As the networks are currently rolling out their plans for the future courtesy of their upfronts, it just so happens that they're also winding down the current season of shows, the ones that they touted last year at this very time. It's a good time for television viewers to reevaluate the investments we've made in the shows we bought into at the beginning of the season.
Television watching is ultimately an act of faith. So is all entertainment, of course; you plunk down $10 for a movie, or $50 for a concert, or $125 for a Broadway musical, and you pray that your money and time will be well-spent.
But even disregarding the cost of cable and/or an Internet connection, television asks for a heavier investment. It pretends to ask only 30 or 60 minutes of your time, while actually asking you for a year or two or three or ten. What it wants is for you to subscribe. And it can be tough to figure out when to pony up for a full subscription.
Matt Zoller Seitz recently talked about this on Vulture, when he evaluated the mess that was this past season of The Office. There's a big difference, however, in sticking with a show that you once loved dearly that seems to have fallen on hard times (and that you hope will rebound) and keeping your fingers crossed for a show that you have no history with.
Which brings me to NBC's Smash, which airs its season finale tonight, and Fox's New Girl, which ended its first season last week. Both freshman shows have been renewed for a second go-round. And both debuted with problematic pilots.
Right there, that's a risk. If a show's first episode is strong – think Lost, Arrested Development or Glee – then it's obviously easier to buy in right from the start. The show might make good on that promise or it could fall apart or it could fall somewhere in between (I leave it to you to figure out which is which in this example). But at the moment when promise is all that's available, it's not hard to hop on board, at least for a little while.
Smash and New Girl, on the other hand, both required an entirely different calculus. Neither one was fully formed by the time their pilots aired. In New Girl's case, major casting decisions were still to come, as the character of Coach needed to be immediately eliminated (thanks to the fact that Damon Wayans, Jr.'s show Happy Endings -- another series with a terrible pilot — was somewhat unexpectedly renewed for a stride-hitting second season) and replaced with Lamorne Morris, who stepped in as new roommate Winston in the second episode.
Casting uncertainty aside, New Girl had issues at the start. All of the characters were unformed, none more so than Zooey Deschanel's Jess, whose quirkiness (or "quirkiness," depending on how much you were willing to indulge the show's marketing) and naivete were particular lightning rods for criticism. The show's tone was also uneven, generally positioning Jess as the sunshiny medicine that her new roommates didn't realize they'd needed all this time.
Smash, meanwhile, gave the audience an intriguing premise for a show in the premiere: the development of a Broadway musical from the ground up, complete with the various people who would be thus involved. It, too, didn't seem to quite know what to do with its characters, positioning Katharine McPhee's wide-eyed Midwesterner as the heroine of the show when Megan Hilty's cynical, ambitious and far more charismatic Ivy had immeasurably more star quality. And Smash's own tone bordered on hysterical right at the start.
Two new series, two pilots that had as much going against them (or more) than for them. Sticking with either one (or, as might be the case with some people, or so I've heard, both) was an act of pure optimism. It could come only from a Jess-like belief that whatever flaws they started with, there was good in them that would eventually come to the fore.
And when it came to the long-term payoff for that investment that each demanded, New Girl and Smash became almost polar opposites of one another. New Girl not only began addressing and then fixing Jess's apparent childishness, it did what a lot of great recent comedies (like The Office, Parks And Recreation and even, appropriately enough, Happy Endings) have done, which is to identify the strengths of a cast and immediately begin learning how to play to them.
That's led to one of the most well-balanced ensembles currently on television, itself an evolution from a show originally built as a showcase for Deschanel. It also has a feature that works very well in sitcoms (provided that it's kept in check by the writers and producers), which is that it looks as though the cast is having tremendous fun playing with one another. The result is a solid show that's only getting solider.
Smash hasn't been as lucky. What began as Glee for grownups has unfortunately devolved into exactly Glee for grownups. The writing is abysmal on any number of levels: dialogue, character, plot. People recite clunkers like, "Maybe I'll go [to church], too. I could use a little faith." The entire chorus of the fictional musical seems to exist solely to further the ambitions of either Karen or Ivy, depending on the scene, with no apparent ambitions of their own. Karen, with no stage experience, feels wounded that she's stuck in the ensemble, which is fine; but Smash itself seems to consider her attitude justifiable, which it is not.
And so on, and so forth. The creative problems with Smash are reasonably well-documented (follow me on Twitter!), so there's no need to go into too much depth here. But there was a point when New Girl wasn't much better, and sticking it out with either show required a bit of faith of a viewer's own.
That's what's so hard about upfronts and premiere weeks. A handful of shows will immediately reward the viewers who tune in. A handful will immediately turn viewers away for good. [Hello, 'Work It.' — ed.] For a lot of the rest, it's both a crapshoot and a waiting game to see whether the amount of time and energy we invest in a show will be worth it. Some will pay off, some won't. And for a lot of what the networks are trying to get us excited about — starting about now — we won't quite know the answer until this time next year.