Winter TV Preview: 'Smash'

Big is the operative word for season 2. Instead of one Broadway show within the show, there will be multiple — most notably Bombshell, which will face a rough road to Broadway, and a rocking Rent-esque project called Hit List spearheaded by a bad-boy composer named Jimmy (Broadway breakout Jeremy Jordan). The variety of musical styles means more radio-friendly tunes — many of which will again be written by Shaiman and Wittman — in the hopes of giving Smash a better shot at attaining Glee-like success on the iTunes charts, a goal it struggled with last season (though the show's soundtrack debuted at No. 9 on the Billboard 200). Hit List also provides a way for the series to incorporate some younger actors, like Jordan and newcomer Andy Mientus as Jimmy's writing partner, Kyle. And if that draws more young viewers as well, no one's complaining. Says Zadan, ''It's a much sexier show, a much younger show, a much cooler show.'' Jordan says that because there are so many fresh faces this year, from costumers to writers, it's been easier for new cast members to feel comfortable. ''It's a different energy, which is kind of nice because at the beginning you feel like you're a little bit of an outsider looking in,'' says the actor. ''I compared it to being a replacement on a Broadway show, which is always weird at first.''

With all this Broadway fabulousness to follow, there's no room for distracting subplots (Julia, we don't care that your son was busted for pot!) or tangential players outside of the showbiz scene. To that end, Julia's husband (Brian d'Arcy James) and son (Emory Cohen) have been shown the door, along with Karen's fiancé, Dev (Raza Jaffrey), and the aforementioned universally reviled Ellis. Instead we'll see Karen and Jimmy begin to circle each other romantically and professionally. And the competition between Ivy and Karen for the lead in Bombshell will get ... interesting. Teases McPhee, ''The part of Marilyn is sort of up in the air again because Karen makes a bold choice to do something entirely different.''

Plus, Tom and Julia's partnership will be pressed when Bombshell gets mixed reviews; an investigation into Eileen's financing will threaten to derail Bombshell's Broadway hopes; and temperamental director Derek (Jack Davenport) will find his history of dalliances with his actresses coming back to haunt him. The scandal doesn't help him when he pushes Hudson's Veronica to sex up her image. ''I found this role kind of intimidating, like, 'Oh my God, I have to sing, act, dance, perform all at once,''' says Hudson, who signed on for the three-episode arc after Greenblatt floated the idea to her manager. ''But I just loved what this show was about.'' (Hudson isn't the only Oscar winner guest-starring this season: Liza Minnelli will appear as herself in episode 10.)

Making so many changes to a series is always risky, but in the case of Smash, that risk is being rewarded: Safran seems to have dosed the show with some much-needed mood stabilizers, correcting those roller-coaster character shifts (like Ivy's zigzag from vengeful diva to pathetic victim and back again) and wild fluctuations in tone. The first new batch of episodes are not only more cohesive but funny (look for a great joke about scarves in the premiere) and musically thrilling, with a showstopping Hudson performance called ''I Can't Let Go'' at the end of the fourth hour. It's possible this Smash may just live up to the promise of a spectacular juicy behind-the-scenes Broadway drama.

But the best new twist for Smash is that it no longer has to be the savior of a fourth-place network: NBC recently scored its first November-sweeps victory among viewers age 18-49 in nine years, thanks in large part to The Voice and Revolution. That means Safran and company can focus less on becoming a smash hit and more on making Smash a show people love-watch rather than hate-watch. It's a struggle that closely mirrors the theme of season 2: ''Last year the whole thing was 'Stars aren't born, they're made,''' says Safran. ''This season is 'It's not about getting there, it's about staying there.''' Break a leg.