When I first read the Theresa Rebeck's essay about being fired from Smash that Entertainment Weekly ran, I was standing in a long lineup and immediately looked up, shocked that the line was still happening. Like, I somehow expected everyone else around me to have read it at the same time, and react accordingly.
But it didn’t go down like that, not least because Theresa Rebeck isn’t a household name, and for many people who didn’t watch along with us in horror and delight as the show became the greatest parody of a television show ever made, Smash is just a faint memory of a show was briefly on, then got cancelled.
In the essay she writes for the new book Double Bind: Women on Ambition which also includes essays from Roxane Gay and Molly Ringwald, among others, she details some of what happened to take down Smash, and the reasons why, she feels, it was sexism that railroaded her.
So many of the things Theresa Rebeck said in this article made sense to me, and then some did not. Parts of her essay made me cringe in familiar sympathy…but then there were things that came off as revisionist history (like the ‘huge’ ratings, for example). As soon as this article came out, there were people who were nodding solemnly at it and people who scoffed openly, and I have struggled with the idea that
if you believe some of it, you must believe all of it. But that doesn’t make the true parts unbelievable, and it doesn’t make the omissions less glaring. Yes, she was probably unfairly treated, and Smash was a comic disaster that clearly lacked a singular vision.
A few things that ring absolutely, 100% true:
“If you think that’s bad, you haven’t been in enough writing rooms.” Yep, this is absolutely the kind of thing that would be said by a certain, not-uncommon type of writer douche, after he tried to shock you with exactly how offensive the thing he just said was, and the fact that he was absolutely going to get away with it.
“They seemed to think that I was some kind of factotum, or typewriter even. No matter how polite I was, it rocked everyone to the core when the typewriter talked back.” YES. I can totally believe this, especially in a high-stakes expensive production where everyone is excited, and also where the showrunner is not David Chase or indeed Shonda Rhimes—where the person has been hired to execute a vision, not hired because they themselves are a consistent, and proven, story machine.
The part where Rebeck’s team told her she had to take lower positions than she had previously had and ‘make up for’ being thought of as a bitch while the season 2 showrunner walked away without a scratch. No questions here. This would happen. This does happen. It’s bullsh*t. Men who are accused of being tyrannical or horrible walk away without a scratch. Women are castigated and apologize for their alleged ‘mistakes’ for decades.
“Comfort level, I came to learn, is Hollywood code for men who don’t want to work with women. So women, who are suspect because there is this comfort level issue have to work extra hard to play well with others and manage up, in addition to sucking everything up and understanding that things are going to be handed to the guys, and then they’re going to tell a lot of sexist jokes and tell you to your face that you’re supposed to be writing the girl scenes because they’re too busy writing about shooting people and blowing things up and other utter bullshit.
Ooops, did I say that? This is another thing that “play well with others” means: Keep your mouth shut.”
Yep. Just about every word of this is undeniably true. Not universally. Not every time. Not every man in every writer’s room, nor every woman for that matter. But, has every working woman writer I know run into this, one or a dozen times? Yes. Unquestionably.
But that’s not all there is in the article. There are also admissions, in her own words, that made me think Rebeck is a little blind to the fact that she may be unsuited for the uniquely relentless job of being a TV showrunner, or at least the showrunner of this show:
All the times she talks about being a ‘good general’. There are many elements to showrunning – especially while the show is in production—that, yes, call to mind military precision and strategy. Trains must run on time, there has to be a marriage between all the departments working in harmony, and there has to be a new story every 8 days, no matter what. Shonda Rhimes calls it ‘laying track’. You have to lay the track for the aforementioned trains.
But Shonda Rhimes also says Cristina Yang is her best friend. Shonda Rhimes is in love with her characters… and so is Matthew Weiner, or Joss Whedon, or Joe Weisberg. There’s nothing in anything Rebeck is saying that says “I knew Tom had to do this, because Tom’s such an x or y type of character” or “I was so sad to have left Derek behind.” On one level, this essay is about ambition and work, but on another level, showrunners are necessarily, obviously, writers first, and that seems absent here.
“The person who replaced me had no theatre experience.” Okay. I mean… this is probably true, and maybe it’s even true that theatre experience could have been an asset. But… how many mob bosses were on the staff of The Sopranos? How many murderers on the staff of How to Get Away With Murder? It feels like she’s confusing ‘nice to have’ with ‘essential for running a show’.
“The ratings were great” …but the reviews were abysmal. This doesn’t always matter, but it usually doesn’t matter the other way. That is, nobody’s watching The Americans, but reviews are amazing so it lends the network prestige. Or in the case of something like Modern Family or Big Bang, the ratings are huge, and though many critics point out that they’re not innovative and not even of a certain taste level, they agree that they’re flawlessly put together from a structural standpoint. Smash… could not say the same. Rebeck repeatedly saying the ratings were great may be because she was told that was the metric she had to hit to be ‘a success’, but it makes her sound tone-deaf.
“I also have to admit that it was fun rewriting my whole writing staff on Smash. “Fun” might be too strong. Because I hated having it done to me so much, it was not something I took on lightly; I actually tried not to rewrite everything egregiously just because I could. But for that first season at least, it was my show and I had the last word and I understood the thrill of that, and the responsibility. “
This is the one that reaeeaaally made me question everything.
Okay. Being rewritten when you’re on the staff of a television show. It happens. And it sucks. You talk about everything in the script and how it’s supposed to be, you debate and niggle over each new piece of information, you labor over every word…and then it gets redone. Your precious words, slashed and burnt.
Because the showrunner needs to get it in line with the last script they just edited, or because they don’t like or don’t get the joke you keep pitching, or because they just heard you’re getting a new guest star and they can rewrite the script faster than they can explain and discuss what you should do about it. Happens all the time. When you’re not actively in it, watching the 60 pages you stayed up for three nights to finish melt away, you can understand it better. It doesn’t mean it hurts less, but when you’ve gotten enough sleep and eaten properly, you understand it’s just part of the job.
Or…do you? Despite saying that she tried not to be egregious about it, there does seem to be more than a little glee in Rebeck’s writing about the rewriting. Something there seems to speak to the bulldozer dictator reputation, the one she insists was being ‘a good general’. I’d want to work under a showrunner who knew they would sometimes have to rewrite me. I would shudder to work under one who thought it was fun and took pleasure in it. Most sane showrunners I know are delighted when a script doesn’t need to be rewritten, because of all the time and work it saves.
But am I wrong to feel this way? After all, this is supposed to be an essay on ambition – and though it’s meandering and defensive in parts, it does speak to the ambition part of things, and maybe she’s just speaking the truth, that she had fun rewriting people? Maybe I can’t criticize her for just speaking her truth…but I feel like that truth is something separate from ‘I did everything right and was fired unjustly.’ Plus, I’ve known a lot of showrunners and studied countless more, and the most successful ones always say (and truly believe) ‘you will be saved by your writers’ room’, not ‘man, I loved rewriting those dummies’. Your mileage may vary. It’s also worth noting that, five years on, she doesn’t say, ‘I wish I’d done x or y differently’. There’s no reflection to go with the ambition.
My thoughts and feelings here are absolutely aided by a 2013 BuzzFeed article with information from several staff/crew members from the show about what went down. If you were one of those people emailing me back in the day, all “Why can’t I look away from this show”, then this is for you, and you will read it several times over, combing it through for juicy details about Ellis, bar mitzvahs, and ‘Red Neck Woman’.
Ultimately, I don’t know if Rebeck’s firing was a result of sexism or not. I know that when there are power structures like she describes – 10 men and one woman – and the one woman is the one opposing all the men, it can start to feel that way in everyone’s mind whether they otherwise would or not. “God, of course they don’t understand. MEN.” “How come 10 of us can see the point, and that woman can’t?” I believe just about everything she says about the sexist way she was treated and that woman writers are treated. None of it is exaggerated.
But I don’t think that’s why Smash failed. I think it contributed to putting the showrunner behind the 8-ball, yes, but ultimately Rebeck’s article reads like she was much more concerned with production than with the story, and the story is where allllll of the problems were in Smash – nobody was complaining about the musical numbers or the staging. I can still sing ‘History Is Made At Night’… but I also remember that Debra Messing’s husband found out she was cheating because he found some music she left on a piano. In theory you could say ‘well, she was being henpecked to death, so obviously the stories were bad’ but again, we didn’t see this problem in the costumes or music or any other place where, by everyone’s admission, there were too many cooks in the kitchen. Only in the stories.
It can be both. Yes, the industry is sexist. Yes, Rebeck dealt with utter garbage before, during, and after Smash, and had to answer, in good faith, ‘who is in CHARGE’ as though it couldn’t just be assumed that she was. AND, the show was not good, and under her stewardship was opaque and mystifying and unsatisfying, story-wise. One does not equal or beget the other. They can both be true, and though it’s not neat and tidy, in this case, they probably are.
Click here for all of my Smash recaps from 2012/2013.