By Ken Tucker
February 06, 2013 at 05:00 AM EST
Will Hart/NBC

Like a Broadway production still under construction, one that has survived brutal out-of-town-preview reviews, Smash is now in feverish rewrite mode. Key characters from the TV show’s first season are gone or leaving. Having Debra Messing’s Julia say, ”My marriage is over” to Christian Borle’s Tom in the season premiere clinches poor Brian d’Arcy James’ exit, although the ghost of another departee — devious assistant Ellis (Jaime Cepero) — might as well be Smash‘s version of the Phantom of the (Soap) Opera. In its debut season, creator Theresa Rebeck fashioned an enjoyably askew, occasionally risible series. It was fascinating to see how someone with roots primarily in theater dealt with TV challenges like juggling subplots and integrating music into the medium in a non-Glee way. But replacement showrunner Joshua Safran has streamlined the storytelling and, based on the two-hour premiere and a second episode, saved the right elements.

Fortunately, Katharine McPhee’s Karen and Megan Hilty’s Ivy are as Bombshell competitive as always. But Karen’s wan ex-fiancé, Dev (Raza Jaffrey), has vanished, replaced by the new season’s most intriguing character, a cocky songwriter named Jimmy Collins. Broadway star Jeremy Jordan (Newsies) plays Jimmy as a high-minded but substance-abusing budding genius whose supposedly adventurous, idiosyncratic music lands somewhere between the score of Rent and Billy Joel’s songbook. He’s set up as both a love interest for Karen and a possible career savior for more than a few, including arrogant director Derek (Jack Davenport) and Jennifer Hudson’s theater diva Veronica Moore. Speaking of Hudson — who’s billed as a ”special guest star” — she steals the show from McPhee and Hilty every time she does a musical number, but it’s too bad that she and the wonderful Sheryl Lee Ralph are mired in a tired daughter-and-stage-mother subplot.

Smash is still prone to howler numbers, such as when Derek hallucinates the women in his life — dressed as escapees from a Robert Palmer music video — performing the Eurythmics hit ”Would I Lie to You.” But without moments like that — and continuing cameos from real-life New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel saying, ”Can I quote you on that?” — Smash would not be the Smash we sorta love/sorta cringe at. Like the Marilyn Monroe musical it’s trying to mount, the drama treads familiar ground in a quirky, high-stepping way that you can’t resist watching. B