Located on a small expansion shelf about midway between the Third and Fourth Circles, Musical Hell is presided over by Diva, a minor demon charged with passing judgement on the worst musicals ever committed to film. (She still hasn't figured out if this is their punishment or hers.) Take a seat on the bench and have your earplugs ready, because court is now in session.

New videos posted on the first Monday of the month. Other viewpoints, news, and general ramblings posted when they crop up.

Monday, April 9, 2012

Why I Gave Up on Glee and Smash

You would think, being the musical nut that I am, that I'd be thrilled that there are not one, but two network television series that feature singing and dancing up the wazoo. Part of me wishes I could be thrilled—but truth be told, you won't find either Glee or Smash on my DVR list anywhere. There is a very good, complicated, and well-thought-out reason why this is: they both suck.

I wanted to like these series, truly. I actually did like Glee for about half a season when it burst onto the scene like a slushie-throwing, Auto-Tuned supernova. It was like High School Musical if High School Musical had better songs and teenagers who have actual teenage problems instead of fake G-rated Disney manufactured problems. Matthew Morrison was cute. Jane Lynch was clearly having the time of her life playing the most deliciously over-the-top villain this side of Snidely Whiplash. Brittney was like a blonde, cheerleading Ralph Wiggum. Life was good.

But as the second season wore on, the bloom was quite clearly off the rose. I suppose it's because when it comes to television series, I have a very low tolerance for characters who rehash the same problems over and over again instead of actually moving on with their lives. It's the reason why I gave up on Niles and Daphne, and on Ross and Rachel. If Lost had gone on another season, I probably would have gotten fed up with Kate waffling between Jack and Sawyer and people taking Ben Linus at his word when he's quite clearly a pathological liar. So after about the tenth episode of Rachel Berry pulling her neurotic prima donna act and having contrived relationship drama with Finn, the appeal kind of wore off.

The Auto-Tune began to grate on me too. Partially because it tends to make the human voice slip slightly into the Uncanny Valley, but mostly because a lot of the singing in Glee is diegetic. People sing in the series because they're in a situation where they would sing in real life—if real life involved show choirs that spent all their time studying Madonna or power ballads or whatever instead of actually rehearsing their repertoire—and excessive post-production tweaking contradicts the naturalness of the performance. When Darrin Criss and his prep school a cappella cronies starting harmonizing with that distinctive reverb in their voices, it was pretty much the straw that broke the camel's back. Although the ten thousand “gee, aren't we so clever?” straws that came before that helped too.

Smash was an entirely different matter; I only needed two episodes to decide it wasn't worth my time. The pilot appeared to have been written by someone creating a drinking game of showbusiness cliches: the talented young ingenue just waiting for her big break, her more experienced rival, the asshole director who abuses his power on the casting couch, the gay songwriter. Then they threw in a few more standard cliches for good measure: the parent struggling to balance work and family, the sullen teenage boy, the embittered divorcees, etc., etc. There wasn't a single character or situation that hadn't sprung from a thousand other serials and backstage dramas.

This isn't necessarily a bad thing. You can write a pretty good story using nothing but basic trope awareness, if the characters and story are engaging enough to appeal to the audience. And that was my problem with Smash: I didn't like anybody in it. The characters didn't resonate with me, and they seemed to do things for no other reason than the plot demanded it of them. Example: why, when Karen the Ingenue was working with Derek the Asshole Director, did she not take fifteen seconds to call her boyfriend and tell him she was going to be late for dinner? Answer: so they could get into a fight over her standing him up later. Any series where the lead character lacks either the knowledge or agency to employ basic cell phone skills is not a series I need to spend my time on.

Maybe a weekly series is the wrong format for musicals. There's something about the whole bursting-into-song thing that makes it hard to sustain for any story longer than a few hours. Maybe it's the intensity of the emotion. Maybe there's only just so many ways you can belt out a heartfelt ballad before it becomes contrived. Whatever the reason, I think I'll just stick with Game of Thrones for now. There might not be any scenes where Tyrion does a soft-shoe while wenching and dissing his prettier siblings (although that would be interesting to see), but there's intriguing and well developed characters, a gripping plot line, and incredible production values, and that's what matters the most. Oh, and sex. Lots and lots of sex.


  1. Well, now I don't feel so bad for never getting around to watching Glee!

  2. When Bombshell comes out do you think you may see it? They literally plan to use the songs in Smash (from the first season when it was focused on the Marilyn Monroe Musical) and finish writing the story and put that on Broadway. If you haven't checked out some of the original songs they made, I'd recommend it, it's got a nice golden era feel with some slight modernization that most people wouldn't recognize. Either way I'm curious how it turns out.