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Smash: The Dramaturg

previously on Smash

My hopes for Smash's precarious sophomore season were dashed the split second the third episode began as Katharine McPhee sang a poprock song in a halfshirt on a platform for a throng of admirers and capped it off with a little crowd surfing. I thought this was a show about making a Broadway musical... not about creating a pop star?! The new character Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan), prepping for a pitch to powerful director Derek, announces just before the opening titles that "one shot is all we need".  Unfortunately for Smash, it's had several of them and still isn't hitting its mark.

Julia (Debra Messing) hates dramaturg Peter (guest star Daniel Sunjata) at first sight which, in showbiz cliché, surely means a romance is brewing.

2.3 "The Dramaturg"
This week's episode, which felt mostly like connective filler to get us to the new season plotlines after the debut's efforts to tie off last season's storylines, mostly involved auditions though the writers didn't find a way to make that a thematic core. It played like a coincidence across multiple stories: Ivy auditioned for the Cecile role (the Uma Thurman role) in some sort of revival of Dangerous Liaisons; Jimmy and Kyle pitched their embryonic musical "Hit List" to Derek, Derek intended to re-audition for The Wiz producers who fired him in the last episode but was side-tracked by Julia's book changes. She was basically auditioning to keep her job by adding "heat" to the show (i.e. more focus on Marilyn Monroe's upwardly mobile sexuality; enter JFK). The changes were suggested by new dramaturg Peter (impossibly handsome Daniel Sunjata) who is no stranger to Broadway himself, having cut a very fine figure in the Tony winning baseball drama Take Me Out some years ago.

In my very limited experience with theater and theater people I understand dramaturgy to be a respected craft that functions like great editing, fine tuning and sculpting pre-existing material and jettisoning stuff that doesn't work. (A good dramaturg is EXACTLY what Smash needs.) Smash implies (at least for now) that it's more like vicious ghost-writing / script-doctoring so naturally this new character Peter is an asshole. Just like all the men on Smash. I do not need characters to be "likeable" to enjoy a show (hello Mad Men) but if they are all going to be hateful they need to be complex enough to fascinate me. There is no one on this show to root for beyond Ivy (whose self-pity is wearying). We're supposed to root for Karen but she literally complains and sighs and rolls her eyes every time we see her in a rehearsal scene which suggests that she DOES NOT WANT TO WORK TO CREATE A SHOW... so why should we root for her to star in a series about the making of a show? 

Set List: (Originals) "Party" (McPhee), "Our Little Secret" (Ovenden), "Moving the Line" briefly (McPhee/Hilty); Jukebox: "Dancing on My Own" sung as a dirge (Hilty); Showtunes: "Soon as I Get Home" (Hudson).
B♡BBY: Wesley Taylor was not in this episode. Hmmmm. Coincidence that it was a terrible episode? I think not!
Best Moment: Ivy finally wakes up and speaks the truth before walking away from a Derek landmine "You're doubting yourself. You don't do that remember? And neither should I."  
Worst Moment:  God, take your pick? This episode was all over the place. But I have to go with the weird cagey subplot about some sort of violent dude in Jimmy & Kyle's past. Zzzz. Don't care about this. Want more Ivy, Derek, Tom & Julia with a little piece of B♡bby (and okay he can bring Karen along) on the side.
Grade: D 

WHAT CAN BE DONE TO SAVE THIS SHOW? (Artistically, I mean. It's doomed ratings-wise.) 

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Reader Comments (22)

Artistically? Not sure. I can usually gloss over the show's many problems when i see a lovely musical number but this episode lacked any of them. Pretty disappointing episode but next week is supposed to be loads better. Not a big fan of the Hit List music so far because they seem like lukewarm rejects from a Kelly Clarkson album. The story behind it also drags.

Maybe they can start by not making Jeremy Jordan's character such an asshole. Geez. How many assholes can a show have? I love Julia when she's sassy ("I have perfect teeth!") but even she's coming off really loathsome this past few episodes.

Funniest moment? How they cut Karen's rendition of "Moving The Line" short...twice. I actually giggled wondering how Karen was going to follow Ivy's EPIC performance of that song, but they saved her the embarrassment. It's not like McPhee can't sing (she's awesome in Don't Forget Me and Cut, Print..Moving On) but let's leave the big numbers to Hilty when we can.

I'm really hoping the show makes it to the end of the season because there are such great musical numbers from the Bombshell soundtrack that i'd love to see staged. If you haven't listened to it, get to YouTube/Spotify/iTunes or wherever. I played the full thing on a car ride and sang along like i was auditioning for Derek.

Our Little Secret is actually quite nice in full but was terribly butchered on the show. JFK doesn't comes off as such a President-Predator and the guy (Julian Ovenden) has a nice voice.

Well, since this is pretty much the last season, i'm glad i got to fall in love with Megan Hilty. So much love for her.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterDerreck

the problem is that they recognized the weaknesses in the first season and got rid of the problems - Ellis, Frank, Dev, Leo. Instead of just paring that down, they added more characters that don't belong and bring nothing to the development of the show.

For god sakes, get rid of Jimmy and Kyle and let's make a fucking musical.

Also, the scene that introduced JFK was so bland - and they thought this brought the HEAT???

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterfilmboymichael

Dramaturgy is usually part of the creative process from the beginning and involves a lot of research. Sunyata's playing a script doctor. A rich one, unlike most dramaturgs I know.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPaul Outlaw

Good lord was this a terrible episode, and this is coming from someone who (gulp) still watches Glee!! Say what you will about that show but they do a much better job of integrating all types of songs. Smash is too afraid to be what it says it is, I mean, if you're going to make a show about Broadway then just do it. Contemporary songs aren't going to lure in the "I hate Broadway/musicals" crowd.

And then there's Jhud, whose character is apparently starring in a version of "The Wiz" that seems to be an adaptation of the movie, because Dorothy was not a grown ass woman in the stageplay. Her version of "home" sounded great, I can't doubt that voice, but every time she speaks I wonder why she's not singing instead.

And what the hell is up with Debra Messing's wardrobe?!

Make it better or make it stop.

February 20, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterthefilmjunkie

Le sigh. How my heart aches for this show. This had to be one of the worst episodes. If they are transitioning, then let's get it over with please. There are way too many sub-plots and characters and they are not interesting enough at this point to care about how they will come together - we had enough of that on AHS: Asylum.

McPhee just can't catch a break.I love her voice but this show is not doing her any favours.

JHud: put your Oscar down and get some acting lessons. I swear, she's going on like it's a Weight Watcher's commercial.

The Hit List: hmm, now where have I heard this story before? Oh wait: it's called Hedwig and the Angry Inch.

Tom and Julia: More! Thank the Lord Jesus for Debra Messing. One has to wonder what the show would have been like with another actress in this role.

Ivy: can we fast forward to the part where Karen drops out of Bombshell to star in Hit List, and Ivy takes over? Maybe then we can go back to the Smash I was sold on, the one that focuses on the artistic process, not the dramatic noise.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterG.ShaQ

I literally stopped paying attention whenever Jeremy and Kylw were on screen, I just don't care about that sub plot at all it is so clunky. We need more Ivy. Yes JHud is a limited actress but at least she has some presence on screen So I don't mind her, but I can't see this show surviving now :(

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRamification

Before I watched the episode I was worried by the ratings bad news. I'm with Derreck, I'm obsessed with the Bombshell soundtrack (it's a gift from Broadway gods IMHO) and want to see every new number performed. I also read the bad reviews in advanced but couldn't believe the episode was that bad. When I finally saw it I was dismayed. It made me miss Ellis!
Hilty and Messing are the only 2 actors/characters that can be saved from this show and there wasn't enough of the former. Why didn't we hear her auditioning for Liasons? It surely could have been a highlight of the episode and made it worth the watch. Instead we had the bland JFK number which is so lovely in the cd but was ruined by the dialogue cut into it. I appreciate the attention to deatil in the Marilyn dress, inspired by the one she wore in Something's got to give and the stone lattice they sing against also appears in some of her last photo sessions.
I hope next week episodes is an improvement because frankly I don't think it could go worst.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

The showrunner is the one who in my view ruined Gossip Girl last series (yes that show used to be awesome) so I am not surprised, though I was hoping we may not suffer the same fate with Smash which for all its problems last year was really entertaining in massive chunks,but this season it seems like they are afraid to do anything too 'out there' and we get is bland bland bland!

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterrami (ramification)

Seisgrados -- since you bought the Bombshell CD is it McPhee doing all the Marilyn numbers? Cuz i already bought the Ivy songs from last season... i'd hate to spend the money just for a Katharine McPhee album.

February 21, 2013 | Registered CommenterNATHANIEL R

I got about a third of the way through the second episode of this season before I decided that I'm no longer invested in the series at all. The potential for something great has been almost completely squandered by show runners who obviously have no real concept of what they want this series to be. The best thing that could possibly come out of this mess at this juncture is an actual "Bombshell" Broadway musical; otherwise, good night, nurse.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.


As someone who for a long time was considering going to grad school to become a dramaturg, I got really nervous when that title flashed onscreen. Turns out, my fears were more than justified. First mistake? Calling Daniel Sunjata's character a "dramaturg" at all. Dramaturgs are there to do research on all aspects of production (not just the script), provide history and context, and in the case of new work, help shape the show - NOT write it. The idea of a dramaturg working on a new musical isn't completely absurd, but it is kind of ridiculous. However, it also makes some kind of sense that Eileen would call this guy a dramaturg instead of a script doctor (which he really is) so as to avoid a total meltdown/outburst from Julia. Thank God for Debra Messing, who really sells every stupid thing that character says and does. Without her, this show would fall apart.

Ridiculous things this episode: That number/scene with JFK was almost laughably bad, with no help from McPhee at all. Cutting away from Karen's performance of "Moving the Line" was genius ONLY IF they actually do realize that Ivy is the better choice for Marilyn and has been all along - and that's a really BIG if. Hit List is a flop (the plot is slightly unconventional for a Broadway show, but it will be the first thing changed about it in the creative process) and the little bit of music he played at the end sounded so much like Rent I wanted to scream. I couldn't possibly care less about Jimmy and Kyle's past, and that trip to their drug dealer/abusive relative/ex-boyfriend/whoever got nothing but an eye roll from me. The introduction of Liaisons is good for Ivy, but... FOUR shows now? The sprawl is not good. Smash has always been at its best when it's most focused, so this does not inspire confidence.

It's harder and harder to pray for this show. Of course, NBC did themselves no favors by moving it to Tuesdays (Mondays at 10 were the PERFECT time slot, as the show's target audience is theater people, whose one night off is MONDAYS), and the ratings have plummeted. If it's going to go down, PLEASE at least let it go down in big, garish, entertaining flames (Bollywood, anyone?). Letting it crumble from the inside is boring. And painful.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdenny

denny -- in total agreement on the JFK scene. Ugh.

I'm beginning to think the best acting on the show is when characters have to react to a performance/scene/idea like it's the best damn thing they've ever seen or heard. If the JFK scene (or Hit List) were all that amazing then the audience would see it and know it, we wouldn't need a Derek or the other characters to proclaim how fabulous it was. I really like Jack Davenport, but he's totally wasted trying to pretend that McPhee is god's gift to musicals or that the plot of Hit List is interesting or dynamic.

At this point I just want the show to be about Ivy and Tom, they are the only characters I really care about.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSusanP

Actually, speaking as someone with a Dramaturgy MFA, I can say that Dramaturgy is an extremely broad term that can mean whatever any given show or company needs it to mean. Some dramaturgs are historians; some are sort of assistant directors or creative directors; some are sort of in-house critics who come in after the production has begun but before the outside world sees it, to help critique it; some, yes, do function as script doctors. One prominent example, which they actually referenced in the episode, is Lynn Thomson, the RENT dramaturg, who sued the Larsons after Jonathan Larson died for credit for the script, which she claims she rewrote large chunks of, in collaboration with Larson.

While I agree that the episode was bad, I did want to also clarify that Julia and Tom's initial reaction to being told they're bringing on a dramaturg also isn't out of line with reality. There is often friction and hurt feelings between playwrights and dramaturgs. In my program, we were paired up with people from the playwrighting program to help them write their scripts, and initially, the playwrights were not happy about it.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Oh, also wanted to add, it's not uncommon at all to hire a dramaturg for work on a new musical, particularly in a case such as with RENT or BOMBSHELL, where there is some great material with amazing potential but which, for whatever reason, isn't coming together quite well enough and so needs an outside, professional eye to help mold it.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Smash is going down, and it's painful to watch--both the show and the demise. All they really need to do to fix it is to make the story about THIS one Broadway show, which would provide all the drama, comedy and music to fill an hour easily every week. But the show runners obviously don't have any faith that the audience wants to see this--so why is this show on at all? Totally frustrating. Megan Hilty and Debra Messing are the only reasons to watch, and both of their talents are laid waste in this bombshell. Most of the male cast is left twisting in the wind as they are reduced to bad stereotypes, Huston's character is terribly undeveloped, and McPhee is hopelessly out of her element. Most times, the musical numbers save the episode, but that JFK number fell flat. We need a show like this on the air, but the writing is on the wall. Maybe they should develop a show about how difficult it is to put on a musical show on television?

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterbrookesboy

And then I came upon this timely and terribly amusing bit of hilarity:


February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterTroy H.

Just caught up with the 3rd episode of this season today. Ugh. Pull the plug. Award Winners (Messing, Borle, Hudson, Huston) and Real Talent (Hilty, Odoms, d'Arcy James) need to run away ASAP (oops, Odoms and James already did...). Daniel Sunjata is not a good addition. I still think of him as the designer who made Miranda Priestly purse her lips...

I'm happier with episodes of Emily Owens MD, or Revenge in terms of TV worth watching.

February 21, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterPam

I am probably very late to this party, but i agree with what most people are talking about. I don't really know a lot about the making of a musical but I know what I like to see in a good drama and in vocal talents. For those who are fans of Katherine while I respect your opinion I disagree that she has presence...especially when she is paired with the likings of IVY and Jennifer Hudson. I even felt that way when she was on AI. I did enjoy her somewhere over the rainbow but again it was a powerful subtle performance that works well in a small setting. She would be perfect with a lounge singing position. I also agree the new characters are poorly constructed. I have never had a broadway dream but the friends that I have who do would be humble and give their left arm for the opportunity that the new characters are being given with hit list. I am also not sold on the new character. Yes he is hot, and yes he can sing, but for some reason I just dont think he fits...which is part of the other problem. The cast doesn't gel for me...some of them work really well together and others I feel belong on another show. I love Angelica but she has one range on this show and one facial expression. She is a much better actress..and I can't blame the material. Her part should be one of the highlights...she is fighting for a show she really believes in however I never see that real fighting feeling. i think she needs to be more vunerable...which takes me to my next problem with the character of IVY. She has the BEST voice on the show and that includes Jennifer Hudson...so why again is she sitting on the sidelines. The problem is that the show wants us still to see Katherine as a threat and unfortunately she isn't. I guess the producers are reading the internet or listening to the reviewers...oh but wait they are because they did take away Julia's scarves...thats what they took away???? So confused. Plus people who know they can sing, know they can sing. Ivy's character should have been a B*itch with a capital B. Especially with her mom...I think you focus on that relationship and make her vunerable and then that character who is a villian however you still seem to root for her...plus when has a show been successful with a poorly written book. i love how they are celebrating and that KM is going to be a star however the show is poorly written...and the comment here Hudson tellls KM to get use this to with the cameras because this will be her?? Since when. The only time photographers are llike that is when a movie star takes time and the opportunity to showcase their talents on broadway...if i am wrong...again sorry...I dont know much about it but this seems more realistic.

February 23, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterRichard

The writers have fixed a lot of the problems of season one, except they haven't done anything with the annoying character played by Debra Messing. It wasn't the scarves that were the biggest problem, it was her totally unrealistic portrayal of a writer. Good writers know when they haven't nailed it. Yet on "Smash" Messing's character is not the least bit self aware. She's also incredibly arrogant, yet another trait not usually associated with writers. And what's with her writing habits? On the most recent episode she agrees to go away with the dramaturg in order to write, although 1. she thinks he can't write and 2. he has flat out stated he cannot write. Please either fix the character or get rid of it altogether. It's an insult to writers everywhere.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterGeri

A McPhee McPhan whimpered the question to those of us who hate watch smash 'Why do you WATCH this show if you hate it so much?' And I had just happened upon the answer to that very question yesterday morning. I was in the car with my husband, and we were listening to the new 'Bombshell' CD that I'd just purchased a day earlier. As we headed up the hill to our house I fast forwarded to 'Second Hand White Baby Grand', and afterwards my husband just said "WOW". He does not watch Smash, but is a Megan Hilty fan since we saw her a year ago in concert with The Seattle Men's Chorus. And I said to him....."That. That is why I watch Smash. Because Megan Hilty is pure magic. Just hearing her sing that song is enough to keep me watching, because Hilty is the definition of Must See TV." So I continue to hate watch, and to bitch and moan and groan (mainly because I grieve for what this show should have and could have been...). It is as simple as that. Throw the amazing music of Shaiman and Wittman into the stew, along with Christian Borle, Jack Davenport, Leslie Odom, Jr. and so many others in this stellar cast....and it keeps me watching. The writing has been terrible, Katharine McPhee is an embarrassment. But there is just enough there that I cannot give it up. And if nothing else, I will stay here just to hear Bernadette Peters and Megan Hilty sing the heart wrenchingly beautiful song 'Hang the Moon'. Without any doubt, it will break some hearts.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSeattle Girl

OK so this was kind of a weird transitional episode, but I did like the parts with Jimmy and Kyle - first their pitch of their musical "Hit List" to Derek, an then also when Jimmy smokes a joint on the couch while working with Kyle (which also gets bonus points for using the song "Old Friend" by Caveman, who I think are the next Grizzly Bear).

Anyway, here's hoping now that we are fully transitioned out of last year's arcs, they can start developing some momentum in this season.

February 28, 2013 | Unregistered Commenterdarci

@Seattle Girl
You were spot on! Hilty is must see TV and pure magic. I read somewhere that she recorded "Don't forget me" but sadly it's not on the Bombshell CD. I am looking forward to hear her sing it, maybe I'll like that song in the end.

March 2, 2013 | Unregistered CommenterSeisgrados

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