This publicity image released by NBC shows actress Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright in a scene from the second season of "Smash."
This publicity image released by NBC shows actress Katharine McPhee as Karen Cartwright in a scene from the second season of "Smash." "Smash," set in the world of New York theater, stars Debra Messing, Christian Borle and Angelica Huston. Guest stars this season include Jennifer Hudson. (AP Photo/NBC, Will Hart)

It's virtually impossible to watch "Smash" star Katharine McPhee on screen and not be smitten.

The "American Idol" alumna has a way to go before she masters the intricacies of acting, but it was thrilling to see her sing and dance - and above all be sweet, heartbroken and sweetly heartbroken - on the first season of NBC's disarming, surprisingly enjoyable, if sometimes mediocre, musical drama, which returns for its sophomore year Tuesday night with a double episode.

A 21st-century take on "A Star Is Born," "Smash" stars Debra Messing and Christian Borle as a successful Broadway writing team who come up with a musical about Marilyn Monroe's life and career called "Bombshell." Anjelica Huston is assertive as a newly single producer who scours the seas (and, it is suggested, the pond where the mob slithers) to finance the play.

British actor Jack Davenport is a force of nature as the show's director, Derek Wills, a demanding, cruel, Oxbridge-educated womanizing narcissist whose reputation as a visionary artist gives him license to behave badly at every turn.

The first season followed the travails of mounting a major musical - and all the sacrifices, tears, heartaches, heartbreaks and the bellyaching that goes with it.

Show creator Theresa Rebeck, whose writing credits include "NYPD Blue" and the Broadway plays "Mauritius" and "Seminar," kept things flowing at a nice pace by staging the entire season as a "High Noon" showdown between two young actors vying for the lead role in "Bombshell."

Ivy Lynn (Megan Hilty) is the prototypical hardworking, patient Broadway pro who has been stuck in minor roles all her life. Despite all her wiles - she beds Derek and her rival's fiance - Ivy doesn't stand a chance against McPhee's luminous Karen Cartwright.

McPhee, 28, who hails from a Los Angeles show-business family, was effective on "American Idol" because she delivered a studied performance as a girl-next-door fresh off the farm. She reprises that persona in Karen, an incorruptible, sweeter-than-ambrosia ingenue straight out of Iowa who eventually lands the big role.

And ... a star is born!

As the new season opens, Karen has stunned critics and audiences alike during "Bombshell's" brief test run in Boston.

She seems changed. Is she still the same lovely lass, or did fame cost her not only her fiance but her soul?

Triumphant, the company is ready to announce its Broadway engagement when the authorities shut down the show, claiming it's financed by mob money. (Is there a plot to ruin the show? And who's behind it?)

The momentum that made the last half of the first season so compelling is gone as the now-unemployed Karen, Derek, and Ivy try to find new work, while Messing's character falls into a deep depression.

The show gets a much-needed jolt of energy with the entrance of the incomparable Jennifer Hudson, who plays Derek's latest muse, Veronica Moore, a talented singer saddled with a repressive, overbearing stage mother.

"Smash" lost its creator when Rebeck decided to leave after the first season. How much her absence will affect the season is unclear. But if the first three hours of the new season are any indication, it may be in trouble.

Let's not mince words: "Smash" was hardly ever brilliant.

It worked last season because its songs, thrilling cast and narrative energy outbalanced its stereotypical characters and sentimental, if not maudlin, sensibility. We liked "Smash" because for every tedious bourgeois moral lesson about infidelity, artistic integrity and the salutary effects of going to church the writers threw in, they also concocted wonderful, if sometimes overproduced, song-and-dance sequences.

After all, even the show's play-within-a-play, "Bombshell," is a middling, middlebrow, middle-of-the-road musical without much edge. It made for great viewing because of the incessant backbiting, competition and trauma it engendered behind the scenes.

Above all, it was worth tuning in each week because of the perverse, catty war between Hilty and McPhee. Now that the war's over, we sincerely hope the show finds a way to keep things exciting.

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Tirdad Derakhshani: tirdad@phillynews.com

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