Josh Safron on SMASH Season 2: “I Wanted to Create New Stakes for Everybody’
by Lesley Goldberg
Josh Safran has some big shoes to fill as he prepares to launch Smash‘s second, rebooted season and its first without creator and Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck at its helm. After a creatively disappointing season that spawned the creation of the dubious term “hate-watching,” Rebeck parted ways with the Broadway drama she created, with formerGossip Girl showrunner Safran taking the top job.
His first order of business was to clean house and rid the series of what he calls characters with short shelf-lives, including Karen’s cheating boyfriend Dev, Julia’s annoying husband Frank, and Ellis, who quickly became one of the small-screen characters that audiences most loved to hate.
In their place, Safran added a long roster of high-profile guest stars, including Jennifer Hudson,Liza Minnelli and Sean Hayes (a Will and Gracereunion!) as well as Broadway standouts such as Jesse L. Martin, Jeremy Jordan and Krysta Rodriguez, among others.
His mission was to revive the Broadway drama — a pet project of NBC entertainment president Bob Greenblatt, who brought the Steven Spielberg-produced drama with him from Showtime — and reverse the missteps that earned the series the dubious title of the most hate-watched show in primetime.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Safran to discuss his Broadway cred, goals as showrunner and the many ways the sophomore season of Smash will be different, including more pop songs, a larger episode order and appealing to the Gossip Girl set.
THR: Most people wouldn’t associate theGossip Girl showrunner with Broadway andSmash. How long have you been interested in musical theater? Safran: I was a playwriting major at NYU. I wanted to be a playwright, but it didn’t happen and I became a screenwriter instead. I dated one of the leads of the original cast of Rent (Anthony Rapp) when it opened on Broadway and moving forward. Being with Anthony for six years was very instrumental, and if I hadn’t done that, I don’t think I’d have this job.
EDITED TO ADD: Since this interview was held, Safron’s new version of SMASH had its debut – and scored one of the lowest ratings in TV history, a full 71% of its 1st season numbers. So we’re guessing we can take all this talk with a very large grain of, you know, salt.
At the end of last week I got into a twitter debate with producer Dana Brunetti (The Social Network, 21, Fifty Shades of Grey). Dana, executive producer on the new David Fincher-produced/directed tv series House of Cards starring Kevin Spacey, began tweeting about how he didn’t understand how some people didn’t get Netflix’s decision to release the entire season onto their streaming service all at once.
I understand it, and I get why Netflix thinks this is the way things should be. Netflix has ton of television programing available, and their users binge watch seasons in the matter of days. They have the stats to prove this. Why change whats been working for them? Why not challenge the status quo of releasing an episode a week with an original series?
I’m all about challenging the way things are done… but does it make sense?
So I responded to Dana and our back and fourth debate has now been chronicled byMentorless and other sites. I thought it might be worth exploring further in a format that allowed me more than 140 characters.
Lets start out by establishing a few things about myself, so that you’ll understand where I’m coming from:
I’m not luddite. I’m a huge tech geek I started my first website when I was in middle school. I’m usually an early adopter, one of the first of anyone I know to go out and try a new technology, device or service.
I consume most content through time shifting. I rarely watch live television or click through the channels, as most of my televised entertainment is either VOD, on Demand, or DVRed.
I am an entrepreneur with a mind for business. As I stated above, I started my first website while I was in middle school and was making $1,000 a week during the dot com boom while my friends were working at the mall for minimum wage. I’ve consulted with major companies about marketing campaigns.
I am friendly with Dana – I consider Dana a friend. We’re both geeks — we even camped out in line together for an iPad release. While the debate could have read as heated at moments, it was more as two friends taking fun jabs at each other.
Releasing all 13 episodes of the David Fincher-directed/produced House of Cardstelevision series at the same time makes little sense to me from a business standpoint.
When HBO or Showtime have an original tv series, they spread it out weekly over the course of three or fourth months, keeping subscribers on board until the finale. By releasing the entire season at once on Netflix, people could subscribe for a month, binge watch, and then cancel their subscriptions.
I know people who subscribe to HBO for Game of Thrones and cancel when the season ends. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who waits until the end of the season, subscribes to HBO for one month to on demand binge watch the season before canceling.
By releasing the entire season online at once, you miss out on the regular social buzz build-up that comes from a weekly series. Not only that, but you miss out on the coverage by newspapers and tv blogs who not only recap each episode weekly, but post tv spots, speculation, and discussion between each show. Dana pointed out that #HouseOfCards was trending on twitter today, but will it be trending next week? Or the week after? Or in week 5? Shows like Breaking Bad and Mad Men trend highly every week they air, and the social buzz gets people to watch.
So, the Doctor. The Oncoming Storm. DOC-TOR. Call him what you want, but regardless of what you call him he’s always…him. A female Doctor is an idea that’s been floated more than once, with The Curse of Fatal Death giving us a brief appearance by Joanna Lumley as the Doctor, Big Finish releasing a single disc in their Doctor Unbound series based on the premise that when a Time Lord kills themselves they regenerate into the opposite gender and Helen Mirren going on record as saying she’d love the role. Oh and Stephen Moffat polling a convention about it a little while ago and the entire audience essentially telling him they’d stop watching if he did it.
Now, whilst I have my doubts about that, the truth is that right now it’s not really on the cards. Which is a real shame because, HELEN MIRREN! COME ON, MAN! She’d be awesome! But what if it wasn’t an issue…because it was never an issue? What if, in this the 50th Anniversary year, we were celebrating five decades of a show about a female Doctor? Come with us now on a journey through time and space as we explore a very different 50 years of Doctor Who, and a very different 11 Doctors…
1st Doctor- Joyce Grenfell
Doctor Who began as a show with the odds stacked against it; a crew of mavericks put together so the BBC could say they’d given them a fair chance before firing them. However, instead of bowing to the seemingly inevitable, the crew decided to take their once in a lifetime opportunity and work it for all it was worth. The end result was Joyce Grenfell being cast as the first Doctor.
Best known as a perky, cheerful figure in post-war Britain, Grenfell relished being given the opportunity to play a darker, more mercurial role. Her Doctor was a chaotic figure, a cheerful nanny one moment and a stone eyed matriarch the next. Over time, the show even came to play with this, especially in Dalek stories where Grenfell would alternate between the schoolmarm role she was best known for and the darker, intense element she grew to revel in to tremendous effect. Signing onto the role amidst a sea of criticism, when she left, the BBC were flooded with tributes and pleas for her to come back. She never returned to the role, although remained proud of it for the rest of her life.
2nd Doctor-Hattie Jacques
Grenfell’s replacement was no less controversial a choice. Hattie Jacques had made her name as a comic radio actress and was involved in the Carry On movies, frequently as a matronly figure. However, anyone expecting a continuation of Grenfell’s approach was in for a surprise as Jacques took the role in a radically different direction. A wildly eccentric, deadpan, puckish Doctor, she used her reputation and physical stature to create an astonishing take on the character; a cosmic clown who could bring a tear to the eye with nothing more than a change of posture. On taking the role, decades later, Miranda Hart would cite her as a major influence.
3rd Doctor-Honor Blackman
Fresh off her success with the Avengers, Blackman took the show in a very different, far more physical direction than Jacques. Her Doctor was an action heroine, the stories filled with car chases, explosions and fist fights. Many fans welcomed this with open arms, whilst many more felt the show had become The Avengers with occasional aliens. Despite this, her run was extremely successful and is notable for a series of appearances by Vanessa Redgrave as the Mistress.
4th Doctor- Penelope Keith
The show returned to the controversy that had defined it’s casting of Joyce Grenfell with Blackman’s replacement. Penelope Keith was best known as a comic actress, and to make matters worse was in line for a leading role in The Good Life, a highly favoured sitcom being put together for the following year. In an immensely controversial move, Keith was awarded both roles and, in doing so, became the face of BBC TV for close to a decade. Her run as the Doctor was, and still is, regarded as the definitive version of the character by many fans, mixing her naturally arch, upper class comic timing with a tremendous flamboyance, laconic wit and theatricality. She attacked the role with a gusto not seen since the Grenfell years and proved such a success that jokes were dropped into The Good Life, hinting, strongly, that Margo and the Doctor were one and the same. However, behind the scenes, Keith freely admitted that the double duty and newfound celebrity was taking its toll and, ultimately, she asked to leave both shows. By the time she regenerated at the end of Logopolis (And a cheeky final line was dropped into The Good Life about Jerry and Margo popping out to Joddrell Bank for a picnic), she had played the role far longer than any of her predecessors. That record remains intact today and Keith was recently attracted back to the role for a new range of audio dramas.
5th Doctor- Joanna Lumley
Another former Avenger, Lumley was given the thankless task of succeeding Keith in the role. She responded to this with aplomb, opting to go in the exact opposite direction to Keith’s performance, whilst at the same time keeping her inherently British approach. Dressed in cricket whites and with an air of the polite swashbuckler to her, Lumley’s 5th Doctor was arguably the nicest version of the character, a woman desperate to save everyone and shown, again and again, that she could not. Despite this, Lumley continued Keith’s sense of humour in the role and both were major influences on Perkins’ performance, with Lumley appearing alongside her in Time Crash.
6th Doctor-Miriam Margoyles
Margoyles’ performance was, at the time, widely criticised for being both too broad and too similar to earlier takes. Whilst this is debatable, it’s clear she suffered from script problems from the outset and this tainter her entire time on the show. With the advantage of time and distance however, her run as the Doctor is actually one of the most interesting. Margoyles plays her as a truly mercurial, unpredictable figure, mood changing scene by scene and with an unfettered arrogance the role had never had before, making the tragic events of several stories all the more effecting. Whilst her run was widely regarded as the least successful in the show’s history, Margoyles’ Doctor has enjoyed over a decade of new life on audio, giving her the critical acclaim she lacked, and deserved, during her time on television.
7th Doctor-Siobhan Redmond
Redmond came to the show with one remit; to give it back the edge many had felt it had lost during the Lumley and Margoyles runs. She did this almost straight away, using her natural Scottish accent, her distinctive build and red hair and dressed, very deliberately, in male clothing. She played the role with absent minded, academic charm and razor sharp comic timing. This was tempered by a tremendous natural authority and age that she could call on to chilling effect. Despite being the actress in the role when the show was cancelled, her run remains one of the most fondly remembered and critically acclaimed.
8th Doctor-Helen Baxendale
The 8th Doctor’s arrival was met with massive amounts of hype, with the unprecedented stunt casting of Julia Roberts as the Mistress overshadowing the entire production. It came and went with little fanfare, with Roberts vowing never to do TV again and British star Helen Baxendale largely, and unfairly, overlooked. However, the 8thDoctor would have the last laugh as Baxendale continues to enjoy huge success recording audio adventures for Big Finish, with current guest star companion Will Mellor.
9th Doctor-Suranne Jones
The 9th Doctor had everything to prove and the first trailers for the show demonstrated the exact level of bravado needed. Footage of Jones, in jeans, a black t-shirt and a leather jacket, sprinting away from an explosion were intercut with a monologue in the TARDIS control room where she not only trailed the show but made it clear just how dangerous things would be. Despite being around for just one season, Jones’ take on the Doctor is regarded by many new fans as the definitive one; her combination of Northern flamboyance and desperate, desperate need to atone for the sins of the Time War make it an electrifying season, with her chemistry with Rose and Captain Jack pushing these 13 episodes into contention for one of the greatest seasons in the show’s history.
10th Doctor-Sue Perkins
Fans still reeling from the 9th Doctor’s surprise exit were more than a little surprised to see Sue Perkins step into the role. In stark contrast to Suranne Jones’ mercurial, often grim take on the role, Perkins brought a lightness of touch and cheerful eccentricity that hadn’t been seen since the Grenfell years. Complete with brainyspecs, a new found joy in her work and remarkable chemistry with Rose, the 10th Doctor was a massive hit. The burgeoning romance between Rose and the Doctor, heartbreakingly cut short in ‘Doomsday’ and revived in ‘Journey’s End’, was praised by fans and critics alike, as Perkins became the first openly gay Doctor in the show’s history. Her final episodes, featuring the return of Sheridan Smith as the demented Mistress (Having regenerated from an award-winning cameo by Dame Judi Dench as Professor Yana), remain two of the highest rated episodes in the show’s history.
11th Doctor-Miranda Hart
The first real accusations of stunt casting since Catherine Tate’s bravura run as Donna Noble accompanied the announcement that well known comedienne Hart would be stepping into the role. However, just like Tate, Hart rose above the increasingly personal nature of the attacks and claimed the series as her own. Her combination of ‘Jolly Hockey Sticks’ style upper class jollity, physical comedy and surprising emotional depth meshed seamlessly with the role and led to an early run of fantastically well regarded episodes. Later seasons have seen the character take a slightly different, alien turn that many fans have had trouble dealing with, but Hart remains a rock solid core for the show. Rumours that she will leave in the as yet unannounced New Year’s 2013 special, to be replaced by Sophie Okonedo, remain unconfirmed.
So there you go, an alternate, female history of the Doctor. I would happily have watched any of these actresses in the role and who knows, one day I might. Hart does have something distinctly Gallifreyan about her…
Dunno about the rest of you, but this article is going to keep me up googling all night. Honor Blackman, Joanna Lumley, ooh…
We know we’re supposed to love the series ADVENTURE TIME, but so far we haven’t been able to get even lukewarm. Shana Mlawski, however, sees the show quite differently (so we’re letting her handle the overthink here):
Yeah, I’ve been away from Overthinking It for a while, writing books, makingwebsites and Twitter accounts and such. But like the mob bosses always say, just when I thought I was out, they pulled me back in. “They” in this case being the writers of Adventure Time, because HOLY HELL is this show overthinkable. In my opinion, it’s the most overthinkable show on TV right now. Mad Men might come close, but it has less autotune and fart jokes, so advantage Adventure Time.
Can I compare Adventure Time to East of Eden for a sec? I’m gonna compareAdventure Time to East of Eden for a sec.
I’ve heard it said that East of Eden is a Great Book because it simultaneously works on a bunch of different levels. It works as a family epic, a religious allegory, a philosophical treatise, a discussion of America with a capital A, and so on. Similarly, the recent Adventure Time episode “All the Little People” has at least five levels of textual depth. It works as
A simple fantasy story featuring a magician
A Matrix-type story about different levels of reality
A meta-type story about Adventure Time’s writers
A meta-type story about Adventure Time’s fans and
A coming-of-age story about love, porn, and masturbation
You can find explanations of all five readings elsewhere on the Internet, but let me go through them quickly before we move on what is, in my mind, a much more interesting discussion about how all five readings work together and how they work within the context of the series as a whole. If you’re already familiar with the five readings, you can skip my summaries and go straight to the analysis.
1) A simple fantasy story featuring a magician
“All the Little People” begins with Finn the Human and Jake the Dog hanging out in a post-apocalyptic landscape and having a discussion about love. Along comes Magic Man, the biggest jerkface in Ooo, who slips Finn a bag filled with small magical dolls. Each doll represents a character on Adventure Time, and while they aren’t exactly intelligent, they can interact with each other in interesting ways. While Jake is off with his pregnant girlfriend, Lady Rainicorn, Finn plays with the semi-sentient dolls, putting them into various romantic configurations to see who will hook up with whom.
Finn, as he is wont to do, becomes obsessed. For sixteen weeks he forces the little people to make out with each other, and they are miserable. Finally Jake comes home, sees that Finn has become a scary otaku hermit, and Finn realizes he has to apologize to the little people and stop this god game he’s been playing. Big Finn figures out a way to communicate with Little Finn so all the little people know they are free of his interference, and the little people have a dance party to celebrate.
2) A Matrix-type story
Interestingly, when Big Finn talks to Little Finn at the end of the episode, he tells Little Finn “I’m not coming back,” which is exactly what Magic Man told Big Finn at the beginning of the episode. So there’s a suggestion that, just as Big Finn acts as God to Little Finn, Magic Man is God to Big Finn, which makes sense, seeing as Magic Man actually has a relationship with Grob/Gob/Glob/Grod, the four-faced deity of Ooo. So in Adventure Time there are at least three layers of reality: the supernatural reality of Magic Man and Grob, the regular world of Finn and Jake, and the mini-universe of the little people.