'Smash' returning to NBC with new writers, expanded focus, and more music

Megan Hilty portrays Ivy Lynn, left, and Katharine McPhee portrays Karen Cartwright in the NBC series
Megan Hilty portrays Ivy Lynn, left, and Katharine McPhee portrays Karen Cartwright in the NBC series "Smash."

NBC's Smash began with promise a year ago and then sputtered through a season full of creative missteps. Inconsistent characterizations and repetitive plots damaged the show. New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum popularized the term "hate watching" with her second-look review of "Smash" midway through its first season. ("Hate watch" is used to describe how a viewer approaches a program he or she continues to watch even though the viewer thinks the show is worthy of disdain.)

Smash (9 p.m. Tuesday) was an ambitious series that failed as often as it succeeded, but I never hate watched it. (I save that for Dance Moms.)

Even at its worst, I stuck with Smash and cheered it on, especially when the writers finally tired of the Ivy (Megan Hilty)-vs.-Karen (Katharine McPhee) rivalry — long after viewers got bored with it — and flipped the script by giving them a common enemy in Rebecca St. Clair (Uma Thurman).

Even then, Smash had its forehead-slapper moments, including Ivy's apparent overdose in the season finale, any scenes involving Ellis (Jaime Cepero) or Julia (Debra Messing) and her ill-conceived, "that-will-end-well" affair with leading man Michael Swift (Will Chase).

There were enough missteps to worry NBC, which led network executives to bring in a new head writer, replacing series creator Theresa Rebeck with Joshua Saffran (Gossip Girl).

Judging by three episodes sent for review, these course corrections work. Admittedly, it's a long way until the end of the show's second season and Smash could develop a whole new set of problems, but at least some of last year's errant plotting is under control.

This season the show's focus expands. While production of the Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell is still a part of Smash, it's just one aspect of the series, which introduces new characters and bounces around amid multiple plots involving several Broadway shows.

Karen befriends Broadway star Veronica Moore (Jennifer Hudson), who may star in a revival of The Wiz directed by Derek (Jack Davenport). 

Karen also discovers Brooklyn strivers Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle (Andy Mientus), who pen their own Rent-like musical called Hit List. Deeper into the new season, Sean Hayes will guest star as the star of a musical called Liaisons, who clashes with Ivy.

By distributing the show's focus — but keeping it tethered to the world of Broadway — Smash may be able to avoid last season's tendency for plots to repeat themselves. (Ivy's on top! Karen's on top! Ivy's on top again!) It also roots the stories in the Broadway theater scene rather than spinning off into the home lives of characters disconnected from work. 

The theater world has plenty of drama to mine without jumping to irrelevant, standard soap plots.

At a press conference last month, Smash producers were loathe to offer specifics about what they disliked about the first season, but they did acknowledge reading criticism, something that becomes a plot point for Julia in an early episode of the second season.

"I would say that our instinct about the show followed a lot of the things that people were saying about the show," said Smash executive producer Craig Zadan.

Producers suggest the new season has more music, though it didn't necessarily feel that way. But the show does feature more music styles than in the past, thanks to the introduction of the music from Hit List. Some of the music seems younger and poppier, but traditional Broadway show tunes remain, too. Dream sequences continue, although nothing as extravagant as last season's polarizing Bollywood number. (For the record, I liked it.)