Smash still can’t figure out what to do with its characters when they’re not singing.
If I hang on to this heartache,
Then my soul will not be free.
So I keep trying.
But I just cannot let go.
-- Jennifer Hudson, "I Can't Let Go"
Before Smash debuted a year ago, it was supposed to be the show that could save NBC. It had an original premise -- a behind the scenes look at the making of a Broadway show -- that was poised to capitalize on the musical TV wave started by Glee. It had a superstar production team, including Steven Spielberg, and a roster of well-known talent on screen.
Cut to a year later. NBC was indeed saved by a singing show, one called The Voice. And Smash survived its first season. This even though that season conjured almost as much drama off-screen as it did on, its issues ranging from showrunners to scarves. When it focused on its primary storyline -- the mounting of "Bombshell," a Broadway musical based on Marilyn Monroe's life, the series was actually pretty good. But as the season wore on, ridiculous subplots took precedence. Ingénue Karen (Katharine McPhee) had a jealous boyfriend, writer Julia (Debra Messing) considered adopting a child, then cheated on her unappealing husband, Frank (Brian D’arcy James). Producer Eileen (Anjelica Huston) dated a shady bartender named, of all things, Nick (Thorsten Kaye).
All of these were uninteresting distractions. And then Eileen’s ambitious assistant, Ellis (Jaime Cepero), poisoned a famous actress’ smoothie in an effort to save the show. But rather than being the classic campy villain he should have been, Ellis was just annoying. So was Smash. Its many misfires made it a prime target for hate-watchers, including the New Yorker's Emily Nussbaum. By the end of its first season, it was clear that Smash was in need of cancellation or a reboot. NBC opted for the latter: Showrunner (and creator) Theresa Rebeck was replaced by Gossip Girl's Joshua Safran and characters were disappeared.
Cut to eight months later. The new Smash premieres, for two hours, on 5 February. Except that it's not so new. The first three episodes revisit old drama: Julia and Frank are fighting again, then moping through the ending of a relationship that -- as we all know -- already died last season. As if that's not enough bad news, Season Two seems determined to bring every character to ruin. Director Derek (Jack Davenport) defends himself against sexual harassment claims (which are mostly true). Eileen is accused of abetting criminals by accepting money from Nick. Broadway veteran Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) loses her place in the show for sleeping with Karen’s boyfriend. And so on. The new subplots look a lot like the old ones.
Still, it's fair to say that, hate-watching aside, few people watch Smash for the story. They watch for the original music, namely, the songs in "Bombshell." This season, guest star Jennifer Hudson, playing a new mentor for Karen, performs one song, "I Can't Let Go," that could cross over into the real world as a hit.
The problem is that the story in between the songs is still inconsistent and muddled. The fictional reviews for "Bombshell" praise the music and pan the book. Smash has the same problem. It just can’t figure out what to do with these characters when they’re not singing.