NBC's Smash, which was anything but a smash last season, came back last night with a two-hour premiere. There were some good things -- Krysta Rodriguez and Andy Mientus were fun and energetic as newcomers who don't figure prominently in the story and it was nice to see Derek the director, played by the dishy Jack Davenport, revealed and reviled for being a schmuck -- but a whole lot of bad, too.
Problem No. 1: Karen, played as a vapid brat by a lifeless Katharine McPhee, an American Idol runner-up, is just as unappealing, just as much of a black hole of chemistry as ever. Even without Theresa Rebeck, the show's creator, who was blamed for many of the show's first-season woes, Karen is still right there in the middle of ALL the plots, being told how fabulous and fizzy and all-around magnificent she is by everyone around her even as our eyes tell us she is a very dull girl who lacks any hint of star power. Note she also gets the lion's share of the promo image for the show, shown above. Last season, she was shown in that season's poster at the top of the ladder, giving away the big finale. This time, she has the biggest panel, where she can show off her patented vacant stare and parted lips. I think the half-open mouth thing is to make her seem dewy and vulnerable, but it only serves to make her look like she isn't very smart.
Meanwhile Ivy, her supposed rival, played by the talented Megan Hilty, an actual Broadway performer who starred in 9 to 5: The Musical and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes at Encores!, keeps getting mauled and tossed around by idiotic plot devices, even though she has all the sparkle and charisma Karen lacks. The backstage scoop from Buzzfeed tells us that executive producer Steven Spielberg didn't like Hilty from the get-go and is presumably the reason her character was so mistreated. But why? Because he has a thing for McPhee and didn't want her to look bad by comparison? That's the only reason I can think of.
I suppose there is precedent for this kind of character craziness. Remember clomping, dopey Ruby Keeler going out there a kid but coming back a star in 42nd Street, while effervescent Ginger Rogers was back in the chorus? Yeah, but that was 1933. We expect a little more of our leading ladies -- and the plot machinations of our backstage musicals -- for 21st century entertainment.
To spruce up the landscape for season 2, Smash and new showrunner Josh Safran decided to lose Debra Messing's character's boyfriend and husband, as well as Karen's first-season boyfriend, Dev, and the conniving Ellis, who was the focus of a lot of viewers' ire. They've also added Jeremy Jordan, star of Broadway's Newsies and Bonnie & Clyde, to the roster to play a new boyfriend for Karen (of course). Jordan has shown he has the chops and the voice to shine, but they've written his character as the perfect smug and annoying counterpoint to smug and annoying Karen. Jolly.
Jennifer Hudson, who finished lower down the American Idol ladder than McPhee but has emerged as a much bigger star, also stopped by to act as a mentor for Karen (of course). She also blew McPhee out of the water in a duet, so there was that saving grace, I suppose. Except everyone around treated it as a triumph for Karen (of course).
Hilty also got a good number or two, although I will never understand why you'd give her a Crowded House song to sing when there are so many lovely show tunes sitting around that she could knock out of the park. Still, getting to perform a song from the show-within-the-show (the limp Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell that they're all still pretending was a decent show, when... Please.) and saving the day at the end of the episode was cool. And Christian Borle, one of the few bright spots last season, is also still there and still nifty. But, of course, he gets about three lines and two of those are wasted on his relationship with swampy writing partner Julia, Messing's mess of a character.
Other than that... Way too much McPhee. Way too little understanding that what was lacking was a lead we could root for, a viable conflict, a feel for real Broadway excitement and energy, and a sense of justice -- or satisfaction or suspense -- in who emerged as the star. Instead, Smash is as much of a flop as Karen was in Bombshell, no matter how hard they try to convince us otherwise.