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SMASH -- "The Dramaturg" Episode 203 -- Pictured: (l-r) Christian Borle as Tom Levitt, Debra Messing as Julia Houston SMASH -- "Understudy" Episode 110 -- Pictured: (l-r) Megan Hilty as Ivy Lynn, Jack Davenport as Derek Wills

tv review

Seitz: Smash Listened to the Hate-Watchers

Last season, after debuting with much hype and a solid pilot, Smash quickly devolved into something supremely disappointing. Instead of a work-and-ego-driven story about the process of making art, it quickly became a distressingly tame soap opera that just happened to be set on Broadway. But in the NBC drama’s second season (which premieres tonight at nine with two back-to-back episodes), the show about the making of a Broadway musical also appears to be becoming a show about Smash — and this is a good thing. There are moments when characters seem to address the show’s critics directly, with tough humor. Harvey Fierstein has an invigorating cameo as himself, which is to say, as a walking pep talk; meanwhile, Jennifer Hudson’s new character, the young Broadway diva Veronica Moore, delivers what might be the show’s secret mantra: “Somebody’s always waiting to take you down, honey, but if the work’s good, they won’t be able to.” It’s as if Smash has decided to not only comment on the behind-the-scenes turmoil that engulfed it, but also embrace it and turn it into plot fodder. The slightly meta flavor is promising, because it mends the frayed bond between the show and its disenchanted viewers by proving that it actually listens to them.

If you’ve stuck with Smash until now, you might know the behind-the-scenes details, so I won’t rehash them here. (If you're not familiar with the drama's drama, I recommend Kate Aurthur’s BuzzFeed piece about how’s Smash’s creator, playwright Theresa Rebeck, got fired from her own show.) Suffice it to say that Smash seems to have been the victim of its creator’s myopia and some equally boneheaded decisions by the show’s network and production house. More significant and damning, though, is the fact that, from roughly episode three onward, Smash appeared to have forgotten the deepest source of its appeal: its mandate to peel back Broadway’s curtain and give viewers the vicarious thrill of watching an immense piece of art, and an individual performer’s career, being refined over a period of months.

That’s the thrill that keeps people coming back to a lot of long-running reality shows. If season one had spent at least 80 percent of its energy focusing on the book, score, and choreography of Bombshell, its original Marilyn Monroe project, delving into the characters’ personalities solely through their workplace interaction, Smash might have been a tougher, wiser, vastly more distinctive show — basically, All That Jazz, the TV show. (A big party sequence in tonight's premiere includes an impromptu cover of that 1979 movie's signature song, "On Broadway.") Instead, we got scene after scene of “intrigue” that seemed to have been written by a dimwitted 12-year old obsessed with daytime soaps: a scene in which two characters spill a dark secret or get into a compromising position while another character listens from behind a doorway or just happens to walk into the background, followed by a scene in which the witness tells yet another character what he or she has just discovered, omigod! That the gossiper was often the conniving wannabe-producer Ellis (Jaime Cepero), speaking to perpetually beleaguered producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston), only added insult to aesthetic injury. The numbers for Bombshell were overproduced, while a few of the “spontaneous” ones were so dumb and awful that they might not have passed muster on Glee. (Also, a side note to Smash’s producers: Not every number requires Auto-Tuning or an orchestral underscore. It’s perfectly okay to just let people sing in their own voice, with whatever accompaniment they’ve been given in the scene. Honest!)

Tonight’s two-part season premiere offers a bit of the old Smash lameness, including a weak fantasy musical number that finds the Lothario choreographer Jack Davenport (Derek Wills) confronted by aggrieved women, and a few eavesdropping moments. Luckily, the former is an aberration in an episode that’s otherwise filled with show-specific numbers and offstage performances that feel a bit more organic; and most of the awkward overhearing happens at a big party where nobody really has any privacy. It seems as if new showrunner Josh Safran (previously of Gossip Girl) has gone in with a broom, or maybe a manure shovel, and is cleaning things up before shaking them up.

Tone-deaf movie star Rebecca Duvall (Uma Thurman) is officially out as Bombshell's leading lady and has spun her departure into a show-damaging scandal (though not as bad as if the press had discovered that Ellis tried to kill her by slipping an allergy-triggering peanut into her smoothie!). Jack’s history of casual sexual harassment comes back to haunt him; I didn’t care for the clunky way that Smash tries to convert this subplot into teachable moments — a scene of a dancer confronting Jack should have a subtitle reading, “Dialogue by Jezebel” — but I love seeing the pig squirm after spending the first season strutting around like the reincarnation of Fosse. Strong-willed characters are most compelling when they’re brought low, which may explain why Smash’s most compelling character is still the immensely talented but emotionally troubled Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty). She’s been on the verge of playing Marilyn for a full season but keeps either getting knocked down or tripping herself up. (As Ivy, Hilty is extraordinarily painful to watch, and I mean that as a compliment. The character has the haunted eyes of someone who’s grown accustomed to humiliation and is maybe starting to think it’s her lot in life.

Much of the personal drama is triggered by the troubled state of Bombshell — a promising sign that Smash has decided to have the dog wag its tail rather than the other way around. Bombshell is having trouble finding a venue because Eileen’s powerful ex-husband has turned the theater community against her (the better to pressure her for a piece of the show), and Eileen’s decision to partly fund the show with drug money has triggered a federal investigation. The musical’s composer, Tom Levitt (Christian Borle), is still attached to Sam (Leslie Odom Jr.), but his romantic troubles are eclipsed by his working relationship with Julia (Debra Messing). His music got great reviews from theater columnists, while her book got savaged; in a partnership, that’s a problem. Julia’s marriage to Frank Huston (Brian D’Arcy James) is in ruins following her affair with onetime Bombshell co-star Michael Swift (Will Chase); I hope it stays a shambles so that maybe Smash can apply that screen time to the workplace, where we actually care about what happens.

Ellis is absent for the first four hours of the season, thank the Broadway gods; if he’d been given a bit of Tony Curtis’s Sweet Smell of Success nerviness I might’ve liked him, but he was never more than a sexually mutable, peevishly douchey cipher. (Worryingly, Safran has said that the character will occasionally pop up this season, though not as a full-time character.) The most heartening development is Jack and Marilyn-wannabe Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) becoming dissatisfied with Bombshell and contemplating going off on their own. I won’t tell you exactly where this goes, except that it hints at a new direction for Smash, one that could eventually turn it into a drama that is generally about the theater scene rather than one specific show that you might or might not care about.

Bottom line: Smash got the memo from viewers. I don’t think they read all of it, necessarily, but at least they got it, and they’ve changed just enough to raise the series from a C+ to a B. So: progress.

Photo: Will Hart/NBC