Tuned In: Tinkering smooths out first-season bumps for 'Smash'

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PASADENA, Calif. -- NBC's "Smash" began with promise a year ago and then sputtered through a season full of creative missteps. Inconsistent characterizations and repetitive plots damaged the show. New Yorker TV critic Emily Nussbaum popularized the term "hate watching" with her second-look review of "Smash" midway through its first season. ("Hate watch" means to keep following a show a viewer has decided is worthy only of disdain.)

"Smash" (9 p.m. Tuesday, WPXI) was an ambitious series that failed as often as it succeeded, but I never hate-watched it (I save that for "Dance Moms").

'Smash'

When: 9 p.m. Tuesday, NBC.

Starring: Megan Hilty, Christian Borle and Jennifer Hudson.

Even at its worst, I stuck with "Smash" and cheered it on, especially when the writers finally tired of the Ivy (Carnegie Mellon University grad Megan Hilty) vs. Karen (Katharine McPhee) rivalry -- long after viewers got bored with it -- and flipped the script by giving them a common enemy in Rebecca St. Clair (Uma Thurman).

Even then "Smash" had its forehead-smacking moments, including Ivy's apparent overdose in the season finale, any scenes involving Ellis (Jaime Cepero) or Julia (Debra Messing) and her ill-conceived, "that-will-end-well" affair with leading man Michael Swift (Will Chase).

There were enough missteps to worry NBC, which led network executives to bring in a new head writer, replacing series creator Theresa Rebeck with Joshua Saffran ("Gossip Girl").

Judging by three episodes sent for review, these course corrections work. Admittedly, it's a long way until the end of the second season, and "Smash" could develop a whole new set of problems, but at least some of last year's errant plotting is under control.

This season the focus expands. While production of the Marilyn Monroe musical "Bombshell" is still a part of "Smash," it's just one aspect of the series, which introduces new characters and bounces around plots involving several Broadway shows.

Karen befriends Broadway star Veronica Moore (Jennifer Hudson, "Dreamgirls"), who may star in a revival of "The Wiz" directed by Derek (Jack Davenport). Karen also discovers Brooklyn strivers Jimmy (Jeremy Jordan) and Kyle (Ross native Andy Mientus), who pen their own "Rent"-like musical called "Hit List." Deeper into the new season Sean Hayes, guest starring as the star of a musical, "Liasons," clashes with Ivy.

By distributing the show's focus, but keeping it tethered to the world of Broadway, "Smash" may be able to avoid last season's tendency of plots repeating themselves (Ivy's on top! Karen's on top! Ivy's on top again!). It also roots the stories in the Broadway theater scene rather than spinning off into the home lives of characters disconnected from work. The theater world has plenty of drama to mine without jumping to irrelevant, standard soap plots.

At a press conference last month, "Smash" producers were loath to offer specifics about what they disliked about the first season, but they did acknowledge reading criticism, something that becomes a plot point for Julia in an early episode of the second season.

"I would say that our instinct about the show followed a lot of the things that people were saying about the show," said executive producer Craig Zadan. "When we felt that certain things were going off kilter in season one, we would read about them in either the press or on blogs or tweets, and it reinforced the feeling we had and the things that we would log away and say, if we are lucky enough to get the chance to come back for season two, boy, wouldn't it be great to fix those things."

Producers suggest the new season has more music, though I'm not sure I agree. But it does feature more music styles, thanks to the introduction of numbers from "Hit List." Some of the music seems younger and poppier, but traditional Broadway showtunes remain, too. Dream sequences continue, although nothing as extravagant as last season's polarizing Bollywood number (for the record, I liked it).

In a follow-up interview at an NBC party, Mr. Saffran offered an example of a specific change he made for the second season.

"As a viewer, I was maybe feeling like I wanted to focus more on the [Broadway] show they were creating," he said. "While I enjoyed the personal stories, my goal this year was to make sure they always impacted the work. While we don't always stay in a rehearsal room -- we go home with people -- what they're dealing with at home impacts the work, which is the same for all of us with jobs. Our home life has to bleed in."

Perhaps "Smash" can live up to its title after all.

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Rob Owen writes this Sunday TV column for Scripps Howard News Service. Contact him at: rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Read the Tuned In Journal blog at post-gazette.com/tv. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook.


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