Anyone who stayed with NBC’s “Smash” for any amount of time during its rocky first season should know this in preparation for Season Two’s premiere tonight: Ellis is gone.
Well, he may make an appearance. But for the most part, the conniving, Jheri curl-sporting assistant/wannabe-Broadway-somebody (played by Jaime Cepero) got the ax, along with several other characters, amid a sizable rebooting of the TV musical that centers around the making of “Bombshell,” a Marilyn Monroe musical (and what will surely become an actual musical on Broadway). Lead character Karen Cartwright’s (Katharine McPhee) cheating boyfriend, Dev (Raza Jeffrey) also is out, along with lyricist Julia Houston’s (Debra Messing) cuckolded husband, Frank (Brian d’Arcy James), and their waste-of-space teenage son, Leo (Emory Cohen). The men may pop up — it’s not like they have been killed off — but gone are their storylines to weigh everything down. James is the least guilty of the lot, truly a victim of bad writing, but the removal of these weak characters is a promising sign for the series’ sophomore season. Its executives appear to not only have paid attention to the heaps of criticism lobbed their way but taken what was constructive and worked to make the show better. I don’t expect a miracle, but there may be a small chance “Smash” will no longer be a show people love to hate-watch.
The changing of the showrunner says everything. Creator and Broadway veteran Theresa Rebeck is out, replaced with “Goosip Girl” showrunner Josh Safran. Steering a show away from an iceberg can’t be easy, and often transitions between showrunners can be unpredictable. (See “The Walking Dead,” which regrouped when Glen Mazzara took Frank Darabount’s place to lead Season Three but will shift again now that he is leaving at the end of the season.) Safran seems to be taking the challenge as a positive, as he discussed with The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s very rare that you come into a show the second season as a showrunner and be able to have the hindsight that I have and to be able to go, ‘What are some things that people liked, and what are some things that people didn’t?,’ ” he said. “Usually, when you work on a show from the very beginning, you’re working so hard that you’re so intensely connected, so it’s hard to step back and see what’s there. I was lucky to be able to say, ‘This character has fulfilled their duties’ and it was time to move on.” Again, we say: Good riddance, Ellis.
The uneven characterization of Season One will be hard to overcome — now that Julia is divorcing Frank, are her adoption dreams finally kaput? — and it is a shame because the show’s pitfalls cloud our view of what is actually an entertaining musical. “Bombshell” has some fun numbers that are beautifully imagined on the series. Hopefully, the musical won’t continue to be overshadowed by all the extras — and this season, not only are there new characters but a plevy of guest stars, among them Liza Minnelli, Rosie O’Donnell, Matthew Broderick, Sean Hayes and Jesse L. Martin.
Here’s a look at some of the new “Smash” viewers can expect to see starting tonight.
Jennifer Hudson as Veronica Moore
Don’t be fooled by her prominence in the season’s promo ads: Hudson only will appear in several episodes this season as a guest star. But bringing in a big name to drum up ratings isn’t a surprise, and Hudson at least knows her way around an on-screen musical thanks to 2006’s Dreamgirls. Previews for the season indicate that as Broadway starlet Veronica Moore, she’ll offer a mentoring role to Karen, who is poised to be the Next Big Thing if “Bombshell,” which did well in its Boston premiere, ever gets off the ground in New York.
Krysta Rodriguez as Ana Vargas
Finally, Karen has a friend! Ana also happens to be her roommate and a fellow actress, someone to bring a little adventure to Karen’s life and hopefully plot revenge on Ivy for sleeping with Dev and generally being obnoxious. Rodriguez (“In the Heights,” “Spring Awakening”) looks like she’ll add some much-needed flair to the female leads.
Jeremy Jordan as Jimmy Collins
Another Broadway alum (“West Side Story,” “Newsies”), Jordan’s Jimmy is half of a duo behind a rock-opera style musical “Hit List.” Karen encourages them to let their music be heard, and surely Jimmy will be a perfect rebound for the heartbroken singer. Adding another musical to the mix is a smart move, now that viewers already have heard the main “Bombshell” numbers more than once. Let’s hope it distracts in a good way.
Andy Mientus as Kyle Bishop
The other half of the rock musical duo, the character of Bishop appears to be fulfilling the requisite Brooklyn hipster quota for this New York tale. Naturally, Mientus has toured the country for “Spring Awakening” (as Hanschen), so he knows a thing or two about angst. Safran is putting more emphasis on the fresh faces of the business instead of fawning over the established, such as Julia and her “Bombshell” writing partner Tom (Christian Borle), and casting actual up-and-comers is a nice move.
Will “Smash” be able to redeem itself? Will it finally be worthy of a show starring Anjelica Huston? Or will it continue to be a perfect companion for drinking games? (Still take two shots every time you remember Ellis existed.) It’s time to try this again, “Smash.” Let’s take it from the top.
Sarah Carlson is a TV Critic for Pajiba. She lives in San Antonio. You can find her on Twitter. She would give anything if Jeremy Jordan could find a way to incorporate some good old “Santa Fe” or “The World Will Know” into this season …