"I know I have kept you waiting/I know I've made you made/but this time I have spent creating/was the best time I ever had..."
This is Josh Safran's Smash, and it starts with a little wink to the fans who stuck with it, even if they were only hate-watching. But the opening moment of meta aside, Smash season two starts by delivering what everyone could agree worked last season: an on-stage musical number. Karen (Katharine McPhee) is still Marilyn, and the action in the theater is intercut with scenes of the characters returning to the Big Apple after their Boston run. In a mere three minutes we get a sense of where just about everybody is in their relationships and a look at a couple of brand new characters, but the biggest impact is just how a couple of key players have flip-flopped. It's as if Smash season two feels the need to immediately prove it won't follow in the footsteps of season one. However, season one certainly had its merits, even if it went campy, and Safran is out to adapt and borrow what he felt worked while stirring up new drama the best way he knows how.
This time around it is Karen who saunters around as a star. She has a chip on her shoulder, too-- a few months in the biz and one bad experience with a cheating boyfriend, and she has closed herself off. No longer simply the sweet, open, trusting Midwesterner who sparked a fire in Derek (Jack Davenport) and the audience; she is a true New Yorker now. She is even dressing better! But attitude adjustment aside, Karen hasn't lost her talent, her drive, or her fear that Ivy (Megan Hilty) is out to sabotage her-- despite the fact that Ivy has been emotionally wrecked by the events of last season, too, and surprisingly, she is just too beaten down to care that she's wearing her emotions on her face. These two have certainly flip-flopped their positions, and it offers both a chance to show off new sides of themselves as actors, as the characters struggle with the women they have turned into but who they may not inherently be. It also allows for some soulful musical performances from both.
Similarly, Julia (Debra Messing) started out so strong in the beginning of the series, but over time, her emotions got in the way and messed her up-- professionally, as well as personally. When we return to her in season two, she is trying to hold it together but not doing the best job at hiding her unraveling. Messing is great when she's vulnerable, and this season so far allows her to be so without blubbering.
Still, rather than allow her to wallow in some kind of self-pity or become a complete basket case, though, Safran brings her situation with Frank (Brian d'Arcy James) full-circle and forces Julia to pull herself up by her bootstraps. There are glimmers of the old Julia in there-- the one I fell in love with in the beginning-- and I have no doubt she'll be back to that soon enough. But the show very smartly doesn't shy away from all of the mistakes Julia made last season and how they are still impacting those around her, most notably the musical itself. Her writing suffered-- her work suffered-- because she was distracted, and the one lesson this season premiere leaves you with is that you can never allow that to happen because your work is your legacy.
And I just want to point out that Tom (Christian Borle) is still the best BFF a girl could have, but he may be a little too selfless because his gesture of good-will toward Julia in her time of need basically means he's going to end up spending a lot of time with Leo (Emory Cohen), and I don't for one second that's nothing but a bad side effect of being her friend. Thankfully for all of us, though, Leo will not actually make an on-screen appearance until later in the season, and I have been promised even when he does, it is brief.
Additionally as promised, Smash's second season premiere removes a number of bad influences (cough, Ellis, cough Dev), but that does not mean there is not further discussion around them. Dev is still very much a point of contention between Ivy and Karen, even if in the end he was really just the final straw for Karen's distrust of Ivy. Rebecca Duvall's presence is also still felt, as the superstar starts a rumor in the press about Derek that threatens his future as a director, in addition to the future of Bombshell. But from her, Bombshell seemed to get rave reviews from its run in Boston, and it starts season two on the fast-track to finding a home on Broadway. Of course, by the end of the episode it has become completely derailed in a "someone's taken jealousy and revenge a little too far" scenario that threatens Eileen's (Anjelica Huston) strength this time.
In truth, I'm not too worried about Eileen, though. Not only is she well-connected and resourceful, but it doesn't seem like Huston wants to tap into turmoil the way Messing has been so free and willing with the full emotional spectrum. Huston plays Eileen so regally, so quietly, that it will take a lot for her to believably crack, and quite frankly, she instills the confidence in us that the character can handle anything. I can't wait to throw this curveball back with a 'What else ya got?'
Smash's season premiere is also a bit of a love letter to New York in a way that is rare for a show this deep into its run. It's so easy to become jaded with the city almost immediately upon living there that you take for granted all the culture it has to offer, but even in the firs hour of the season premiere, Smash takes advantage of long lens and wide on-location shots to show off everything from Times Square to Broadway itself to Gramercy Park South, and hot spot eatery Butter even gets a loving shout-out. The kind of attention and care Safran has taken to spotlight New York in this way feels very indicative of his attention and care towards the show in general right now. There is passion anew infused in Smash's second season premiere, and that creates an excited energy that leaps off the screen and onto the viewer with ease.
Thankfully, the addition of Special Guest Star Jennifer Hudson as a two-time Tony Award winner currently starring in a Broadway show called Beautiful is not meant to throw a third person in the mix of dueling divas but instead offer advice and inspiration for Karen-- and a couple of chill-inducing songs in the process. Hudson is an absolutely star in her own right, and you can't take your eyes off her when she's on-screen. Yes, this means she pulls a bit of focus from McPhee during their duet, but it's such an amazing number overall, it really doesn't matter that it's a little unevenly matched.
The second season of Smash sets out to feature much more than just dueling divas but dueling shows, though, by continuing to follow the progress of the Marilyn musical, as well as new character playwrights' (Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus) own up coming project. We get just a little taste of who these guys are and what they can do by the end of the first hour of the season premiere-- in a moment that I do have to admit feels blatantly ripped from Nashville. They may be the new generation's Tom and Julia-- but they're not leading parallel careers-- or problems. But what is most interesting about their introduction is how Karen may be actually already in a position to help them, while also helping herself and Derek. Yes, the wide-eyed girl fresh off the bus from Iowa certainly has come a long way. She's no longer just a kid trying to make it or a passive muse waiting for someone else to be inspired; she's making things happen for herself, and that's the best thing I could ask for any character pursuing the arts. Don't get us wrong, Karen is still absolutely Derek's muse-- and thisclose to becoming much more intimately entangled with him. But at a certain point, you have to take control of your own career, and when it looks like Bombshell is no longer an option for her, that is exactly what she does. She may stumble onto a potential collaboration and new project by accident, but she recognizes the opportunity and seizes it.
Last season there was a lot of talk about how Ivy was such a hard worker and had paid her dues and deserved to move up from ensemble to star. And while that may be true, there's a much bigger lesson here. Anyone can become a star these days, but it's how you keep that stardom that matters. Karen seems to have learned that lesson immediately, innately. Ivy may have a lot she could learn from her this year!
But where they are taking Ivy is equally interesting-- when you've worked so hard your whole life for something and still not achieved it, then what do you do? When your heart is hurt from following your dreams, is it time to pack it in, a sign that maybe you're not meant for the greatness you've hoped for this whole time? Smash's second season is already playing with a number of previously powerful people falling and a couple of struggling wannabes succeeding, but that middle ground of still not quite making it is something so much more relatable than anything else, Ivy may just be the most sympathetic and understandable these days.
I stuck with Smash last season, and I have to thank Safran and his second season premiere for validating why. I still love you, Smash. Keep this momentum up, and it will be more than ever!