PASADENA, CA - JANUARY 06: (Top L-R) Executive Producers Craig Zadan, Neil Meron, Joshua Safran, actors Andy Mientus, Leslie Odom Jr., and Krysta Rodriguez, (Bottom L-R) actors Jeremy Jordan, Christian Borle, Megan Hilty, Katharine McPhee, Anjelica Huston, and Jack Davenport speak onstage during the 'Smash' panel discussion at the NBCUniversal portion of the 2013 Winter TCA Tour- Day 3 at the Langham Hotel on January 6, 2013 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
As you may remember, Act One of Smash didn't go so well. This returning NBC series had a terrific start and a strong finish, but in between it stumbled through a string of ridiculous plot twists (oh, Ellis), off-kilter casting choices, and - worst of all for a musical about the making of a musical - off-key song choices.
For every great new song, highlighted by the opening episode's Let Me Be Your Star and the closing gem, Don't Forget Me, there was a second-rate pop cover or a bewildering production number. If Smash keeps Karen away from bar mitzvahs and never again goes near Bollywood, the TV world will be a better place.
Given that trajectory, it's no great surprise that the show's producers were busy during their seasonal intermission. Major changes have been made, starting with the replacement of creator Theresa Rebeck, who certainly seemed to be in over her head, with Gossip Girl's Joshua Safran.
Onscreen, the entire season premiere seems dedicated to proving that your complaints have been heard and answered: Ellis, one of recent TV's most reviled characters, is gone, as are Karen's former fiancé Dev and Frank and Julia's son Leo - and Frank himself is not long for this world. Not even Julia's (Debra Messing) much-mocked scarves are spared: Tom (Christian Borle) finally tells her the time has come to lose them, in a line certain, in some houses, to draw applause.
So what has taken their place? A comeuppance story for Derek (Jack Davenport), who this season pays the price for last season's abuse of sexual power; an extended guest spot by Jennifer Hudson (who deserves much better music than she has so far been given); and a new romantic and perhaps working relationship for Karen (Katharine McPhee) with troubled young composer Jimmy (Newsies star Jeremy Jordan).
Yet as welcome as most of the changes may be, there's something so ruthlessly efficient about the way they're rolled out that they sometimes make you cringe. The entire outing, built around a meta-reaction to the show's fictional Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell that praised the music while lacerating the book, has the feel of a prolonged mea culpa.
The apology may be well-deserved, but one would hate to see design-by-viewing-committee become a trend; in the end, art works best when artists go where they think they should, not where every flare-up on Twitter - or even every TV critic - would lead them.
That, of course, won't stop us from making more suggestions. Such as: While the new songs are fine in Tuesday's two-hour special, the covers most certainly are not. Together with the romance between Karen and Jimmy, they read too clearly as a plea for younger viewers. Worst of all, there are hints that the show may reopen the Bombshell competition between Karen and Ivy (Megan Hilty), an issue that was seemingly and sensibly settled in the season finale.
Still, in total, the changes have led to a show that is much better, and is on much more solid footing, than it once was. As of yet, it's still not fulfilling the promise of the pilot, but it has improved enough to prove it deserves a second chance.
Intermission is over and the curtain's up. Now this time, let's hit a few more heights.
Robert Bianco, USA TODAY