Despite a strong pilot episode populated with talented performers, "Smash" started to hemorrhage viewers in its second season. If the show had made one simple change, viewership could have stayed steady (or even increased) in Season 2. The ultimate failing of "Smash" is simple: It just wasn't funny. At least, not intentionally so.
There's no rule that musicals need to be funny, and in fact, "Les Mis" and "The Phantom of the Opera" prove that darkly dramatic musicals can engender serious fan worship. But in the case of episodic TV, the American TV fan seems to be craving a strong dose of comedy alongside their show tunes.
Take the case of Seth MacFarlane, the crude cartoon mastermind who pretty much owns the Sunday animation lineup on Fox. All of MacFarlane's shows have featured comedic musical numbers, and fans absolutely adore these interludes.
Lest you think that TV fans only want to watch comedic songs as a one-off joke, consider the musical juggernaut that is Joss Whedon's musical project "Dr. Horrible's Sing-Along Blog." Originally produced as a way to stave off boredom during a Writers Guild strike, the three-part web series starring Nathan Fillion and Neil Patrick Harris was a smash hit. It was so popular, it was eventually shown on TV, as well! The series, predominantly a comedy, had a bittersweet ending that gave the whole production real depth.
Part of the reason "Glee" has stayed on the air for so long is because of its reliance on comedic situations. "Glee" and "Smash" suffered from some of the same problems, including goofy villains and weird tonal shifts from episode to episode. However, because "Glee" is ultimately a light-hearted, comedic series, its ratings have remained steadier than those of "Smash."
Sure, "Smash" had some intentionally funny moments, but more often than not, it was the unintentionally funny moments that viewers latched on to. Karen and Ivy singing with street musicians and Rebecca's peanut allergy were funny, but for all the wrong reasons. Compounding this "accidentally humorous" situation was the over-reliance on original music -- some of which was used heavy-handedly.
If "Smash" had adopted an intentionally comedic approach to storytelling, the show might have kept its initially large audience. Ultimately, "Smash" is a warning to other TV shows: Don't take yourself too seriously, or people will be laughing at you for all the wrong reasons. The real way to a viewer's heart is through comedy: Once you've got them laughing, then you can go in for the emotional sucker punch.