With Karen and Ivy Lynn, her foe / Can Safran save it, or will it blow? / It's season 2 now so come on, let's go!
Smash Premiere Jennifer Hudson
Credit: Will Hart/NBC
S2 E1
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If you’re invested in Smash — and since you’re reading this, chances seem good that you are — then reports about how new showrunner Josh Safran tweaked the series for season 2 have probably left you feeling ambivalent. On one hand, jettisoning problematic characters like Dev, Michael, Leo, Frank, and dearly departed Terrible Ellis, striking cheesy bowling alley song-and-dance numbers, and sending all those scarves back to Grandma Ida’s House of Hideous Knits could only strengthen this Broadway-style drama.

But on the other hand, scarves, cheese, and the dastardly doings of Ellis the Terrible are what make — or made — Smash the glorious, glitter-drenched, compulsively watchable show it became in season 1. If the camp is dialed down and the self-awareness is dialed up, will Smash reach an equilibrium that lands it square in Boring Valley? Can a show built on a foundation of camp and ridiculosity still command attention when it’s been toned down and tuned up? If Smash isn’t about shrieking with laughter as the camera pans to yet another person standing behind a door, brow furrowed in concentration, then what is it about?

We’ll have to wait a few more weeks before we can fully answer that question. In the meantime, though, I feel confident declaring that Smash in season 2 is no longer as bad-bad as it was in season 1 (that still-amazing pilot notwithstanding). It is also, however, no longer as good-bad — which may or may not become a problem as the Safran Era progresses.

Wait, why am I still blabbering — we’ve got two hours of show to get through, thanks to tonight’s double feature premiere event! But first, previously on Smash: Karen and Ivy started out as two likable characters before one became a sanctimonious bore and one literally got hopped up on crazy pills. Julia offered this thoughtful assessment of one Marilyn Monroe: “So beautiful. So tragic.” Derek sniped and snarled and tried to sleep with anything in a blond wig. Rebecca Duvall showed up and couldn’t sing (“not surprising,” sneer Cady Huffman fans). Eileen tossed drinks with abandon and got money from her shady bartender boyfriend. Tom was great and didn’t get nearly enough screen time. All caught up?

Good. We fade in on a girl performing a new Bombshell song that sums up Smash‘s season 2 philosophy: “Cut, Print… Moving On.” As Karilyn croons about not dwelling on the past, we see a montage of Karen moving in with a new roommate — fellow actress Ana, played by ex-Wednesday Addams Krysta Rodriguez — and Ivy throwing away all of her delicious, delicious drugs. Excellent; all-natural bitchery is much more fun to watch.

And then it’s back to business as usual. The cast and creative team gather in that familiar, sun-drenched rehearsal room. Everyone’s happy about how the Boston tryout went, though of course changes to the show will have to be made. (Which changes, specifically? Julia doesn’t know — she hasn’t read the reviews yet.) As Bobby warns Ivy, this could mean they’re going to get rid of a certain attempted boyfriend-snatcher. “[Karen] is part of the creative team now,” he tells his pal as Karen looks at her with a gaze that could turn a chorus girl to stone. Is that really how Broadway works? Whatever — message received.

NEXT: There’s a new Idol in town

Before more work on Bombshell can begin, both we and Karen are treated to another musical number starring one of season 2’s biggest guest stars: Jennifer Hudson, on board for a multi-episode arc as multiple Tony winner Veronica Moore. Ronnie is currently starring in Beautiful, a period musical about a “sweet, 1950s Aretha/Etta James type” and her overbearing mother. This is what we call “foreshadowing.” The song, “Mama Makes Three,” is a delightful retro pastiche with gospel undertones that Hudson really sells the hell out of. Genius idea: Why can’t Ronnie just play Marilyn?

Backstage, Ronnie gives Karen some showbiz advice as Derek takes a few swigs from the crystal decanter he carries with him at all times. (So that’s the source of his swagger; it’s tough to walk with that thing in your pants. I was talking about the decanter!) Then the star steps outside, where a crowd of adoring paparazzi are thronged and waiting. Replace “adoring paparazzi” with “mouth-breathing tourists,” and you might get closer to the true Broadway experience.

Eileen, meanwhile, is enjoying her third dinner engagement of the evening when her eeeevil ex-husband Jerry swoops in out of nowhere. He’s come to gloat about Bombshell‘s financial troubles, as per usual; and, as per usual, there’s a martini sitting right in front of Eileen, tantalizingly close to Jerry’s suspiciously dry face. But this time, Eileen resists the urge to give Jerry an alcohol facial — even making a little joke about that lame running gag — and takes the high road when her dining partner, Smash veteran Jordan Roth, shows up.

Her success makes Jerry itch. And the only way to scratch that itch is to take out his phone and type the following text while somehow keeping a straight face: “Time to more forward with the plan.” The unnamed person he’s texting — the number hasn’t been saved in his phone, for reasons of drama — immediately writes back, “DONE.” Remember that thing I said about Smash not being as good-bad this season? It may have been premature. (Also, show of hands: Anyone else think Jerry’s mysterious contact is Terrible Ellis, who’s actually standing just in the restaurant’s kitchen and adding peanuts to dishes all willy-nilly?)

Karen and a crew of chorus gals are rehearsing “Let Me Be Your Star” for an upcoming event, where Eileen plans to announce that Bombshell has secured the spacious St. James Theatre. But when Karen discovers that Ivy’s going to be singing a number at the party as well, the room’s temperature drops several degrees. (Right about now, they wish they had kept the scarves.) Ivy, despondent, seeks guidance from the only screw-up bigger than her. Julia advises her to try another apology — not only for what she did, but why she did it. Yes, please do — just so that we can put the whole Groveling Ivy plot to rest.

NEXT: Well hello, Jeremy Jordan

Bombshell‘s star stalks all the way to a midtown bar called Table 46, where Derek is doing an interview with the New York Post‘s Michael Riedel (who, against all odds, has become a bona fide recurring character). As she’s waiting for the director to stop shooting himself in the foot — beware unflattering comments about Rebecca Duvall! — she has a charged encounter with the night’s third big new character: Jimmy, a supercilious bartender played by Newsies star Jeremy Jordan. It’s clear that Jimmy, like Derek, is supposed to be a lovable jerk. In his first few appearances, though, Jimmy’s more like a jerky jerk; considering Karen’s relationship with Once-Perfect Dev, it’s no shock there’s a spark.

If you were a regular Gossip Girl viewer, it shouldn’t surprise you to see that Smash‘s first Safranified episode features 1) a glamorous party where 2) numerous plot threads come to a head. (Come to think of it, so does its second.) Derek arrives at this shindig shortly after learning that Rebecca is now claiming she left Bombshell because he sexually harassed her. Tom and Sporto Sam arrive shortly after seeing Julia’s husband, Frank, getting suspiciously close to another woman — even though Julia’s been saying that she and Mr. Science Teacher are trying to make things work. Eileen arrives calm, but soon grows frantic when she learns theater owner Roth isn’t coming to the soiree after all. Clearly, there’s just one way to mitigate this swirling drama: an on-the-nose duet between Karen and special guest Ronnie.

Man, “On Broadway” is a such a good song — even when divorced from the indelible brand of crazy that is All That Jazz. But as American Idol‘s two most famous runners-up trade verses and engage in a battle of the “heyyyy ya ya ya ya ya”s (Jennifer Hudson wins, of course), I can’t help being distracted by what’s going on in the background — namely, Sam and Tom telling Julia about Frank’s extracurricular activities, and Eileen pulling Nick upstairs for some new age spell-casting/old fashioned ugly-bumping.

After the final notes fade away, Derek gets Karen alone in a room, kisses her hand, and tells her in a wonder-struck voice that she somehow has the power to make anything better. Color me shocked that he doesn’t get down on one knee and start singing “Dulcinea” then and there. They’re just about to finally lock lips when Ivy (of course) walks in on them. Derek follows her into the hallway, and she asks if he and Marilyn #3 are together. They aren’t, according to the director, but he does have some bad news for his former leading lady all the same: She’s out of Bombshell, on Karen’s request.

When Karen later walks past a forlorn Ivy, she acts as though Ivy’s very presence is an imposition. Come on, Iowa! But what Ivy does next makes up for her unfortunate choice of location. She tells Karen that she was right to get her fired, and follows that with this heartfelt plea: “You hate me. You should. But even you can’t hate me as much as I hate myself for what I did… I’m truly sorry that I ever got in your way. Good luck.” Oh, and she also lets slip that she almost “did something stupid” backstage at the first preview without coming out and admitting to her attempted attempted suicide. Karen is left thunderstruck, wondering if she’s somehow become the jealous diva holding a grudge.

NEXT: Don’t dream it’s over! There’s more than an hour to go!

In non-Ivy/Karen dramz land: Frank is less than convincing when he tells Julia that the woman Tom saw him with is just “someone from school.” When pressed, he explodes at his unfaithful wife in front of all of her colleagues — and the ubiquitous Michael Riedel, who’s weaseled his way in despite Derek’s orders.

As Julia cries to Tom about her broken marriage, she makes one more confession: She did, in fact, read the reviews that praised Bombshell‘s music but savaged its book. (Iiiinterestng.) “Everything I’ve done has turned out so wrong!” she sobs. “What if I can’t fix it?” If — as this juicy Buzzfeed exposé claims — Julia is meant to be ex-showrunner Theresa Rebeck’s stand-in, this scene is a loaded one indeed.

Marilyn 1.0’s prostration has thawed the ice around Marilyn 2.0’s Midwestern heart. But just as Karen is about to ask Derek not to kick Ivy out of the show, everybody learns that there’s no longer a show to get kicked out of. Someone (Ellliiiiisssssss) has tipped the government off about the money Eileen’s been using to finance Bombshell.That puts the musical in legal limbo… meaning that the ultimate answer to “who will play Marilyn?!” is “nobody!” Well, that’s one way to get a clean slate.

Cut, print… moving on. As Ivy gently sings “Don’t Dream It’s Over” at yet another audition, Tom examines a bouquet he’s just received that came with this card: “Great job on the score. We should talk… S.” The stationary reveals that S to be none other than Wicked composer Stephen Schwartz. Nice! Julia, meanwhile, takes a deep breath and reads Riedel’s latest anti-Bombshell screed, which calls her “unfocused” script “an inch-thin picture show.” (He’s not just talking about the show-within-a-show, either.) And Eileen, still defiant, hangs a Bombshell poster in her office as Jerry watches, because he’s certainly planted a homing device on her. Don’t ever let them win, Anjelica!

Karen, meanwhile, heads back to Table 46, where she mournfully nurses a drink until the wee hours. After some more prickly banter with Jimmy, she asks the other bartender, a kind-eyed guy named Kyle, if his coworker is always such a d-bag. The answer is “yes” — but only because Jimmy is fierce and uncompromising and misunderstood, with a jumbo-sized chip on his shoulder and a voice that makes Will Chase sound like Gilbert Gottfried.

And then Jeremy Jordan opens his beautiful face and absolutely destroys a sappy little tune called “Broadway, Here I Come” — as Iowa, like Terrible Ellis before her, holds out her phone to capture his marvelous sound. Ladies and gentlemen, say hello to our new leading dude.

NEXT: For a good time, call 917-555-0144

Before I hit Episode 2, here’s a quick round of Footlights:

– That tuning-up title card has been replaced with a kicky new credits sequence, which ends as all such sequences should (with Eileen tossing a drink in our collective face). Do you like?

– For those keeping score at home, here’s how the show dispatched with season 1’s excised characters: Dev appears only via a letter that Karen quickly crumples into a ball and tosses out. (Excerpt: “I know in time maybe you will be able to forgive me, but I don’t want to wait that long. Please don’t’ let everything we had fall apart just because of one transgression. There’s a chance here to grow from this, both of us. And I miss you terribly.”) An offscreen Michael asks to be let out of his contract. And Leo is spoken of but never seen, as God and nature intended.

– Then there’s Sporto Sam, who’s leaving New York to star as the General in The Book of Mormon‘s national tour. If you haven’t seen the show, I will not spoil what the General’s actual name is. If you have: Heeeeee.

– Karen and Tom both garnered rapturous reviews in Boston. Tom, adorably, has his best notice memorized: “Levitt scores a marvel, full of charm and pizzazz in his pastiche numbers and unparalleled emotion in its introspective moments.”

– Tom and Julia are living together now! “It’ll be like old times, or a sitcom,” Tom jokes, as NBC sighs and wishes it were 1998 again.

– The mysterious number Jerry texts is 917-555-0144. Ellis doesn’t answer when you call it; I checked.

– Jennifer Hudson is an incredible singer, but even she can’t sell this clunker of a line: “You may be a womanizer, but I know there’s no merit to her story.”

– Ronnie is supposed to star in a revival of The Wiz, directed by Derek, once Beautiful closes. This will be important in episode 2.

– I’ve got to say, I’m glad that Derek and Karen have settled into a pure muse/poet sort of relationship. That’s much more interesting than a run-of-the-mill romance.

– Kyle the bartender collects programs from failed musicals. Sounds like a [title of show] fan.

– As you may already know, “Broadway, Here I Come” was not written originally for Smash — like Jimmy’s other songs, it’s the work of an up-and-coming composer rather than Shaiman and Wittman. This particular tune is by Joe Iconis; here’s new cast member Krysta Rodriguez singing it in 2011.

NEXT: Part 2, in which Smash discovers Brooklyn and Derek discovers feminism

Season 1’s second episode began with Karen plaintively begging Bombshell‘s creative team to call her. Season 2’s second episode follows suit: Karen implores Jimmy to call her, and when he doesn’t, she shows up at Table 46 to say in person that she’d like to discuss his music. Because Jimmy is a jerk, he pleads ignorance — he’s like the Von Trapp children! He doesn’t know how to sing! — and hits on Karen once for good measure.

Thank heavens for sweet, adorable Kyle, who is clearly the calm Tom to Jimmy’s tempestuous Julia. He passes along a song his partner scribbled on a few Table 46 menus and urges Karen to get someone to play it for her. Also, she’s welcome to come by Jimmy and Kyle’s place in Brooklyn tonight; they’re having a party. Uh-oh — does Karen watch Girls? Because I’ve got a bad feeling she’s about to have a crackcident.

Things aren’t looking up for Eileen, Derek, and Julia. The producer’s been knocked off the guest list at the American Theatre Wing’s annual gala; the director’s been dropped like a hot, sexy potato by the producers of The Wiz, who don’t want to work with someone tainted by multiple harassment suits. And the lyricist refuses to leave the cozy cocoon of shame she’s built in Tom’s apartment; as he notes with dismay, Julia is “starting to merge with the couch.” This would never happen on Will and Grace.

Maybe this will cheer the creative team up: Thanks to Jerry’s largesse, they’ll be able to attend the Theatre Wing’s gala after all. (If it’s American, shouldn’t the org spell “theater” with an “er”?) “And Tom? Tell Julia it’s cocktail attire,” Eileen notes after securing her ex’s table. Ha! Too bad she didn’t also warn Tom not to lie to Harvey Fierstein about what’s happening at the event. The theater legend stops him on the street and starts fishing for Bombshell gossip. In turn, Tom tries to save face by saying fibbing that he and Julia are giving a speech at the gala. Ruh-roh. Or, as Harvey Fierstein would say, [unintelligible croaking sound].

For a heart-stopping moment, I am convinced that Julia’s been eating mayonnaise straight out of the jar. Phew, no, it’s marshmallow fluff — though this marginally more acceptable activity is interrupted when Ivy shows up at Tom’s door. The chorus girl was hoping to get a pep talk from her friend; a chance meeting with an old frenemy who’s left the business has shaken her confidence. Instead, she’ll have to settle for sad Julia, who can only offer platitudes and a spoon. Actually, maybe that’s enough in this case.

Upon learning that even more dancers are coming forward with stories of Derek’s terrible breath and his wandering hand, Eileen decides that he’s not invited to the Theatre Wing party (to which she, too, is not technically invited) after all. The director goes to drown his sorrows at Table 46, suddenly the only bar that exists on Smash — surprising, since it’s the only bar in New York that doesn’t come equipped with a stage.

But that won’t stop Derek from having another fantasy sequence starring Karen. Only this time, she isn’t in soft, innocent Marilyn drag — she’s one of several strong, Robert Palmerian dancers sporting bright pink pumps, harsh ponytails, and the lyrics to The Eurythmics’s “Would I Lie To You?” As covers go, it’s pretty good; as a production number, it’s only okay.

NEXT: Off to the Theatre Wing Ding Thing!

Tom arrives home and hesitantly starts to tell Julia about his fib. Unfortunately, she’s already heard about it — via a telephone chain of Broadway stars including Mary Testa, Jackie Hoffman, Cheyenne Jackson, and La Fierstein himself — and predictably, she’s totally jazzed about the of speaking at the gala. Oh no, this is just like the plot of every sitcom ever!

Julia’s high doesn’t quite last once she and Tom arrive at the Theatre Wing Ding Thing (as Harvey called it earlier. Can he please become a series regular?). Immediately, Julia makes a beeline to Theatre Wing president Miriam Abramson — oh hai, Margo Martindale! — and subsequently makes a fool out of herself by talking about her upcoming “speech.” Miriam, naturally, has no idea what the crazy adulteress is blabbing about.

After that humiliating encounter, Julia is furious at Tom. But Tom’s not so up on Julia either — he tells her that she’s got to snap out of her funk. In return, she demands that he say whatever he’s been hiding from her: “I’m not made of glass! Just scarves!” And that’s when Tom comes clean: “Word on the street is that you couldn’t hack it on Bombshell, that you had a nervous breakdown, and that I should start looking for another writing partner before my career goes down with yours.” Also, she’s a virgin who can’t drive.

Despite Julia’s awesome marshmallow therapy, Ivy is still feeling blue. She tells Sam that she’s been having doubts about pursuing her theatrical dreams… then is rudely interrupted by a completely hammered Derek, who’s lolling about her stoop. Hoo boy. He’s desperate for someone to tell him he isn’t a horrible person. (Or, as he puts it, “You knoowaimlike. I’m nothabaad.”) Ivy manages not to roll her eyes all the way into the back of her skull when he calls her his “friend” — but after Derek reassures her that she definitely shouldn’t quit the business, she softly tells him that she doesn’t think he’s a monster. And for a moment, their faces draw closer and closer… until Ivy cuts Derek off with a curt “not gonna happen.” Ha! Yay for Ivy growing back her spine!

Karen brings her crew of theater gazelles to a mysterious land known as Greenpoint, Brooklyn, where Jimmy and Kyle are throwing an awesome hipster party in their ginormous apartment. She’s on a mission to get Jimmy to share his songs with her; Bobby is on a mission to make out with Kyle. Only one of them may be successful.

Iowa quickly locates Jimmy, and soon the two of them are bantering like usual (read: he’s insulting her and she’s weakly trying to defend herself). After about four sips of backwashed liquid courage, she’s ready to enact her plan. Karen takes a deep breath and begins to sing “Caught in the Storm,” the song Kyle gave her. Soon, Ana joins in on the piano. She’s building up to a crescendo, she’s crooning lyrics clearly about her imminent relationship with Jimmy, and as she finally ends, she prepares for the applause she knows is coming… except instead, there’s nothing but crickets and the sound of PBR cans being popped open.

NEXT: Lord, what fools these mortals be!

Karen is confused. Did she not bestow upon these mere mortals the gift of song? Why aren’t they crying tears of joy and kissing her feet, like the guests at the bar mitzvah, or the people at that one bar, or the people at the other nine bars? Even more bafflingly, Jimmy has stormed out of his own party after hearing the song. Please also note the unimpressed Brooklynites surrounding Karen, who are wondering who invited these weird theater kids in the first place.

Jimmy isn’t mad because a girl he barely knows came to his party only so she could draw attention to herself. No, he’s angry because he thinks Kyle “stole” his song. When Kyle says he was only trying to help by giving his music an audience, Jimmy snarls that he doesn’t need anybody’s help: “I write for myself!” But if a bartender belts a sappy ballad in an empty tavern, does he really make a sound? Anyway, bottom line: Jimmy refuses to show his work to anybody, which means he’ll never succeed as either a musician or an algebra problem-solver. Karen storms away from him; leaving a scene in a huff is apparently Smash‘s new scarf.

Bruised and broken, Bombshell‘s creative team is ready to leave the party they shouldn’t be at in the first place. But before they go, Eileen has one last idea: Since everyone there already thinks they’re crazy, they might as well hijack the stage and perform a Marilyn song. Because Karen is caught in a storm — or at least a subway tunnel — Ivy’s going to step in for this impromptu singalong.

And it’s a good thing they got Ivy instead of Karen, because the song Eileen had in mind is a torchy, slow-burning number much better suited to Ivy’s belt than Karen’s pop precision. “They Just Keep Moving the Line” finds Marilyn bemoaning a business that won’t stop demanding more and more from her. Sound familiar? Even if it’s on the nose, Ivy sure sings the hell out of the song — proving both that she definitely deserves stardom and that she would make an incredible Sally Bowles.

Eileen’s crazy gambit actually leads to something good: the U.S. Attorney’s wife was in the gala’s audience, and she’s helped pull some strings so that the team can resume work on Bombshell as long as it isn’t for profit or public consumption. There’s just one eensy fly in the ointment: Eileen’s going to get the money she needs to fund the show from Jerry. Beware exes bearing loans, lady.

Everyone else is also making amends. Julia has ditched the marshmallow fluff for some apology muffins, which she gives to Tom along with a promise that she’s done playing the sad sack. He responds with some tough love for his partner: “It’s time to retire the scarves.” Aw, nuts; now we need a new drinking game. Maybe take a swig every time Ivy looks sad?

NEXT: Poor, poor Ivy, whatcha gonna do?

Even Jimmy is reluctantly resisting his natural jerkishness, thanks to a harsh talking-to from Kyle. Oh, Kyle, why can’t you and Tom find BFFs who appreciate you? (Like me! I would!) He brings Karen a flash drive that holds all the songs he’s written so far. The fact that he’s got them saved in the first place proves Jimmy cares a whole lot more about this musical business than he’s been letting on.

Ivy, meanwhile, arrives at Derek’s palatial apartment with another kind of gift — coffee and a hangover-fighting greasy sandwich. They’re sharing a friendly moment when she realizes he has company… then finds out that the company is Karen, who’s preparing to share Jimmy’s flash drive with the director. Karen coldly tells her rival that she heard Ivy saved the day last night: “I was on the subway when they called me.” Yikes, so much for that detente they reached last episode. As Ivy’s leaving, she hears Karen ask Derek what his ex wanted. “Nothing important,” he answers before the elevator doors have even closed. Poor girl — they just keep moving the liiiiine!

Footlights, Part 2

– Derek, yelling something we’ve all wanted to yell at Eileen: “Did it not seem a little bit strange to you that a Brooklyn bartender and his funny little friends had millions of dollars in cash lying around?” Too bad he forgot that Nick actually works on the Lower East Side.

– Julia has Tom tell the team that she’s missing meetings because of a “college thing” with Leo. Honey, if you’re going to make him fib, at least give him some believable material.

– Eileen’s Bombshell embarrassment is front page news, complete with a caricature of the producer waking up with a severed Marilyn head in her bed. And then Jerry made her an offer she couldn’t refuse…

– Bobby, Jessica, and Ana enthuse that Jimmy’s music is good — “like, Jonathan Larson good.” Hear that, songwriting team who actually wrote “Caught in the Storm”? Somebody at NBC likes you!

– Speaking of, which of Jimmy’s songs did you like better — this one, or “Broadway, Here I Come”? I thought my answer would be the latter, but then I had “Caught in the Storm” stuck in my head for days, so.

– I almost liked Jimmy when he made fun of Karen for saying “FYI.” But only then.

And there you have it, folks: Smash 2.0. Do you think the show is changed for the better, or does season 2 not actually seem very different from season 1? Are you intrigued by Jimmy and Kyle’s musical? Did Jennifer Hudson meet or exceed your expectations? And finally, be honest — don’t you miss the scarves, just a leeeeettle bit?

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