Press Tour: ‘Smash’ producers discuss season 2 revamp

At NBC’s executive press tour session this morning, network chairman Bob Greenblatt referred to “Smash” as “an unqualified success.” When I asked him to qualify the success of a show that replaced its creator with a new showrunner, got rid of several castmembers, hired several new ones, is changing the stories and otherwise undergoing a significant creative revamp, Greenblatt insisted, “I can’t qualify unqualified success.”

Nor could the producers of “Smash” exactly qualify the extent of the changes to the show. Creator Theresa Rebeck has been replaced by “Gossip Girl” alum Josh Safran. The actors who played Dev, Ellis and Frank are all gone (one appears on-camera in the season premiere; the other two are referred to but not seen), and new castmembers include Krysta Rodriguez as Karen Cartwright’s new roommate and Jeremy Jordan and Andy Mientus as a struggling songwriting team who get Karen’s attention. Show-within-the-show “Bombshell” runs into several stumbles on the way to Broadway, and Karen, Derek and others get distracted not only by this new musical, but by the presence of a huge Broadway star played by Jennifer Hudson, who guest stars in 3 of the first 4 episodes.

It’s a brand-new “Smash.” Or is it?

“Changes-wise, I actually think it’s sort of ‘Smash,'” insisted Safran. “I don’t think it’s changed that much. The stuff from last year that you loved is still there, and the stuff from last year that maybe some people felt went off on tangents, we’ve looked at and tried to find a way to bring it together, but it still is the same ‘Smash’ – just maybe bigger, more music, maybe younger in regards to some of our new castmembers. But I hope people will watch it still.”

Later, though, returning producers Craig Zadan and Neil Meron were more candid in the idea that there were things about season 1 that needed fixing, and that they were very aware of the love-hate reaction to the season.

“Me, I read everything,” said Meron. “I read the love, I read the hate, I read the bad. I read everything. I hope I was objective enough to say, ‘Well, that makes sense.’ And there were certain things that were written that I actually thought made a lot of sense that people were saying. When Josh came in for the second season and addressed all of those issues, it seemed that it was really the right fit to me.”

“I would say our instinct about the show followed a lot of the things people were saying about the show,” said Zadan. “When certain things went off-kilter in season 1, we would read about them in the press, or on blogs, or in tweets, and it reinforced the feelings we had, and it logged away the feeling that if we were lucky enough to come back in season 2, boy, wouldn’t it be great to fix those things, or adjust those things, or move those things around?”

When pressed for specifics on what some of those things were, all Meron would talk about are the scarves that Messing’s character wore – which were modeled on the fashion style of Rebeck, whose departure Meron blamed on Rebeck’s other commitments, including her stage play “Dead Accounts.” (Note: This does not exactly square with how Rebeck described her departure in November.)

I’ve seen three of the first four episodes of the new season, and without spoiling my review (which will publish much closer to the February 5 premiere), I would say in a way that all three men are right in a way. On the one hand, they have very clearly addressed some of the complaints people had about the show, specifically by getting rid of some of the most disliked characters. (Julia’s son Leo also doesn’t appear in any of the ones I’ve seen.)  On the other, “Smash” is very much the same show in the ways that it doesn’t always seem to totally grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the ensemble, and the likability of some of the characters.

But the music – including two new numbers NBC screened during the panel – is still quite good.