All eyes are on Smash as the NBC musical drama prepares to unveil its second season on Tuesday (9/8c on NBC). But it's not because fans are dying to know whether Ivy (Megan Hilty) survived her possible pill overdose or if Karen (Katharine McPhee) ditched her cheating boyfriend — it's because fans are waiting to see just how much the Smash they loved, and more famously loved to hate, has changed its tune.
Premiering on NBC a year ago with impressive critical acclaim and almost inescapable advertising, Smash follows the creation of Bombshell, a new Broadway musical based on the life of Marilyn Monroe, and the characters involved behind the scenes. Over the first season, ingénues Karen and Ivy tried to out-diva each other for the main role while juggling messy love lives, lyricist Julia (Debra Messing) cheated on her husband with Bombshell's male lead, and producer Eileen (Anjelica Houston) struggled to get the show off the ground and emerge from her estranged husband/producing partner's shadow.
But despite boasting an Oscar winner (Huston), an Emmy winner (Messing) and Steven Spielberg as an executive producer, Smash quickly went from critical darling to Twitter punch line. Many criticized the inconsistent tone that made characters like Ivy go from wounded victim to scheming villain in 60 seconds flat and outlandish musical numbers like Karen's over-the-top Bollywood fantasy number. Oh, and did we mention the single weirdest response to a marriage proposal ever: "I'm in tech"? Instead of spawning hit songs or thoughtful discussion, Smash quickly became synonymous with the rise of hate-watching, aka watching a show despite the fact that viewers, well, hate it. "I really do believe it was more hope-watching than hate-watching," Smash's newly installed showrunner Josh Safran tells TVGuide.com. "Hate-watching to me seems like that saying of 'It's so bad, it's good.' I felt like the audience of Smash — when I read the comments and concerns and when I had my own, it was always: 'Oh, I so wish that X had happened.' Not, 'I wish X hadn't happened.'"
No matter what you call it or how it's defined, NBC heard the show's many detractors loud and clear. A month before the end of the show's freshman run, NBC announced that the musical drama would be returning, but with Gossip Girl's former showrunner Safran at the helm instead of creator Theresa Rebeck, who exited the show. It was clear early on that Rebeck would not be the only major departure (RIP, Julia's scarves!). "By the time I came to the table, I think everybody had very clearly defined what they felt the pros and cons were of Season 1," Safran says. "I know that [executive producers Neil Meron and Craig Zadan] have talked about how they read the boards, and read Twitter. They were abreast of how the audience was feeling, so I think as a member of the audience, when I came here, I think we really were in agreement."
A top priority on Safran's agenda was clearing up exactly what Bombshell was really about. "I really liked how fast Season 1 went, but I never got a full understanding of the context of the plot of Bombshell," he says. "It was these pockets of her life, incredibly musicalized and choreographed, but never fully in the context of the story line."
In a case of art imitating life, the team behind Bombshell will take a much closer look at the musical following its out-of-town tryout, just like the Smash writers had to re-evaluate what worked and what didn't in Season 1. Safran says any such meta-storytelling was an unconscious choice. "It allows the creative team to look at it and judge it and see what worked and what didn't from its out-of-town tryout, which often happens with musicals on their way to Broadway," he says. "Also, this bump in the road for Bombshell lets us as the writers tell more about what this story of Bombshell actually is."
Another big change from Season 1 to Season 2 is the cast. Gone are Karen's boyfriend Dev (Raza Jaffrey), Julia's husband Frank (Brian D'Arcy James), her former flame Michael Swift (Will Chase), and Eileen's weasel assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero). In their place are new cast additions Jennifer Hudson (Broadway star Veronica Moore), Krysta Rodriguez (Karen's new roommate, Ana), Jeremy Jordan (Karen's new love interest, Jimmy) and Andy Mientus (his writing partner and best friend, Kyle), the latter two who have written a youthful new musical titled Hit List. "The idea was to have this second up-and-coming, from-the-ground-up musical with a completely different sound to Bombshell," Safran says. "That helps the show because it helps clarify that there's more than one kind of musical attempting to get to Broadway."
That's music to the ears — literally — of Smash's younger viewers, who will not only get to hear Hit List's rock-infused, Rent-like songbook, but also covers of more current bands like Death Cab for Cutie. "These are the types of songs that these characters would think about or dream about or know," he says. "I was very conscious to pull from a wider range of musical styles that fit the characters maybe a little bit more clearly than last year."
Taking on one musical-within-a-musical may seem daunting, let alone two. However, Safran says it was his idea to introduce Hit List. "I love musicals. I always have ever since I was a kid ... so I had kind of an innate sense of musicals. Also, Gossip Girl was actually a musical show in a weird way because it used pop music often to convey emotions or to set up a scene," he says. "There's almost not much of a difference between a pop song in a show like Grey's Anatomy or Gossip Girl that is telling you the emotion of the moment and a cover on Smash that's also speaking to the inner emotion of the character and the scene."
Safran also says that viewers shouldn't expect Bollywood Part 2 any time soon. "It was important to me to set up for the audience that covers will take place in the characters' minds only. Unlike last year, where people sang in Times Square, in bars and in bowling alleys — none of that happens this year. All of the covers are a peek inside the inner emotions of the person that's singing them," he says. "The idea for me is to make sure that all of the cover songs matter for the plot and tell a story and are not incidental in any way."
While Safran remains politely diplomatic about Smash's first season and the necessity for change, it's clear that the Smash of yesteryear is gone for good. "It's all of Smash's DNA. There really is not a tonal difference from Season 1 to Season 2. It might have some younger cast members, the music in the covers might be a little more apropos for the characters and maybe there is a little more humor," he says, "but it still is Smash."
However, if Safran has his way, the show's loyal hate-watchers will have slightly less to tweet about. "I'm hoping that if people are coming to hate-watch, they will not be able to," Safran says. "And if they're coming to hope-watch, awesome, because I hope their hopes are rewarded."
Smash's two-hour season premiere airs Tuesday at 9/8c on NBC.
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