Before Smash self-destructed early in its first season like a spiteful starlet, it impressed for its subtle wit and style. Season two periodically harkens back to the show’s early episodes, before the soapy affairs, pointless cameos, and filler plotlines about apartment hunts got in the way of a series that should always have been about the creative process behind putting on a Broadway show. As such, it’s difficult to determine whether the new season’s most redeemable plotline, involving musical theater writer Julia’s (Debra Messing) struggles with self-doubt and fear of revising her script, is a glimmer of hope for the show’s future or merely a lingering remnant of its once-promising past.
Showbiz dramas tend to be about everything that can go wrong on stage, from missed cues to full-on nervous breakdowns. The first season of Smash, which followed the development of Bombshell, a Broadway show about Marilyn Monroe, adhered to that template when gravely ambitious and pill-popping Ivy (Megan Hilty) botched her choreography in front of potential financiers, movie star Rebecca Duvall’s (Uma Thurman) singing failed to impress, and Bombshell’s bleak ending left audiences too sullen to even applaud. But following Bombshell’s eventual brush with success, Smash now pauses to ask: What happens when everything goes exactly right, the audience cheers, but the production is still not quite good enough?
When the reviews of Bombshell praise Tom Levitt’s (Christian Borle) songs while criticizing Julia’s script, Tom initially tip-toes around the fact that people are telling him to find a new collaborator, but ultimately tells her the truth in order to jolt her out of wallowing in self-pity. The series manages to dramatically depict the writing process without reducing it to a series of brilliant ideas and terrible ones blurted out in sequence. When an NYU acting teacher invites Julia to hear her script for Bombshell read out loud by a class, sans musical numbers, with the name “Mary” replacing all references to Monroe, Julia realizes that the show isn’t about Marilyn, but about what men thought of her. The fact that such insights hold dramatic weight speaks to the success of Bombshell as a compelling idea in its own right, one that we can invest in emotionally.
That’s more than can be said for many of this season’s new characters. Veronica Moore (Jennifer Hudson), the Broadway darling who can’t escape the controlling influence of her “momager,” is left with little to do but make concerned facial expressions while various talking heads debate whether or not to sex up her image, while Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan), a struggling songwriter from Greenpoint with perverse machismo to spare and an infatuation with Karen (Katherine McPhee, who plays every scene so safely that she might as well be a stunt double), comes across as a sad sack whose courtship etiquette hasn’t quite matured. The upshot, of course, is that the character writes and performs some new rock musical numbers that might be more accessible to viewers than the more standard showtune fare.
In the season premiere, Julia explains that “shows are like families,” which is why it makes sense that her actual family has been expediently excised from the series. Besides, it’s hard to complain about plausibility issues when her humorless husband and nagging son’s absence comes as a relief. Smash isn’t shy about asking us to suspend our disbelief as it reshuffles its cast and tries to regain its footing, yet it refuses to indulge in one contrivance that might actually help the series: Instead of wisely refocusing on Julia and Tom’s layered creative partnership, the season is derailed by an overwrought and preposterous conspiracy involving producer Eileen Rand’s (Anjelica Huston) ex-husband’s alliance with a spurned intern who seeks to ruin her career by tipping off the government to her use of illegal funds.
Smash asserts that one sublime performance is enough to make the whole toilsome collaborative process worth it, that music has the power to ultimately redeem. But while it’s easy to forget the show’s shortcomings whenever McPhee or Hilty belt out one of Bombshell’s stellar original songs or Jimmy croons a heartfelt power ballad, that’s ultimately not enough to absolve the series from failing to let its most tenable narrative take center stage.