Monday, April 8, 2013

Nashville and Smash: Why One Worked and the Other One Didn’t

Last year, two rather similar TV shows debuted to impressive press coverage and ratings. Smash, a behind-the-scenes look at the creation of a Broadway musical, was produced by Steven Spielberg, featured Angelica Huston and held the promise of a real Broadway musical being staged from the TV version. And Nashville was created by “Thelma and Louise” scriptwriter Callie Khouri, produced by her Nashville-producer husband T. Bone Burnett, starred Connie Britton, and held the promise of real country hits coming out of the TV show.

With NBC banishing Smash to the graveyard of Saturday nights, it’s obvious that one of these shows succeeded while the other failed. And while there’s been plenty of press given to Smash’s former showrunner and her personal and professional failings, as always, a close look at the storytelling reveals what worked for Nashville and what was sorely missing from Smash.

When the shows first debuted, I was more interested in Smash. I love big, splashy Broadway musicals; when I was ten I tried to write my own musical based on an album of my parents’. I love Wicked so much I’ve seen it four times, and Smash star Megan Hilty played Glinda. And it’s New York! Nashville, on the other hand, was about country music, which I can’t stand. But it starred Connie Britton, and who doesn’t love Connie?

Right from the start, both shows were structured in a way that foresaw its success or doom. Nashville featured three point-of-view characters – Juliette, who was on top and trying to stay that way; Rayna, who’d once been on top and who was trying to stay relevant, and Scarlett, who was at the bottom of the ladder and looking for a way to step up. Smash, on the other hand, has a plethora of point-of-view characters – Tom, Julia, Karen, Ivy, Derek, Eileen, and Jimmy. Originally, the show was centered around whether Karen or Ivy would be selected to play Marilyn, and while that question is a little too narrow to sustain a show, limiting the points of view to Karen and Ivy (and perhaps Julia) would have given the program a greater sense of focus and urgency. (A point of view character in a TV program is any character whose actions and goals drive a plot line.) Furthermore, as characters Karen and Ivy were just too similarly situated. Karen was fresh off the farm, but chorus-girl Ivy was looking for her big break-out role – they were only a rung or two separated from each other on the ladder. The show would have been quite different had Ivy been a Rayna James or a Juliette Barnes competing with Karen’s Scarlett-like character.

Nashville also features an important element that Smash is sorely lacking – a “will they or won’t they” couple for fans to root for. Guitar-player Deacon has never gotten over ex-lover Rayna, and earlier this season it was revealed that he fathered her older daughter (which he does not yet know). The sexual tension between these two is high, and the ages of the characters make this couple particularly appealing to the 18-49 female demographic that dominates TV viewing. Smash, unfortunately, has no such couple. Karen is currently saddled with smarmy, snarky, musical-writer/ex-drug dealer Jimmy, a character nearly as distasteful as last season’s Ellis. Last season she was stuck with political hack Dev, who added absolutely nothing to the series and was wisely dismissed (as was Ellis). In the last episode, director/womanizer Derek told Karen he had feelings for her, but he is such a dislikable character that no one could possibly be rooting for the two of them to get together. Last season Derek hooked up with Ivy, but that storyline seems to have been dropped. The other point-of-view characters have been involved in minor romances that don’t seem to have rooting value for anyone. Although last season married Julia had an affair with a married actor, a storyline I found intriguing, but that too has been dropped.

These storyline decisions may not be the only reason why Nashville is doing well and Smash is circling the drain. But I do think they offer two important lessons to writers:

One, use life stages to compare and contrast your main characters to each other. The stories of Rayna, Juliette and Scarlett are specific to Nashville. But the echo they provide can be duplicated in other locales. For example, if a main character is a new mom, having characters around her who have no children or older children can highlight her dilemmas. If the character is a teacher, having a mentor and a newbie in her life helps focus on her specific challenges.

Two, give your audience an outcome to root for. Whether or not you deliver that specific outcome is a different – and debatable – subject, but your audience (reader or viewer) needs to want something to continue reading or tuning in. Nashville, and many other popular TV and book series, delivers this with Rayna and Deacon. Smash was not even able to give audiences a specific Marilyn to root for. Ask yourself, what do I want my audience to want? If this is a question you can’t answer, there may be a problem with your structure or characters.

Personally, I want Rayna to become a motherfigure to Juliette, to get back together with Deacon, and then to have it all explode in her face when her daughter’s paternity is revealed. For Smash, I just want it to end quickly.

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