CAUGHT IN THE LOOP: In discussions of Smash, it’s pretty much inevitable that Glee gets brought up, as they share a couple of crucial strands of DNA (musical shows are uncommon enough), and both have derailed (in very different ways) after promising beginnings into hot messes. However, there’s one thing that the shows share in common, but led to different results—both developed their first seasons in a bubble. Because of how Glee was produced, the first 13 episodes were all basically locked and loaded before anything but the pilot aired. Likewise, because Smash debuted at midseason, it was largely produced and written before the series began airing. However, the results were completely different, and I want to talk a little bit about the bubble and its effects after the break (warning--long. Not Robert Caro-long, but long by blog standards.)
On Glee, I think there’s a general consensus that those first 13 episodes are the high-water mark for the show quality-wise, with a good mixture of contemporary pop and older Broadway material (partially because music rights weren’t easy to come by), decent service to all the characters (remember when Will Scheuster wasn’t completely hateable and actually had a plot purpose other than writing something on the whiteboard each week? Or when Quinn was written with at least some iota of continuity?), and New Directions actually being kind of scrappy underdogs.
However, when the show returned, it began responding to the loudest sets of the fanbase, pushing shipper stuff (especially Rachel/Finn and Santana/Brittany) to the forefront, amping up the amount of Kidz Bop-esque Top 40, bloating the cast to ridiculous proportions and basically ignoring several characters (Tina?), and subjecting us to theme episodes (with the Rocky Horror one being the worst of those). While, given Ryan Murphy’s track record, one could argue that this sort of derailment would have happened regardless of whether it was in a bubble or not, I can’t help but think leaving the bubble hurt the show, as many of the changes (especially the almost obsessive focus on Finn/Rachel as some sort of ideal relationship) seem pretty clearly driven by responses to the fanbase.
Smash, on the other hand, went in the other direction—because the first season of the show was developed in a bubble, they haven’t been able to respond to the backlash to the show and what they’ve tried to force down our throats. Clearly, the show wants us all to be Team Karen, rooting for the talented Iowan, and believes we're already in that camp. However, basically every viewer I’ve talked to is resolutely on Team Ivy in this dispute, not merely because Hilty looks like Marilyn, but because Hilty sings McPhee under the table consistently.
Similarly, clearly viewers/critics and the creative team in the bubble differed wildly on the interest generated by Julia’s marriage, Karen’s boyfriend troubles, Ellis’ bitchy assistant-ness, and Eileen’s creepy relationship with a bartender (heck, pretty much every plot point on the show). Had the show followed a more traditional production schedule, I have little doubt that we would have seen narrative tweaks in response to the audience's reaction (Julia’s family getting sent off to Mandyville, a different Karen/Ivy dynamic, much less Karen/Dev drama)—indeed, I have no doubt we’re going to see some of those tweaks implemented in Season 2.
Because of the music/staging issues in both of the shows, they, by their nature, are going to need more lead time than a more traditional show, making it harder to course correct. That said, shows with problems find a way to course correct all the time—New Girl took the first half of its season before finding the right balance between crazy Jess and quirky Jess, NCIS: LA turned from a dourish buddy cop show into a quipfest during season 2 (with the dropping of Peter Cambor and the hiring of Renee Felice Smith and Eric Christian Olsen), and Cougar Town figured out what it was in the middle of the first season. Of course, sometimes the opposite happens, with a show derailing the way Glee has because of becoming a vehicle for fanwanking—Castle certainly risks that with the episodes of Beckett we periodically get and how we ended the season.
Dan Harmon has talked about how it was weird to be making the back half of this season of Community without the feedback loop, particularly since the feedback loop has been instrumental in shaping the show—giving us Troy and Abed and Annie and Jeff as (b)romantic pairings, even if they weren’t envisioned as such when the show began. Other shows will address it directly or indirectly as well--the Gossip Girl writers have basically admitted that they monitor the Vulture recaps of the show and incorporate those responses into later storylines.
That said, the absence of the feedback loop can work well too. Mike Schur has talked about the strangeness of making much of the third season of Parks and Rec not knowing when it would air and how people would react to some of the substantial changes that they’d made, and I’m not sure how it would have worked had the feedback loop been ongoing. HBO in particular has locked down series’ first seasons well before they begin airing, and ABC has had a bunch of shows this year that were finished before they started airing to various degrees of effectiveness (The River, Scandal, GCB).
However, it seems like neither completely ignoring the feedback loop nor following its whims like a leaf on the wind works. Hopefully, Smash finds its way to being more than a hot mess next season, and Glee takes the opportunity to reboot to refind the voice that made it so fresh three years ago (a long hiatus, which seems possible given that Fox has picked up 3.5 hours of new pilots this afternoon with only one obvious hole in the schedule—replacing House), but I’m not optimistic that they're going to find their way.