I watch Smash. There. I’ve said it. Heap all the derision upon me that you will! I know it is truly awful. I know that the writing is impossibly muddled and the characters are less than cardboard, yet I can’t stop watching it. I don’t even know if it counts as a guilty pleasure since I spend the whole viewing hour critiquing it mercilessly. Then why do I watch it? It’s just so BIG. It’s produced by Steven Spielberg. The great Maerose Prizzi herself, Anjelica Houston has a leading role. Every week features at least one impeccably directed and staged original musical number from one or both of the new musicals whose development the show is tracking. The first of these is Bombshell, apparently a big, old-fashioned Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe. Monroe is often invoked by the earnest cast members as an avatar for just about anything the character speaking needs at the moment. The crushed and used victim, the great feminist icon, the knowing sex kitten, just about anything. The other musical is being produced ‘downtown’ and is called Hit List. God help me if I can tell you what this show is supposed to be about. Even after weeks and weeks of watching rehearsals and production numbers from the show I still have no coherent idea what the thing is supposed to be about. The only thing I can tell is that it is supposed to be edgy as opposed to Bombshell being traditional. The downtown vibe is supposed to put you in mind of the much loved Rent by Jonathan Larson. Yeah, OK. All this still doesn’t explain why I watch it. Yes, it’s fun to see Bernadette Peters chew the scenery every few weeks. You get to see what Liza Minnelli looks like nowadays. That still doesn’t seem to be enough. Most shows that pull you in, do so on the strength and interest of the characters. In a good show we watch the characters develop and become more complex episode after episode, season after season. The character of Lou Grant was a monotonous, gruff bully in the first episodes of The Mary Tyler Moore Show. By the end he was a rich, contradictory, lovable, recognizable friend. But The Mary Tyler Moore Show was the zenith of television art. Smash is close to the nadir. Yet I watch. And I lament the fact that after the season finale a week from Sunday, the show will go the way of all flesh. I resent the fact that because of the failure of Smash it will be a very long time before network television will gamble on a plot driven show with such high production values.
And there will be no characters I will miss because for two whole seasons not one character has remained consistent and has been developed and made complex in a way that would make him or her endearing. In fact, a single character on Smash tries on more stereotypes than one will find in a dozen situation comedies. Each stereotype is dropped quickly since it seems that the writers have no idea how to build a character over a season. Which brings me to the most infuriating aspect of the whole business As you can tell, Smash ain’t Proust. It is the lightest of light entertainment. It is not too far removed from the innocence of Mickey and Judy mounting a show in a barn. Therefore, one would think that death wouldn’t have much of a place in Smash – but you would be wrong. The one appealling character in the whole series was Kyle, a wide-eyed, sweet, eager, idealist young Gay man who is half of the team responsible for Hit List.
The other half is the straight, troubled, obnoxious, endlessly grating Jimmy, Kyle’s best friend and great crush. A few episodes ago Kyle finally realized how selfish and destructive Jimmy is and emptied all of his stuff from their shared apartment and brought it all to Jimmy’s brother’s place. After Kyle sings a tortured love song by some pop musician I don’t know, the episode ends with Kyle crossing the street and possibly getting hit by a car. We find in the next episode that he is indeed dead. Much has been written about how this was to evoke the tragic death of Jonathan Larson, a budding musical genius cut down just as he was about to flower. Hooey. He is another casualty of The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo’s landmark study of the portrayal of Gays from the beginning of film until the time of the book’s writing. He posits that Gays are effeminate types that are the butt of jokes, or they are evil, perverse predators that must be destroyed, or, most upsettingly, the are sympathetic and marked by tragedy, and they must die too. Even though Brokeback Mountain was heralded as a landmark in the depiction of Gay love, Jack Twist still must die in the end. Yes, I know this is what happened in the original novella, but that is beside the point. The fate of poor adorable Kyle shows us that the Celluloid Closet still reigns supreme.