Winter TV Preview: 'Smash'

Like, for example, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), the sweater-vested sexually ambiguous assistant to Broadway producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston). Or the wardrobe of Bombshell's lyricist, Julia (Debra Messing), which featured a collection of distractingly large — and ugly — scarves. ''I thought it was really shocking that it offended some people to their bone,'' says Messing. ''There were some virulent things written about these scarves.'' Jokes Hilty, ''Who knew that Debra Messing's scarves would become a drinking game? When I heard that, I was like, Really?''

Oddly enough, Smash's progression into the land of toxic smoothies and karaoke-bar baby showers became part of the show's appeal. On average, more than 9 million people (including DVR viewers) tuned in every week — not just to watch Smash but to talk about it online, making it one of the shows most frequently associated with the ''hate-watching'' trend. It was precisely because Smash had so much promise — and could do some things so well — that frustrated viewers watched, and complained, more. ''Oh, yeah, I read it all — the good, the bad, and the ugly,'' admits Meron. ''I could see the love-hate stuff that was going on. I'm very emotionally involved in the show, and also trying to be an objective viewer. It's ultimately the responsibility of all the people on the show to make the best show possible and to listen to what's being said.''

Yes, Smash hate-watchers, the producers were paying attention to your tweets. And blog posts. And status updates. Says exec producer Justin Falvey, ''We were completely abreast of what was tracking. I think all of us from top to bottom had a lot of the same reactions. I wouldn't say it was welcome news, but we recognized the shortcomings.'' The audience and critics, says Zadan, were ''in large part echoing our sentiments.... When we went to the personal stories, the show bogged down. And the show went from being incredibly special to kind of ordinary. I think that a lot of people became disappointed in it.''

In order to get the show on track, Greenblatt knew that he had to make a major change. On March 22, NBC announced that Smash would be returning for a second season, and news soon broke that showrunner Theresa Rebeck would not. ''In every show like this you look at how they unfold, and you have to make some decisions about creative choices that were made and how stories were told,'' explains Greenblatt of Rebeck's departure. ''We just decided we wanted a fresh take for season 2.'' The change proved shocking to the cast, particularly Huston. ''For me, yes, I was upset, because I really liked Theresa,'' says the actress. ''I think she's a fine writer. I felt that it would rob the show of some of its personality. After all, she created these characters.'' (Rebeck declined to be interviewed for this story.)

Meanwhile, Safran, who was wrapping up his final year on Gossip Girl, became the front-runner to replace Rebeck after a sterling interview with Smash's producers. ''Josh basically sold it in the room, as they say,'' says Spielberg, who actually came up with the initial concept for Smash and brought it to Greenblatt at Showtime in 2009. ''He pitched his point of view, and it was unanimous with everyone in the room that he had an authentic understanding of theater and drama and comedy.'' Despite his schedule, Spielberg has remained actively involved in the show, even watching footage on the set of Lincoln.

Now that Safran's got the gig, he admits that Smash is a helluva lot more challenging than plotting out GG's weekly cotillions. ''My joke is it's basically like doing Transformers 4,'' says Safran. ''I don't think there is another television show that's as large as this one in terms of as many people and the fact that there's not just music but original music. I mean, we built a Broadway stage downstairs [on the set]. We built a Broadway stage! It's definitely out of the frying pan and into the fire in many ways. I don't know if I'll ever work on a show as big as this again.''

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