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Smash TV Show Finale: Why Did the Show Get Cancelled?

Tonight’s Smash season finale will also be the musical drama’s swan song. NBC has cancelled the show soon after poor ratings relegated it to the dreaded Saturday night slot. The hour-long network drama about the behind-the-scenes of Broadway had a promising start with a stellar pilot and solid audience numbers during its first season. What went wrong?

The Smash premiere received strong reviews, IGN even naming it “one of the very best pilot episodes from this entire TV season.” The plot wove the story of Marilyn Monroe’s rise to fame with the lives of two talented actresses, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) and Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee), both would-be Broadway stars on the cusp of fame.

“Creator Theresa Rebeck and her team have managed to capture the grand and sweeping gesture that is musical theater and inject it with the immediate intimacy of television,” a Los Angeles Times critic raved in one review.

As writer Julia Houston (Debra Messing) and composer Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) start writing the next hopeful Broadway hit, Ivy and Karen compete for the role of a lifetime: Marilyn. The show seemed to balance the right mix of nostalgia and freshness during its early episodes as the songs from Marc Shaiman and Scott Witman brought Marilyn’s story to life.

“Smash is here as something bright, shiny and new … and making a very good first impression,” the IGN review declared. Unfortunately, the show would tarnish quickly.

The cracks started showing in the first season as too many plots distracted from the whole. Smash was at its best when the writing focused on shop talk, giving audiences an inside peek into the workings of Broadway. Shows go through multiple book rewrites, workshops and even star players before making it onstage, and Smash was most successful when it used true-to-life struggles to fuel its drama.

But the high stakes became diluted as the writers dragged in too many characters and storylines. Between Julia and her husband hoping to adopt a child, Ivy fighting with her mother and Ellis scheming behind Eileen’s back, Smash never had a moment to breathe. The drama of the characters’ lives quickly overpowered the show itself. As the plots only became messier in the second season, Smash was at best a guilty pleasure and sometimes not even that.

The ill-fated Smash changed directions several times, first coming off the high of the pilot and becoming lost in side characters, and second after losing creator Rebeck. It also suffered from a long waiting period between seasons. The first season finale premiered mid-May 2012 with viewers waiting until this past February to pick up the show again. Even established shows such as AMC’s Mad Men can see ratings drop after waiting a year between seasons.

The show took more of a pop direction in season two as Karen and director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) stumble upon Hit List, a musical in the works from the raw but talented Jimmy Collins (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle Bishop (Andy Mientus). While the Hit List storyline contributes some gorgeous numbers (see “Heart-Shaped Wreckage” and “Rewrite This Story”), the personal lives of the characters became increasingly soap operatic after it was introduced.

After Smash hit record ratings lows, it was shuffled to the Saturday night slot in April. Despite the money NBC has invested into Smash, which costs about $4 million an episode, TV executives decided it was time to let go.

Smash ends tonight at 9 p.m. on NBC.

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