Kyle Bishop never really had a chance.
Smash’s young writer character, responsible for musical-within-the-show Hit List, was confirmed dead on Saturday’s episode “The Phenomenon.” The previous episode, “The Producers,” ended on a cliffhanger with Kyle stepping into the street and facing the bright lights of an approaching car.
“The character of Kyle was sort of born to die,” showrunner Josh Safran told BuzzFeed. “When we were right at the pitch stage, I had pitched a story to Bob [Greenblatt] and Steven [Spielberg] about Jimmy and Kyle, and yes, from that pitch, it was clear that Kyle would die.”
Kyle’s death was important for how it would affect Jimmy, a character who has remained mostly stuck in his ways throughout Smash’s second season. And while many have remarked on the similarities between Kyle’s death and the real-life story behind Rent, Jimmy’s role in all this actually goes back to a 1945 Rodgers & Hammerstein musical.
“We talked a lot about Carousel, which was sort of the basis for the Karen and Jimmy relationship, without the physical abuse,” Safran explained. “In Carousel, Billy Bigelow is the one who dies, but we always thought this would be a story where — if Billy Bigelow had lived, what would be the thing that changed him? We talked a lot about having this relationship with his best friend, and losing that best friend, and the process he would go through.”
While Safran and his writers always knew Kyle would die, actor Andy Mientus only found out a couple weeks before shooting the pivotal episode.
“Immediately I was like, ‘Oh, shit, I have to get back to the grind,’” he recalled. “But real quickly I was able to see the positivity of it, in that it was this character who easily could have just been ‘the friend.’”
Kyle’s development from Jimmy’s sidekick to a fully realized character on his own has been one of the highlights of the season. Mientus, who had never even guest starred on a series prior to this, was careful to note how grateful he is for the experience.
As for why he was kept in the dark about Kyle’s death, that’s standard practice.
“[Josh] had asked some other showrunners and they said not to tell the actor because it would affect my performance,” Mientus said. “But as I said, with me, if I’d known early on — because this was my first gig, I would have been thrilled anyway.”
And to be fair, there’s only so much the writers knew. Safran said that while Kyle’s death was inevitable, the way he died remained up for discussion in the writers’ room.
Safran also admitted that as Kyle’s death approached, he dreaded it more and more. He had pitched it back when Kyle was just an idea — and before he’d been fleshed out by the writers and Mientus.
“To be honest, I went back and forth,” Safran said. “I fell in love with Kyle, and I fell in love with Andy’s portrayal of Kyle. Of course, I was incredibly sad at the idea. I always knew it was going to happen at this point in the season, so I got — I will admit — cold feet over killing him.”
As Safran tells it, the writers pushed him back in the original direction.
“I also knew it was the story we’d always set out to tell,” he continued. “The cold feet were just because we love Andy so much.”
For the audience, Kyle has arguably been Smash’s most consistently likeable character. The charm Mientus brings to the role certainly helps, but it’s also in the depiction of a highly motivated but grounded writer — someone who desperately hopes for success but also cares about his relationships and the quality of his work.
And we can’t forget that this is a character who is adorably starstruck in his first interaction with Karen, just because she played Marilyn in Bombshell’s out-of-town tryouts.
“The thing I loved about him just from my first awareness of him was the humor and the positivity,” Mientus said. “Kyle’s more indicative of what it’s really like, people who are just in love with what they’re doing. Musical theater is such a strange, niche thing, so the people who choose to do it for a living are so bizarre to begin with.”
Kyle’s realism underlines his connection to the true story of Rent, which has popped up repeatedly in discussions of Smash this season. Rent creator Jonathan Larson died suddenly the night before the off-Broadway production of his musical premiered; Kyle’s untimely death allowed Smash to showcase a similar scenario.
And prior to that, Rent has been a significant presence on the series: from the poster in the background to the Hit List comparisons to the presence of original Broadway cast members Jesse L. Martin and Daphne Rubin-Vega.
“Of course, it’s something we intended to do,” Safran said. But it’s not a decision he took lightly, particularly because of his personal history with the Rent community through ex-boyfriend and Rent star Anthony Rapp.
“I’m very close to all those people,” Safran noted. “Daphne, Jesse — the reason why they’re on the show is I love them so much and I really wanted to work with them.”
Before moving forward with Kyle’s death on Smash, Safran made sure that the reference to Jonathan Larson felt appropriate.
“I sat down with Daphne, I sat down with Jesse, we talked about it,” he said. “I wanted to make sure it didn’t feel like we were exploiting reality in any way. And they both understood — this is a story and it happened. It’s art imitating life. It’s important, and it keeps the story out there.”
Their input, as it turns out, was essential.
“If Daphne or Jesse had said, ‘We feel like this story is in poor taste,’ or, ‘We don’t think you should do this story,’ we’d pull the plug on it,” Safran said. “Also, because I know them from back in the day — I lived with them … I think they also felt like I had a connection to that history, and what I was doing was writing my life, in a way.”
Of course, it’s not just about Larson either: Kyle’s death invokes other “theatrical lore,” as Safran put it. And it’s also central to the story of Jimmy and Kyle, which has turned out to be a major component of Smash’s second season.
While the two seemed to part on a sour note, Mientus believes that the friendship could have recovered under other circumstances.
“[Kyle] chooses to remove himself from the situation and not be a crutch for Jimmy, but he’s still taking care of him,” he said. “Had Kyle not met his end that night … he was hoping that Jimmy would come back to him cleaned up and they could explore their friendship in a more equal way, less caretaker and puppy dog lackey, and more an equal partnership.”
But like everything Smash does, Kyle’s death has inspired more criticism toward the show. The A.V. Club, for example, gave “The Phenomenon” an F, calling it Smash’s “nadir.” At this point, Safran has heard it all, and he does his best to not let it affect him.
“I feel sad that it’s not necessarily being viewed in the way that we hoped that it would be,” he said. “But of course, I also have to allow and do allow everyone to have their own opinion. It’s just sad because we believe in it so much and we’re sad to see it go. That seems to be the way that it’s going.”
At this point, NBC is burning off episodes of Smash on Saturday nights. The final two episodes will air back-to-back on Sunday, May 26. Like the character of Kyle, the end might be inevitable, but it’s still rough.
“It’s incredibly sad,” Safran said. “I wish it were bittersweet, but it’s actually just sad.”