February 5, 2013



SMASH:  Tuesday 10PM on NBC

The intermission that began last May is over, and what SMASH desperately wants you to know isn’t just a second season but a full-fledged Version 2.0 kicks off with the self-aware lyric “I know I’ve kept you waiting/I know I’ve made you mad.”  In an attempt to get the show finally in gear, there are changes aplenty this time around:  series creator and original showrunner Theresa Rebeck has been sent back to the real Broadway (where, life imitating art, her play Dead Accounts flopped this fall) and replaced by former Gossip Girl showrunner Josh Safran; polarizing supporting characters have been axed (goodbye, Ellis!); and a new musical-within-the-show, with its own songwriting team of Joe Iconis, Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, has been added to “Bombshell” and its songs by Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

The result is a slightly more subdued and, with much of its craziness banished, duller version of Smash that no longer seems to be failing to live up to its ambitions so much as it doesn’t seem very dramatically ambitious at all.  It’s not that there’s a shortage of plot in the initial two hours (really a pair of back-to-back episodes, with Hour 1 written by Safran and directed by Michael Morris, and Hour 2 written by Julie Rottenberg & Elisa Zuritsky and directed by Craig Zisk), but that the show’s storylines are no less silly and unsophisticated than they were last year, and that appears to be as high as Smash intends to aim.

We start pretty much where Season 1 ended, at the end of “Bombshell’s” Boston tryout.  Within minutes, the bottom has fallen out, as the show’s finances are frozen, because prompted by producer Eileen’s (Anjelica Huston) evil ex Jerry (Michael Cristofer), recipient of oh so many drinks to the face, someone has finally noticed that the show’s budget is being backed by mob money put up by a bartender.  Julia’s (Debra Messing) marriage to Frank (Brian d’Arcy James) mercifully, and may we pray finally, falls apart.  Every chorus girl in New York accuses director Derek (Jack Davenport) of sexual harassment.   Poor Ivy (Megan Hilty), whose dreadful crime in the world of Smash is that she isn’t angelic Karen (Katharine McPhee), is fired from “Bombshell” and has to go out on auditions again.  As for Karen… well, Karen looks sad.

It’s a perfectly decent idea to bring “Bombshell,” and thus Smash, back to square one and thus in need of rebuilding, but the new writers do nothing interesting with any of it.  By the end of the second hour, the authorities are fine with “Bombshell” going forward, Julia has moved in with gay songwriting partner Tom (Christian Borle), because the Will & Grace parallels apparently just weren’t dead-on enough last season (and just wait–Sean Hayes is guest-starring later in the spring), and Derek, who seems at no legal risk at all from the harassment allegations, sees the light enough to say something nice to Ivy and mean it.  As for Karen… well, Karen almost instantly meets hot, brilliantly talented if troubled bartender/songwriter Jimmy (new regular Jeremy Jordan) and befriends a two-time Tony Award winner (recurring guest star Jennifer Hudson).  The show’s main nod toward making any kind of change in The Perfection That Is Karen is having her wear her hair more casually as she protests to Jimmy that she’s not uptight, no really she’s not.  But hey, there’s a gag about the scarves Julia wears, so the producers heard that one.

The new Smash episodes are organized very much like those on Safran’s old Gossip Girl gig, with both hours in the premiere building toward a huge party, a press gathering for “Bombshell” in Hour 1 and an American Theatre Wing gala in Hour 2.  Those banquets are convenient for bringing together all the members of a large cast for the last acts of an episode, but as on Gossip Girl, the motif will get ridiculous if repeated too often.  Despite the cameos by real-life Broadway figures, the show still doesn’t trust viewers to find the making of a musical interesting enough to keep watching, and instead relies almost completely on broad soap and Glee-like pretexts for musical numbers (with magical invisible orchestras backing singers who are being accompanied on screen only by a piano).

Although NBC is resolutely behind Smash, the show is in a precarious position this season, having to survive without its lead-in from The Voice.  (Even with The Voice ahead of it, the show’s rating fell from 3.8 in its premiere to 1.8 in the Season 1 finale.)  There’s still a huge amount of talent in display in Smash.  Everything seems right when McPhee or Hilty or Jordan or Hudson starts belting out a song, and NBC spares no expense on the production values.  The bitchy repartee can be fun (although 2 straight hours of it is too much), and occasionally someone, usually Davenport or Hilty, tries to find some genuine emotion under the artifice.  There are, without a doubt, worse shows on network TV–just none that are quite so disappointing.  Even with all the revisions that have gone into the new season, Smash still doesn’t earn its curtain call.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."