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Revamped, more watchable Smash returns to NBC's prime-time lineup

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Apparently, the path is the same for fictional shows about Broadway musicals as it is for actual Broadway shows:

Rethink, reconsider, reject, recast, rewrite.

When NBC's sophomore drama Smash makes its prime-time return (tonight at 8 p.m.), viewers who stuck with the series through its intriguing but uneven first season will be greeted by a markedly different show than the one that ended its rookie run on as high a note as its scattered scripts could muster.

With a new showrunner in place (Gossip Girl alumnus Josh Safran has replaced series creator/executive producer Theresa Rebeck) and several of Smash's more annoying storyline distractions set aside, the revamped creative team can focus on what's important: the show within the show, and the musical performances that make Smash worth watching.

What's missing, blessedly, are Eileen's toxically scheming assistant Ellis and Karen's boringly unfaithful boyfriend/fiancé, Dev; in much-reduced roles are Julia's bruised husband, Frank, and their disenchanted teenage son, Leo.

And what's new is an expanded cast of characters within Smash's theatrical world, led by upstarts Jimmy Collins and Kyle Bishop (real-life rising Broadway stars Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus), who are in the midst of creating a young, hip, off-Broadway show called Hit List when a chance encounter with Karen Cartwright (Katharine McPhee) draws them into Bombshell's fast-swirling mix.

The second season also boasts a pretty hefty guest-star component, starting with Jennifer Hudson in a three-episode arc that begins with tonight's premiere. Also on the roster in coming weeks are Liza Minnelli, Sean Hayes, Jesse L. Martin and Nikki Blonsky.

As the new season begins, producer Eileen Rand (Anjelica Huston) is congratulating the cast of Bombshell for the show's successful run in Boston and promising to have the show up and running in a Broadway theatre within weeks.

Tensions are still high between Karen and her erstwhile lead-role competitor, Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty), what with Ivy having slept with Dev and all. But with the show's future looking promising with Karen as its star, Ivy's future in the cast seems doubtful.

Meanwhile, snooty Brit director Derek Wills (Jack Davenport) suddenly finds his long and meandering history as a womanizer coming back to haunt him, and writer Julia Houston (Debra Messing) realizes that she's in big relationship jeopardy on two fronts -- her marriage to Frank is in tatters after her infidelity was revealed, and her creative alliance with Tom Levitt (Christian Borle) is faltering because she isn't shouldering her share of the Bombshell workload.

In preparation for what everyone assumes is a just-around-the-corner breakthrough, Derek introduces Karen to Broadway diva Veronica Moore (Hudson), who offers some advice on how to deal with the dizzying pace of sudden stardom.

Everything seems headed in the right direction, right up until the moment that it isn't. Someone leaks a bit of information that puts a spotlight on Bombshell's financing, and suddenly Eileen is scrambling in a way that puts everyone else's career into a spin.

It's a fairly satisfying -- and decidedly less soapy -- storyline to start the second season, and the new creative team's increased emphasis on musical numbers, both directly connected to and completely removed from Bombshell's continuing evolution, makes Smash a more seamlessly watchable show than it was in its first season.

Like any Broadway show, Smash does require more tinkering and fine-tuning. But for now, at least, it feels like it's headed toward the brighter lights it has always had in its sights.

brad.oswald@freepress.mb.ca Twitter: @BradOswald

TV REVIEW

Smash

Starring Katharine McPhee, Megan Hilty, Anjelica Huston, Debra Messing, Christian Borle and Jack Davenport

Tonight at 8

NBC

4 stars out of 5

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 5, 2013 D3

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