Camp is dead, and you’re invited to its autopsy the Monday after the Super Bowl. That’s when the new NBC series Smash premieres (though it’s already available online). The drama takes place behind the scenes of a Broadway musical about Marilyn Monroe, following the cast and crew through their various personal and professional travails, and it comes with a reality twist: the musical might actually come to Broadway.
If you took as gospel Susan Sontag’s credo that camp is “the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater,” then you’d presume Smash would be the campiest thing on TV, give or take a Glee. But despite its gayish trappings, Smash bears the imprimatur of executive producer Steven Spielberg, the fellow lately known for such solid, accomplished films as War Horse and Munich. Between Smash’s exuberant musical numbers, the show slogs through one grave, brow-knitting plotline after another, among them the question of whether Debra Messing will adopt a baby or not. (Historians may recall that the Debra Messing/baby plotline aggressively straightened up Will & Grace a few years back, ending in the show’s destruction.) Then there’s the question of whether the characters’ low-grade badinage will ever erupt into full-on fireworks. The final number, a sing-off/audition/dream sequence, offers a nicely over-the-top walk-off, but it concludes a surprisingly staid 43 minutes.
“I keep likening it to shows like ER,” said Megan Hilty, one of the two Marilyns manqué. “We’re not doing brain surgery—but you don’t have to be in the know in the theater world to enjoy it.” Still, what makes good sense commercially puts the show’s camp possibilities in intensive care. No scalplel is needed to untangle the layers here. Smash’s intentions are all conscious and overt; everything’s on the surface.. By going after a mainstream, Spielberg-sized audience, Smash does for camp what Schindler’s List did for the camps: It simplifies it, flattens it out, and repackages it for mass consumption.
Sontag’s contention that “Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques” suggests one culprit for the death of camp: The mainstream acceptance of gays—a welcome development, to say the least—seems to have come with an ancillary cost.
If camp is by definition a sort of in-joke, a winking language of signs and semaphores understood by a discerning few, it melts away when a show about battling Broadway ingenues is targeted at the many. The aesthetic sensibility that converted TV’s Batman into a gay icon and “No wire hangers!” into a rallying cry has crossed irrevocably into mainstream culture. It’s available to all and therefore drained of its power.
It’s an tasty irony, but not a campy one.
To wit: We flocked to Ryan Trecartin’s marvelously twisted Day-Glo horrorshow at P.S. 1, and we gawked at Lady Gaga’s eggshell trick at the Grammys. But when camp is understood by everyone, well, what good does it do us? The thrill is gone.
“Everything now is called gay camp,” noted Michael Musto, columnist for the Village Voice, whereas before, “it was all closety and suggested.” He cited the Bette Davis Grand Guignol nightmare What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?—a prestigious-at-its-time film whose sense of gleeful mischief is signaled with winks and nods. “To this day, gays are still swiveling their arms around and saying, But ya are, Blanche.” By comparison, fast forward nearly half a century, and we’ve got a homoerotic freakout like Black Swan—based on the Sontag-certified camp fixation Swan Lake—delighting and horrifying moviegoers of all stripes on its way to the Oscars and the $100 million club.