary in the mayor's office who happens to be boffing a chorus girl who isn't even a star yet), but Ellis? You're going to do this to our Ellis?
It's my contention that Ellis was the only successful character on the whole show. He's the only one with a consistent personality from episode one right up until the season finale last week. Since we first saw the impossibly heterosexual Ellis everyone hated him. He was meddlesome, insincere, and always going where he wasn't wanted. He had no allegiance to anyone but himself (and a girlfriend who, shockingly he did not meet at summer camp in Canada). Ellis would do absolutely anything to get ahead and even though his methods were abhorrent, they always seemed to work. Everyone works with an Ellis and everyone finds him more detestable than spending your day off at the DMV. Know what that makes for? Good TV!
As with every other character, whose story lines were as battered as the chorus boys in Spider-Man: Turn on the Lawsuits, we never quite knew how we felt. We loved when Ivy would triumph over diversity and hated her when she became a silly drug addict. We loved Karen when she finally got hip to what being in a show was like, but we hated that she didn't earn the part of Marilyn. We hated Julia when she wanted to adopt a baby and we hated Julia when she had an affair and we thought we were supposed to like her but we just hated her. Even then, we were conflicted. But Ellis, oh, everyone hated Ellis. And watching him get fired in the season finale was so incredibly gratifying, but everyone who has ever dealt with a real life Ellis will tell you that he's harder to get rid of than a Winona Forever tattoo.
That's why the show needs to keep him around. A show is only as good as their villain is bad, and Ellis was bad in a million tiny deplorable ways. For next season NBC has hired Gossip Girl showrunner Josh Safran to get the show on track. The man who gave Blair Waldorf a million lackeys should know that having someone who is meddlesome, eavesdropping, corrupt, and craven can drive plots for season upon season. Yes, we all hated Ellis, but we hated him for all the right reasons. This kid should stay in the show.
Follow Brian Moylan on Twitter @BrianJMoylan
'Smash' Season Finale: Hold Your Applause
Uma Thurman Joins NBC's Musical Drama 'Smash'
'Smash' Covers Adele's 'Rumor Has It,' But Can It Compare to the 'Glee' Version?
It’s no secret that despite some fantastic (or the very least, entertaining) programming, NBC just can’t manage to get a hold on a truly dedicated audience. That’s probably because for every 30 Rock they have a Whitney and they hedge so many of their bets on reality shows like The Biggest Loser and The Apprentice. And as fantastic as some of their series are – hello, Community and Parks and Recreation – many are admittedly just a little niche. So, now that a brand new, accessible and well-crafted series like the Steven Spielberg-produced Smash has come along, NBC isn’t the only one holding its breath hoping desperately that this one sticks.
Smash follows Broadway newbie, Karen (Katharine McPhee), as she chases her dreams with dismal audition after dismal audition. She’s helped along by her loyal, loving boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey), who believes in her more than a helicopter mom on Toddlers and Tiaras. Opposite Karen is the girl who would be a villain on any other show: Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty). As she and Karen vie for the lead in a new Marilyn Monroe musical, we start to see the inner workings of a rivalry that’s a little more complicated than you might think. Ivy has been working on Broadway for years as a chorus girl, but never gets the spotlight she deserves – and a few subtle hints tell us it’s because of her curvy stature in a world where skinny-minnies rule the stage. As Karen is getting her possible big break, Ivy is trying to finally step out of the background. We’re torn – sort of. Karen is still the star; Ivy just complicates things by being a real person instead of a one-dimensional brat.
But the series doesn’t keep it that simple. The girls are just the pretty faces at the front of an arduous process. Song-writing team Julia Huston (Debra Messing) and Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) are the ones trying to orchestrate this whole Marilyn romp, and Julia is doing it despite her husband’s request that she spend more time with him and their son. Throw into this mix a veteran Broadway producer with a divorce in the works (Anjelica Huston) and a talented, yet notorious bad boy director (Jack Davenport) who’s constantly at odds with one-half of the song-writing team (that would be the fussy, yet wildly creative Tom), and you’ve got one hell of a recipe for an enthralling, musical good time. It’s admittedly adult, but with traces of that adolescent ambition that for some people, never seems to fade away. It’s the perfect pitch for a wide audience, weaving grounded issues with big dreams.
Then, there’s the comparison we can’t help but touch upon. Original songs and covers abound, but the series doesn’t fall into the Glee trap – yet. Like a proper Broadway show, the numbers are given context via actual context (rather than high school play announcements about why this next song is happening in one, two, three…). The performances also aren’t the end goal; they’re the whipped cream placed gently on top of a steaming, rich mug of hot cocoa. Smash has an engaging, robust story (though to be fair, Glee started that way too) and the songs are just the color that brings that story to life, instead of the color that stands in for the actual story.
Still, just as Fox’s musical series eventually did, Smash has the potential to wind wildly out of control. It boasts six main characters with already thorough backstories and its musical performances are intoxicating (not to mention, they help move the plot along quite nicely). It would be easy for the series to begin to lean too heavily on the music as the plot begins to grow, making it difficult to actually tell the stories while attempting to make room for more singing and dancing. Granted, none of this is an issue if the show doesn’t catch on. That’s why I’m here, imploring you to get your jollies from the fun, glamorous new series. If we work together, NBC won’t have to cut the cord on this one after just three episodes.
Will you be tuning in? Share your thoughts in the comments, or get at me on Twitter. @KelseaStahler
Smash premieres Monday, Feb. 6 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on NBC. And for more photos from the hit series, click on the picture above.