'Smash' season premiere review: Jennifer Hudson, more of a 'Bombshell' than Katharine McPhee? Plus, why 'hate-watching' should be mothballed

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Image Credit: Eric Liebowitz/NBC

As someone whose knowledge of musical theater began most forcefully listening, as a child, to my mother’s vinyl copy of The Music Man cast album (she had a crush of Robert Preston), my pleasure in watching Smash has to do with an admiration for the Harold Hill-like hustle and jive the TV show tries to pull off on its audience. The new, supposedly improved edition of Smash that premiered on Tuesday night offered not so much a boost in quality by conventional standards (more interesting storytelling, clarified motivations, etc.) but rather a whole new set of characters, plot lines, music, and bits of dialogue that add up to reasserting Smash as a TV show about a Broadway show used as a metaphor for a TV show that was flopping creatively.

Shown the (stage-)door during the season premiere was, among others, Brian d’Arcy James as the husband of Debra Messing’s Julia. Pushed to the fore were Katharine McPhee (whom Smash-the-show, and the characters within the show, continue to push, deludedly, as a star) and guest star Jennifer Hudson. These developments were neatly ironic: James is a strong-voiced Broadway star in real life but was grossly misused in Smash‘s first season; McPhee and Hudson, by contrast, represent the weakest and strongest skills of American Idol graduates respectively, and Smash thinks it’s going to fool millions into believing Idol-style vocalists are equal to Broadway vets, since American Idol itself has been doing so, successfully, for years now.

Hudson blew McPhee off the screen during their duet on “On Broadway” (itself not conceived as a Broadway hit song, but as an R&B hit for the Drifters by Barry Mann and Cynthia Weil, songwriters who labored in the same Brill Building that’s used as a location in Smash — everything comes around, doesn’t it?). The lack of parity between the abilities of the two characters lessened viewing pleasure: McPhee has no talent for communicating joy through song (or through her facial expressions as she reacted to Hudson). Hudson is being used to peddle an exceedingly trite subplot about a singer with a pushy stage-mother, even as her character is starring in a Broadway hit called Beautiful, which one young Smash character this night described as a show about “this sweet 1950s Aretha/Etta James type but she has this really overbearing mother” — I’d start checking off the blithe ignorances within this statement, but I’ll choose to think the Smash writers wanted us to think the twenty-something uttering these words was just typically ignorant of pop and Broadway history.

At this point in the life of Smash, the Marilyn Monroe musical Bombshell is beginning to seem like a revival of a failure that never opened in the first place — this, despite the actual plot news this evening that it did reasonably well in its out-of-town previews, give or two some unkind reviews. The critics panned Julia’s book; the new Smash producers taking over from creator Theresa Rebeck took the TV-critic pans of Julia’s scarves to heart and have liberated her neck. Indeed, there was a pained strain to address reviews and fan criticism of the show throughout the episode, never a good idea for people trying to make something as close to art as they can.

The second season’s big, (and you can tell the producers believe) series-saving new character is a cocky songwriter named Jimmy Collins. He’s played by Jeremy Jordan as a high-minded but substance-abusing budding genius whose supposedly adventurous, idiosyncratic music lands somewhere between the score of Rent and the Billy Joel songbook. He’s set up as both a love interest for Karen and a possible career savior for not a few characters, including arrogant director Derek (Jack Davenport) and Jennifer Hudon’s Veronica Moore.

It may be that the finest performance of the night was given by Michael Riedel as a New York Post theater columnist named Michael Riedel. Riedel, whose column is the closest the wan Broadway world currently has to a powerful (to use a Preston Sturges phrase) gossip-schmearer, appeared briefly last season. But in the premiere he was so good — so Addison De-dim-Witt-y, so catty, so delightfully smug — so improved since the first season, that after his first scene I initially thought, “Who’s the clever little actor they got to portray Michael Riedel this season?” I pleadel: more Riedel.

Smash — which remains fun, irritating, and a novelty more intriguing to watch than most hour-long broadcast-network programming — is one of the TV shows that helped give birth to the briefly fashionable phrase “hate-watching.” But like the concept of the “guilty pleasure,” “hate-watching” ought to be understood by now as meaningless — you watch something because it’s attracted your attention, and you form an impression of its parts and its whole as you consume it or adjudge it upon reflection later. Just as there’s nothing to feel guilty about in watching (or reading, or listening to) any piece of pop culture, neither is there anything to the concept of I-watch-because-I-hate: Anything truly hateful (and there are such TV shows, to be sure) would be viewed only out of professional duty (we are all TV critics, even if only in our heads) or ignored. Watching Smash in order to wallow in elements you find foolish or unbelievable or laughable? That sounds like a variation on pleasure to me.

Twitter: @kentucker

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