Review: Smash Season 2, Episodes 1 & 2

NBC's musical drama Smash entered its second season last week with a new show runner and the same big aspirations.

The new season of Smash returned with a two-hour episode last Tuesday which is ambitious yet feckless.

The finale of season one ended with Karen (Katharine McPhee) staring as Marilyn Monroe on stage in “Bombshell,” a musical about Monroe, while her counterpart Ivy (Megan Hilty) began taking pills after being replaced by Karen.

So far, new showrunner Josh Safran (executive producer of Gossip Girl) did a fine job in tidying things up. He presented the rise and fall of the process to debut “Bombshell” on Broadway, while wisely getting rid of Ivy’s pills, Julia’s marriage and Karen’s relationship. The trend is clear: The loose plots are ended and new plots that can shape the characters are being developed. However, the rushed introduction of the new character Jimmy Collins, and Karen just as quickly becoming smitten, feels too obvious and forced.

Season two will include a number of guest stars like Sean Hayes from Will and Grace and Jesse L. Martin from Law and Order. The biggest star this season is Academy Award winner Jennifer Hudson. Her character Veronica Moore, much like last season’s Rebecca Duvall played by Uma Thurman, gives Karen advice and sings some great songs along the way. Though the advice plot looks like a cliche, Hudson’s “Mama Makes Three” makes up for it. Her character sings it in a Broadway show “Beautiful,” a musical featuring an Etta James-type female with strong character. With that voice, and the anticipated guest star lineup, the show hasn’t quit on the make-it-big ambition that drove season one.

But McPhee’s singing is the weak point of this make-it-big business. When Hudson and McPhee sing “On Broadway," she sounds so much like a backup vocal for Hudson that it is difficult to believe she’s the one to play Marilyn in “Bombshell.”

Smash may be a musical drama, but this new episode’s songs are disappointing. The opening song of the episode is a montage of Karen singing “Cut, Print... Moving On.” Spectacular as it is supposed to be, it gives us an almost-there-but-never-gets-there feeling. The black-and-white shot works well, though, and the costume and choreography of “Bombshell” perfectly fit the vintage feeling. Derek’s fantasy involving Karen, Ivy and five dancers performing the Eurythmics’ “Would I Lie to You” around him is the most disappointing performance in this episode. These ladies make every effort to give away eroticism, domination and rebellion in the song, yet all I notice is that the pink high heels don’t suit their black tight skirts, and Karen’s lip sync never keeps up with the rhythm.

Ivy’s “They Just Keep Moving the Line” saves this episode. Representing the un-welcome “Bombshell” production team in the American Theatre Wing gala, Ivy sounds stunning in this impromptu performance. It comes at the most dramatic moment in this episode, when the production team is shunned by the gala hostess, and Eileen, the producer, decides to relax and enjoy the snubbing.

Smash still suffers from the main problem from last season: whenever the temperature is about to rise, the interruption of other characters’ stories cools it down. Some of these personal stories are still too uninteresting, diluting the intensity and drama of the show. It is a problem that Safran must still fix.

Not everything is working yet, but the show has promise, and it is just good enough at times to keep watching.

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