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TV Tonight: Love, Hate, or Love-to-Hate It, Smash Is Back

NBC's musical returns, retooled and apologetic. What you think of season two depends on how deep you thought the problems with season one were.

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NBC / Eric Liebowitz/NBC

What you think of season two of NBC‘s Smash, which returns with a two-hour premiere tonight, will probably depend on what you thought of Smash season one. If you didn’t like this TV musical from the beginning, forget it: this is still, essentially, the same show. If you loved the pilot, then thought the show devolved into unbelievability and insanity–if, like New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum, you began to “hate-watch” the show you wanted to love–proceed guardedly, but don’t expect miracles.

On the other hand, if you believed that Smash was pretty much where it needed to be and just needed some trimming and tweaks, you’re in luck–it’s been trimmed and tweaked. So, the improvements first. Gone are some of the more soap operatic excesses, like the villainy of producers’ assistant Ellis and the whining of Julia’s son Leo. The opening episodes focus more on giving characters challenges that involve, well, making and putting on a musical. (The Karen-Ivy rivalry is still simmering.) If there’s one big overall improvement, it’s that Smash now believes, or at least hopes, that stories about Broadway will be enough to interest the fans of a show about Broadway.

I’ve seen three hours of the new season, which are not exactly subtle about addressing complaints. There’s a pointedly meta storyline about the reviews of Bombshell, which were positive about the music, but absolutely savage about the book, written by Julia, who has to come around to the idea that, yes, the script could use work.

In season 1, Julia was a kind of surrogate for creator-playwright Theresa Rebeck, who has since been ousted from running Smash; now she’s the surrogate whipping girl. Charitably, the new team is acknowledging problems and apologizing to disappointed fans straight up. Less charitably, it feels like the show is throwing its creator under the bus, in a self-serving way that tries to tell the audience where to focus its issues: “The stuff you didn’t like? That was her, and we’re fixing it! We’re the part you like! You still love us!” At one point, Julia’s partner Tom even tells her to get rid of her much-snarked-about scarves.

So Smash is willing to make scarf-deep changes. But it was, and still is, a cautious musical with a cautious sensibility, with broad stock characters (the milk-faced ingenue, the lecherous director), with overfamiliar showbiz plots, and with questionable casting (especially Katharine McPhee, who doesn’t convince with any emotion stronger than mild surprise).

Musicals don’t have to be artistically safe and conventional simply because they’re musicals; just look at Avenue Q or Book of Mormon. Shows like Viva Blackpool, Glee, Treme and Nashville have expanded the possibilities for treating music and musicals in TV drama. I mean, this is an art form that expresses emotion by having people burst into song: it should be inventive and playful and illogical and, yes, insane in the best way. But even the revamped Smash’s idea of adding edge is a subplot about a young composer writing a musical that sounds like the already 20-year-old Rent.

My complaints, to be fair, are partly subjective: I like my musicals and my TV riskier than this, and even an ideal version of Marilyn Monroe bio-musical Bombshell is probably not something I’d pay to see. If what you want from Smash is what the pilot promised–a consistent, network-TV equivalent of mainstream Broadway–season 2 takes the first steps toward being that. The story feels better focused and, with help now from new cast member Jennifer Hudson, the show’s musical moments can deliver the passion and concentrated dream-power the scripts haven’t.

I won’t be hate-watching Smash; I never felt betrayed enough by its failings to hate it, and besides, life’s too short. But if you stuck with the show all last season sincerely, there is at least a chance this new version will be something you can like-watch.