SMASH: Josh Safran on What Changed (and What Hasn’t) in Season 2
February 5, 2013 by Marisa Roffman
SMASH returns to NBC tonight and things will be a little different: there are new characters, some old characters are gone, and there’s a second show to contend with.
I spoke with new SMASH boss Josh Safran (who ran GOSSIP GIRL for several years) about moving from fan of the series to showrunner, what storyline got cut, what he’s excited about, and more…
You were at GOSSIP GIRL for years, so what prompted you to make the move?
Josh Safran: My contract was up with GOSSIP GIRL and I did 111 episodes, and I have to admit, very sad I didn’t see it all through. But SMASH, I watched it, I loved it, I wanted to be a part of it when I heard [SMASH creator] Theresa [Rebeck] was leaving and they were bringing someone new in. I cold-called, I never thought I’d have a chance. [Former GOSSIP GIRL boss] Stephanie Savage was very helpful in me getting the job — she phoned on my behalf and told NBC about me. It was awesome, I’m pretty lucky…I feel so lucky.
Since you’re a fan of the show, what was your approach coming into season 2?
JS: I’m very fortunate…usually you get up to that point later as a showrunner: you enjoy a show as you go on [through the process of creating it]. So that I could watch the show and see things I loved and see things that I didn’t love as much as others, I was able to have hindsight. When you start a show from the very beginning — or close to the beginning, because I started on GOSSIP GIRL with episode 2 — you’re so connected to it, you’re so attached. I feel very lucky as an audience member to come in and say this is what impacted me and this is what didn’t. So I want to gear myself and the audience with that effectively.
Does the notion that you’ve come in to “reboot” the series bother you at all?
JS: It does a little, because I think what Theresa created was amazing and we have stayed true to that vision, those characters and that world. So I don’t think it’s a reboot, I think it’s season 2 of a show. I really do. I think it’s the next step in the evolution.
It can’t bother me too much because when there’s a new person [in charge,] they’re going to say it’s a reboot. How can you not? But as long as people are talking, I’m grateful.
Speaking of talking about the series, since you were a viewer of the show to start off, what do you think of people who say they “hate-watch” the show?
JS: [TV Guide Magazine's] Damian Holbrook actually said “hope-watching” which I thought was kind of great, because that’s how I watch the show…even when [people] were negative, they came wanting to love the show. There are some shows that are so bad it’s good — that’s not what SMASH was. There was so much good that when it went a little bit [away], people went, just take things twenty degrees to the left…I don’t agree with hate-watching. I don’t believe it was ever really true. So my goal is to represent what people were hoping [to see in season 1]. That’s my goal. [With this new job,] I parachuted into a very well cast, very well produced, very well crewed show.
Completely fair. How much time has passed between the finale and the premiere?
JS: A couple of weeks.
In the finale, it seemed like there was an indication Julia might be pregnant, but that wasn’t touched on in the episodes I’ve seen…
JS: I got rid of that [storyline]…I just felt like it’s hard. If Julia had been pregnant, what would that have done for her character? Stepping back and looking, I don’t know if that would impact her as a writer, so it didn’t feel like the right stakes in terms of character stakes. “Oh, I’m pregnant, I can’t work.” It was very important to me that all of the stories this year revolved around the musicals. And that just felt like one that was outside.
You also did get rid of a few male characters –
JS: And we added some new ones!
I’m not complaining! There was only one you got rid of that I liked!
Will Chase’s Michael.
JS: You never know [if he'll come back].
And I will say, as much as I hated Ellis, your experience with GOSSIP GIRL makes me a little curious about what you would have done with him had you been here in season 1.
JS: Maybe you’ll see him…the problem with Ellis was that his trajectory was accelerated to a [massive] degree. Because in shows there’s always that character who is all about themselves. But once you poison someone, it’s over. That’s not to say we’re done with villains. There are some villains this year.
Did you get the chance to talk with Theresa before she left about what her goals were for the series?
JS: I didn’t. Theresa departed before I came on the show. But I have the utmost amount of respect for her.
And what can you say about what the new blood is doing for the writers room?
JS: It’s good! Theresa was a playwright and knew that world, so with her departure, I made sure to hire some playwrights. The staff this year has several playwrights.
With so much going on in season 2, what’s exciting you the most now?
JS: I just love the idea of expanding the worldview of Broadway. It’s not just “Bombshell,” but there’s also a “RENT”-like show. It’s fun to see how many different styles are on Broadway every year. You can have “Pippin,” you can have “Spring Awakening,” you can have plays that don’t have music. So to show that [side] will be interesting.
Last season, it felt like we were being told to root for Karen versus seeing why we should. Do you view Karen as the main person fans should be pulling for?
JS: I love Kat [McPhee (Karen)] so much and I love Karen so much, so yes. But I love Ivy, Derek, Eileen, Julia. I feel like they’re all incredibly clear characters. The only thing that’s going to be different this year is Karen is going to be taking a little more ownership of her career…you’ll see that this year, as she takes on more of a producing aspect, Karen is learning. Ivy said, “I know what I bring to the party.” Karen is learning what she brings to the party. I think that’s an important thing to see.
Do you find it better or worse that you’re shooting so much of the season in a bubble? By the time the premiere airs, you’ll have completed most of season 2.
JS: It’s both…sometimes the audience is right and sometimes the audience doesn’t know where you’re going. We used to say on GOSSIP GIRL — which is totally true — that people didn’t necessarily understand that what happened in episode 7 in going to get paid off in [episode] 22. And when they got to 22, they saw it. If you’re watching a show — and you’re actually watching it, you’re not waiting until the DVD comes out so you can see the whole arc — you might go, “Why is that happening? I wish that wasn’t happening.” And then you go, “Oh, okay.” So it’s both good and bad. But at the same time, on SMASH, maybe it is good. Because SMASH is about the genesis of one project, whether it’s “Hit List” or “Bombshell,” the characters are all involved and focused on seeing it all the way through. So it’s fun to watch it.
SMASH premieres tonight at 9 PM on NBC.
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