How Smash Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Hate-Watchers

SMASH – “The Dramaturg” Episode 203 – Pictured: Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright Photo: Will Hart/NBC

Can Smash be saved? The first season of NBC’s drama about the mounting of a new Broadway musical was so mocked online that it became cool to discuss how terrible it was, thus helping complete the great hate-watching hat trick of 2012 (See also: The Newsroom and The Killing). Among those obsessed with Smash for better and for worse was Josh Safran, then an executive producer on Gossip Girl. Watching it, he kept a constantly updated mental list of things he’d do differently if he were in charge. “I had a plan,” he told Vulture. But unlike most viewers who were powerless to change the show or Debra Messing’s scarves, he was named the showrunner last April, replacing creator Theresa Rebeck, and suddenly he had the authority to enact his list. (Buh-bye, scarves!) “I was just thinking about this over the break, how rare it is to be watching a show where you’re constantly saying, ‘Oh my God, it would be so great if this were to happen instead!’ or ‘What if they took that further?’ and then you get to do it. It was awesome.”

Safran is diplomatic about the first season, careful to note that while there are things he set out to fix, he does not think it was a disaster. “I don’t think Smash is so bad it’s good. I think it’s good,” he said. “There were just elements that went off in different directions.” (He jokes that “I really wanted to get ‘I’m in tech!’ T-shirts made for everyone,” referencing Karen’s inappropriate response to her boyfriend’s proposal, which became a hate-watching meme last season. “We were going to include one of them in an episode this year, but I’ll just have to Café Press it instead.”) And hate-watchers alone aren’t enough to keep the show going; while online buzz grew, viewership for the season one finale was down 48 percent from the premiere. Retooling for the second season (which premieres Tuesday at nine) turned out to be a balancing act: If he overcorrected the campily bad stuff that made Smash such a fascinating mess, he risked making it generic, gaining no new viewers and losing the appointment mockers. Safran talked to Vulture about the six ways in which he tried to split the difference:

Ease up on the Marilyn Monroe. As hilarious as it was hearing every character try to relate to the mid-century icon, Safran was afraid it was keeping younger viewers away. “As much as I wish they would totally love to see a show about the life of Marilyn Monroe, they might not have been drawn to it,” he said. So he introduced Hit List, a separate musical that Karen (Katharine McPhee) will become involved with and that will compete with Bombshell. Another happy by-product of less Marilyn is dialing back on the drawn-out rivalry over the role between Ivy (Megan Hilty) and Karen. “There’s not much more you can really do with that dynamic. Ivy already did the worst thing to Karen she could possibly have done short of killing her, which we’re not gonna do,” Safran said. “At least not this season.”

Smile once in a while. It was important for Smash to have a sense of humor about itself. “Last year, things were sort of life or death, and there wasn’t much humor in those moments. Artists crack jokes, even through the darkest moments,” Safran said. “I think the show is funnier this year. Intentionally so.”

Modernize the sound the right way. Ryan Tedder’s take on Marilyn was a modern-day sexpot writhing around between the sheets to a dance track surrounded by masked paparazzi. It was … tough to watch, but it gave Safran an idea of how to expand the sound of Broadway. “I felt like that was a fun plot because it showed you that pop was not the right way to do Marilyn,” he said. “So we created a musical that’s actually about pop and as a way to bring in a Rocky Horror–The Last Five Years sort of sound.” For Hit List, he also recruited young songwriters Pasek & PaulAndrew McMahonLucie SilvasDrew Gasparini, and Joe Iconis. The covers will also get an upgrade, too, and Safran took a page from his Gossip Girl days. “Death Cab for Cutie, Robyn … I just thought kept thinking, What would a 25-year-old sing?

Get out of midtown. There can only be so many scenes set in Times Square, so the guys behind Hit List are a couple of aspiring musical writers from Brooklyn (Dan Humphrey’s Brooklyn, not Girls’ Brooklyn), where they’re a lot less precious about the theater world. Karen’s new love interest Jimmy (Broadway’s Jeremy Jordan) is the show’s hotheaded but talented composer, and he’s unimpressed when Karen name-checks the Strokes.

Leave the spontaneous musical numbers to Glee. Numbers will either be grounded in reality (i.e. Karen would not be cheered on to a stage at a bar/nightclub/church/bar mitzvah every other day) or entirely up in the clouds. Safran likes fantasy sequences so long as they make sense in the context of the characters, unlike when Karen imagined the entire cast going full Bollywood during dinner in an Indian restaurant for no other reason than Hey! Indian food! There’s a Robert Palmer–inspired number in the season premiere as Derek (Jack Davenport) ponders allegations of sexual harassment. But no more sudden singing and dancing in the bowling alley. “I am against bursting out into song,” Safran said. “I understood why they tried stuff like that, because Glee does it all the time and it makes sense for them. Smash wasn’t sure what its rules were in the first season, because it was still finding its way. This year, we know our rules and we don’t break them.”

Keep the drama at the theater. Julia’s dull home life was jettisoned, and from now on, the show will deal exclusively in workplace turmoil. “The difference between this year’s soapiness and last year’s is that almost all the conflict that happens affects the shows people are working on as opposed to story lines about home and family. It’s a pressure cooker now.” And talk of West Wing has been replaced by comparisons to Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy. There will be more twists, more scandal, and, yes, more villains, which brings us back to the value of hate-watching. A month into the job, Safran axed Über-villain Ellis along with several other characters who yielded the most eye rolls — but then he un-fired him. (Jaime Cepero will return to haunt the show, just not as a full-time regular). “The spirit of Ellis continues, as well as characters like him,” Safran said. “No one from last year is gone. People pop back up.”

How Smash Learned to Love the Hate-Watchers