Jennifer Hudson is joining the second season of "Smash." (Will Hart / NBC )
"Smash," the NBC series about a Broadway musical, returns Tuesday for a second season without yet having lived up to its name.
Though the pilot was well received, its wayward first year was saddled with unprofitable side plots and too fantastical flights of fancy and many continued to watch only because they could not look away. "There is no success like failure," as Bob Dylan sang, "and failure's no success at all."
There is some not inappropriate irony in a show about a troubled show being itself a troubled show — it proves its point in a way: These things are hard to do. Still, as with "Bombshell," the Marilyn Monroe musical whose difficult birth forms the core of its soapy story, the people making "Smash" must retain some slim residual hope that it can still find its feet for a long run.
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The newsworthy difference this season is the enforced absence of creator and show runner Theresa Rebeck. A veteran playwright and TV writer, Rebeck can't be accused of ignorance either of her subject or her medium; but she had never run a show before, and by all accounts was not naturally suited to it. If there were details of her own life incorporated into Debra Messing's book-and-lyrics-writer Julia, she also seems to have identified with visionary, autocratic, grumbling director Derek (Jack Davenport).
We are used to television shows changing, sometimes into something quite distinct from what their pilots proposed. Still, it is hard to radically change course on a ship this big and heavy, after a year spent establishing characters, milieu and general way of doing business. And there is nothing in the early episodes of the new season to suggest that it will be fundamentally different from, or better than, the last: not a jump from a frying pan into the fire, but a jump from one frying pan into another one.
New show runner Joshua Safran has, in any case, declared himself a fan of the show, promising changes more surgical than wholesale, a promise disappointing in its way. Nevertheless, he has trimmed much deadwood — dispatching most every character who doesn't work in theater, along with the absurd Ellis Boyd (Jaime Cepero), the scheming assistant to producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston), with cold, hilarious speed. "Bombshell" itself has been pushed slightly out of frame, now that the question of its lead has been settled, in a "42nd Street" moment.
The hiring of Safran, a veteran of "Gossip Girl," seems to indicate a desire to court younger viewers. Some of the new casting appears to bear this out, including Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus as an aspiring musical-writing team — their genius struck me as somewhat misstated, and too quickly embraced — and recurring guest Jennifer Hudson, the new season's happiest addition, as a Broadway star in search of a reboot.
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It has been an excessive show to my taste: too many affairs, too many relationships on the rocks, too much drama. Even after Safran's cuts, nearly every relationship in the series remains fraught, with new ones just as fraught coming to join them.
And though it may be the case that Broadway musicals are born in a state of high drama — as pictured in the movies, they always have been — they are not finished without cooperation, which is also exciting.
The rarer moments when rivals Karen and Ivy (Katharine McPhee and Megan Hilty), in competition for the role of Marilyn, were cautiously friendly were more exhilarating to me than ones in which they were at war; just as the scenes in which Julia and her songwriting partner Tom (the consistently appealing Christian Borle) are working well together were more satisfying than those in which one of them (usually Julia) is having some sort of breakdown.
That emotional loudness carries on to the musical numbers — most every song is staged as a showstopper, and nearly every other one is an aspirational declaration of one's belief in one's ability to overcome whatever obstacles have been put in one's way, building to a triple fortissimo riot of high notes held over as many bars as the singer can manage without collapsing in a heap.
This is, granted, the modern Broadway style. But quiet has its uses.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: Not rated
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