Katharine McPhee in "Smash."
Julia Houston, the playwright heroine of NBC’s “Smash” — and also the fictional stand-in for the show’s ousted creator, Theresa Rebeck — declares early in the musical drama’s new season (it returns tonight at 9 with back-to-back episodes) that she doesn’t like to read reviews of her work.
"I don't need some critic getting in my head!” she says, trying to ignore the press about the Marilyn Monroe musical “Bombshell” that formed the spine of “Smash” season 1. “I sat in the audience for three weeks. I know there are things that need to be done. I want this to be the best it can be."
Whether or not Julia chooses to pay attention to her critics, it’s clear that the remaining producers of “Smash” do. “Smash” was a pet project of NBC president Bob Greenblatt, and last year received lavish promotion and the best timeslot NBC had to offer, after “The Voice.” Early reviews were mostly strong, but within a few weeks, the critical and social media tide very much turned against the series. By the end of the first season, many of the people I knew (fellow TV critics in particular) who were still tuning into “Smash” said they were simply hate-watching it, because it was so easy — and fun — to mock the many terrible creative decisions.
Rebeck took the fall, both in real life, where she's been replaced by “Gossip Girl” alum Josh Safran, and on the show, where the constant thread of all the “Bombshell” reviews is that the music and performances were fantastic, but unfortunately sabotaged by Julia’s writing.
But the fixes made by Safran feel largely cosmetic, attacking superficial problems that “Smash” viewers disliked without getting at the root cause of things. Julia stops wearing a series of unflattering scarves, and the show has ditched several of its most problematic characters from last year, including conniving assistant Ellis, sleep-inducing boyfriend Dev, Julia’s whiny boy-man son Leo and her put-upon husband Frank. (To be fair, nobody really hated Frank, but his existence made people hate adulterer Julia, and the show’s not saying goodbye to Debra Messing, so he had to go.)
But “Smash” under Safran is fundamentally unchanged from “Smash” under Rebeck, in that the series continues to miscalculate how certain characters and storylines will come across to the audience.
Rebeck expected viewers to love to hate Ellis, when they just couldn’t stand him. She wanted people to feel sympathy for Julia as she juggled career and family, then threw her into an affair with her leading man that made her more unlikable than Ellis. She had character after character light up in the musical presence of
Karen Cartwright, the Iowa ingénue played by Katharine McPhee from “American Idol,” and pimped her at the expense of her chorus girl rival Ivy, played by Broadway veteran Megan Hilty. The problem was that, while McPhee has a fine voice, she’s a limited actress with a fraction of Hilty’s musical theater skills. “Smash” didn’t welcome any viewers who didn’t instantly fall in love with Karen and want her to get the role of Marilyn.
As part of the season 2 makeover, “Bombshell” winds up in legal limbo for a while. This gives Karen the opportunity to befriend Jimmy and Kyle, a young songwriting duo, played by Broadway actors Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus, who are working on a “Rent”-esque musical (one character even compares their work to the late Jonathan Larson’s) about trying to make it on Broadway. The volatile Jimmy is handsome and has a soulful singing voice, and we’re meant to root for Karen to help soothe his troubled heart. But he doesn’t come across as a charming dick — just an insufferable one. And when she’s with him, Karen seems even more robotic and lacking in self-awareness than usual.
Another major story arc brings in McPhee’s fellow “Idol” alum Jennifer Hudson to play a major Broadway star chafing under the control of her mother/manager. On the one hand, it’s an absolute pleasure to have Hudson around and singing frequently; for once, it’s believable when we’re told someone has major star power. On the other, she badly outclasses McPhee on what’s meant to be a duet of near-equals “On Broadway,” and the momager character seems to have been conceived backwards from how this tends to work: where Kris Jenner, Dina Lohan, etc., push their daughters to exploit their sexuality, Hudson’s mom wants her to come across as virginal, even though Hudson looks every bit of her 31 years. (Safran appears to have gone that way because the show’s fictional director Derek Willis, played by Jack Davenport, was put on earth to get his actresses to embrace their naughtier side.)
Meanwhile, Julia is paired with another writer (played by Daniel Sunjata from “Rescue Me”) to try to get her mojo back, and their “I hate you instantly but will sleep with you in 5 to 7 episodes” dynamic is every bit as irritating and clichéd as you might expect. In a later episode (critics were sent 3 of the season’s first 4 hours), one of their brainstorming sessions inspires her to try a brilliant, entirely new approach to telling Marilyn’s story — which happens to be the approach used by every other Marilyn Monroe story ever told.
In interviews, Safran and the returning producers have talked about certain odd musical numbers from the first season that they wanted to avoid, like a group singalong at a bowling alley, or a Bollywood fantasy of Karen’s. Yet there’s a Robert Palmer pastiche in tonight’s second hour that’s every bit as goofy (and, frankly, not as well-executed) as either of those.
Under Safran, “Smash” moves a bit more gracefully through its soap opera paces, and there have been some minor improvements here and there. As “Bombshell” lyricist Tom Levitt, Tony winner Christian Borle — who, along with Davenport and Hilty, was one of the few unironically entertaining parts of the first season — gets more to do, including his first full-on musical number, rather than just accompanying one of the actresses. (Putting Broadway vets like Borle and Brian D’Arcy James into predominantly non-singing roles last season was a big miscalculation.) And Jimmy and Kyle’s songs are good, and offer a different flavor from the new and old “Bombshell” numbers we keep hearing.
But unlike “Bombshell,” “Smash” isn’t some embryonic musical retooling after an out-of-town tryout. It already had its big debut on the biggest stage its network could give it, and it was a very public mess. (At press tour last month, Greenblatt referred to the show as “an unqualified success,” but couldn’t explain how you apply that phrase to a series that had to fire its creator and replace a large chunk of its cast.) And even with all the changes in front of and behind the camera, “Smash” is fundamentally the same show with the same problems. Maybe in Julia Houston’s fictional world, “Bombshell” can become a beloved work of art, but in our world, “Smash” is still, unfortunately, “Smash.”