Over the course of thirteen episodes of the struggling TV musical Smash, scheming underling Ellis Boyd has become the most loathed character on television. Fans openly speculate on Ellis’s death: Maybe he’ll be hit by a city bus or flattened by a piano ex machina! Critics loathe him, too: Entertainment Weekly called him one of the most annoying TV characters of all time, and recappers from the AV Club to the L.A. Times to Vulture have boarded the Ellis hate train. Even NBC’s own website calls Ellis “just plain awful.”
Why do we faithful Smash fans (Smash-heads? Smash-holes?), who cheerfully put up with so much other crap, like Katharine McPhee’s vacant acting and Debra Messing’s terrible wardrobe, reserve such a particular animosity toward Ellis? Sure, he’s an ambitious, entitled, ingratiating, tattle-taling, eavesdropping, petulant suck-up with no apparent motivation for being the absolute worst. He’s also TV’s most pointed representation of the worst stereotypes of the Millennial generation. And that just might explain why everyone hates his guts.
Generational generalizations are tricky things, of course. But for the purposes of diagnosing Ellis as a representative Millennial, I looked to a recent Atlantic post that summed up research from psychology professor Jean Twenge, author of Generation Me: Why Today's Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled — and More Miserable Than Ever Before. She has observed “generational increases in self-esteem, assertiveness, self-importance, narcissism, and high expectations.” An MTV survey found that 70 percent of Millennials say they need “me time” at work. Other Millennial observers describe a generation of impatient job-hoppers who demand instant gratification and constant praise and feedback. They might as well have been describing Ellis. Here’s why.
He’s a disloyal job-hopper. When we first meet the 21st-century Eve Harrington, about a minute into the show’s pilot episode, he’s newly employed by composer Tom Levitt (played by Christian Borle). He cheerfully totes Tom’s luggage, sorts the mail, and greets him with warm macaroni and cheese after a long flight. The perfect assistant!
Not for long. A few commercial breaks later, Ellis is surreptitiously taping a private recording session, which quickly ends up on YouTube and puts the fledgling show’s whole future at risk. The little tool salvages his job by slobbering over his boss’s early work and supplying him with croissants. But by episode eight, Ellis unceremoniously quits to go work for someone more powerful: the musical’s producer, Eileen (Anjelica Huston). “I don’t want to work for [Tom] anyway,” Ellis tells his girlfriend. “He’s an artist. He’s a loser.”
But employment alone isn’t enough to make Ellis loyal. The eavesdropping! Oh, the eavesdropping. If a closed-door conversation happens on Smash but Ellis doesn’t overhear it and then blab about it, does it really happen at all? He gives Tom details from Eileen’s private meetings and oh-so-casually mentions to Ivy that her director boyfriend is “up to something.” He squeals to the movie star’s assistant about a meeting between the director and another actress. And after lurking near a make-out session between the show’s married lyricist and the actor who plays Joe DiMaggio, Ellis plays concern troll, tattling on the cheaters to producer Eileen. “This is difficult, but you really need to know this,” he tells her. Twerp.
He’s tech-savvy and he knows how to make a smoothie. Ellis sneaks into Eileen’s computer system after hours to steal contact names and secretly uses his smartphone to get footage of that early recording session. In one of the most recent episodes, he ably whips up a kale smoothie. Young people, always with their computers and their smoothies, am I right?
He demands credit for every little thing he does. Early in the pilot, Ellis vaguely suggests veteran musical writing team Tom and Julia (Debra Messing) consider a musical about Marilyn Monroe. This is what he says: “How about a musical about Marilyn Monroe?” That’s it. From there, the successful pros mull it over and get to work writing snappy songs, devising character arcs, laboring over plot mechanics, courting a top producer, and, well, doing all the difficult, expert work it takes the launch a Broadway musical.
Meanwhile, Ellis picks up the dry cleaning. But he continually refers to the musical as “my idea” and hints that he could make an even bigger fuss down the line if he isn’t given his due credit and the payout that comes with it. He’s so sure of his own importance he shows up at a fancy cocktail party without an invitation and tells lyricist Julia, “You have a real problem with your temper, you know that?”
Later, when Ellis helps pull in a big movie star to play Marilyn — an admittedly smooth move — he develops Samantha Brick–level delusions. “I’d actually rather not answer phones anymore,” he informs Eileen. Instead, he’d like to be a co-producer. To be clear about the show’s timeline here, Ellis has been at his new job for a month at most when he requests/demands the promotion from assistant to co-producer. Eileen’s smackdown — “There’s more to producing than casting, Ellis, and we’re not going to begin the process until you answer that phone!” — makes for one of the show’s most satisfying moments so far.
He’ll do anything to please. Anything. Ellis appears in early episodes with a gorgeous girlfriend, but it turns out he’s willing to go gay to advance his career. He flirts with Tom to butter him up and apparently sleeps with the movie star’s male assistant for a favor.
His mother got him his job. Ellis hasn’t said much about his family, but we know he grew up in Manhattan and New Jersey, went to Baruch College, and moved to Brooklyn after graduation. Because of course he did. It’s hard to criticize a guy for staying in his hometown when that hometown is New York City, but the fact remains that Ellis, in typical Millennial mode, has not fully left the nest. In episode three, as Ellis and his multiracial pals sip beer on a rooftop with a view of the Williamsburg Bridge, we learn his mom got him that job with Tom, too: “My mom worked with his brother in college,” he explains. “Slept with his brother in college,” a friend replies. Like mother, like son.
He’s good, but not as good as he thinks he is. Ellis does a lot of things right; he’s the kind of assistant who pops a meatloaf in the oven before the boss has even realized he’s hungry. But he oversteps his bounds enough to earn chastisements from both Tom and Eileen. He pushes for that co-producer credit soon after confessing to his girlfriend he doesn’t even know what a producer does. And he makes plenty of mistakes. After sleeping with the movie star’s assistant, Ellis is busted calling him a loser after bungling his call waiting. Like his generational cohort, he has a distorted view of his own talents and of what the world owes him for possessing them. Instead, he should be grateful he has a job at all.