Tuned In

A Second Look At: Nashville

It began the fall as my most-anticipated new network show, and as it takes a break for the holidays, it's the one new show (with Last Resort already canceled) I'm most likely to stick with.

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ABC

Eight episodes into its run, ABC’s Nashville is settling into a zone of narrative and musical style somewhere between Treme and Glee. (Maybe the highest compliment I can pay the show right now is that I watch it, and Smash is not the first comparison that comes to mind.) Like the former, less-watched HBO show, it wants to capture a broad sweep of the cultural life of an American city. Like the latter, more-watched Fox show, it wants to have a sleek pop sensibility (and the iTunes sales to go with it) and a little bit of good old-fashioned sexiness and intrigue to hook in viewers.

Nashville isn’t totally there yet. But it began the fall as my most-anticipated new network show, and as it takes a break for the holidays, it’s the one new show (with Last Resort already canceled) I’m most likely to stick with.

My favorite thing about Nashville, and something I’m impressed that it’s maintained, is its focus on the work and craft of making, especially writing music: how difficult it is for an artist to stay true to her sense of herself (even when successful like Rayna) and how intimate the songwriting process is (whether that intimacy is consummated, like with Juliette and Deacon, or teased at, as with Scarlett and Gunnar). Maybe this is easier in a show about Nashville’s music scene, which has a tradition of being songwriter-centric. But it also shows that Callie Khouri has goals for the music in this show beyond selling downloads: for each of the characters, the music is them, and that’s expressed not just in big performance numbers but in the work of putting notes and lyrics on paper. The show may never want to be Treme, exactly, in its naturalistic depiction of music and culture, but the show gets grounding and depth from this emphasis on the characters as artists and not just performers.

At the same time, Nashville has heightened the drama with business and romantic conflicts without (too often) falling into clichés. I’m interested in the idea of Rayna and Juliette going off to tour together, because the idea of the two of them having something to gain from each other has more potential than the catfight that the original pilot could have been setting up. I don’t much care about the romance between Juliette and Tebow—I will never call him anything but Tebow—but I am interested how her barely-on-the-rails life is affected by an impulsive marriage. (Hayden Panettiere is never going to be my favorite cast member in this show, but she’s become more convincing in the role than I expected.) And I’ve been surprised how much I’ve liked the Scarlett-Gunnar storyline, detached as it often is from everything else, especially for the idea of how a basically introverted character like Scarlett can make it in an extrovert’s business.

My biggest disappointment so far: the mayoral-race storyline, because it hasn’t managed to add anything more to the series beyond some complications regarding political dirty tricks. The fraught history between Rayna and Lamar was interesting early on but feels like it’s been lost in the shuffle. (All of which is a waste, so far, of the generally awesome Powers Boothe, not to mention Robert Wisdom. Nashville has some taste when it comes to casting.)  The election hasn’t really done much to draw in the larger city as a character—I don’t need debates on infrastructure policies, but we could use a sense of what’s at stake in the city that gives the show its name. And even the latest turn—the it’s-not-an-affair-it’s-embezzlement entanglement of Teddy—doesn’t really challenge their relationship in any interesting way that the existing pressures of her music career don’t already.

But I like enough of Nashville at this point that I’ll look at its disappointments as areas where it can potentially grow. The first episodes of a serial like this, after all, are kind of like demo tracks; they’re about roughing out the voice, the tone, the lyrics. We’ll see what the finished first album is like come spring.

7 comments
tmcleaver
tmcleaver

I like this show because, as someone who works in the "creative life" I long ago learned that "show business" is two separate words, and in the words of a famous movie star who became a failed governor, "if you don't pay attention to the second one, they won't let you do the first one."  

Myself, I like the Scarlett and Gunnar storyline, because I have known artists like Scarlett, who are far better than they believe they are, and are using their creativity (whether they know it or not) to deal with whatever it was in their life experience that turned them into that kind of person.

I really hated the Juliette character at first, then started to see her as the kind of "star" I have known before - a person with such a gaping hole in their soul from the experience of their life that "big star" is the only thing that could possibly fill it - and it never does.  Her coming "impulsive marriage" to Tebow (you have that one right) is more payback to Tebow's mother for telling her that no matter how much money she has she will always be "trash" to "proper people" like that narrow-minded harridan than anything else.  She's a person who comes from a background of probably total child abuse, certainly sexual abuse which is demonstrated in all her relationships with men, turning them sexual prematurely and inappropriately, which she finally alluded to in her description to her manager of her "first kiss."  That's a difficult character to watch, and a very difficult one to play, and I think Hayden Panetierre is carrying it off well.

Most of all, I like the fact that I am not that much of a fan of the musical genre, and am liking the music a lot.

It's not "Treme" but it's the closest thing we're going to have once that Work Of Genuine Art is gone next year.

Bemused
Bemused

I have to differ with you on Scarlett and Gunnar--that storyline just seem superfluous, and I really can't stand Scarlett and her baby talk voice. She also seems ridiculously naive, clueless, and immature. I just find her tiresome.

Agree on the politics storyline, which really isn't working. I'm actually in favor of the co-headliner tour just to get them on the road and, ideally, away from Teddy, who is a bore and buzzkill. It's really hard to believe Rayna would marry him, even though her sister said he'd be a good husband and father. He's no Coach.

wmarkwhitlock
wmarkwhitlock like.author.displayName 1 Like

As a Nashville resident, there are things about the show that keep the natives restless. The writers/directors/producers are paying due homage to some great locations. My music publishing friends want more insight into the song publishing struggles. As long as they keep the music real, my musician friends will be tolerant. I agree, James, that the political side of the show lacks. There is a class struggle here that some hint at (Bellemeade Old Nashville money vs. Brentwood New Nashville money vs. Franklin outsider money). That could be interesting.

twocee
twocee like.author.displayName 1 Like

I live in Chicago and Chicago natives had some similar issues when the Chicago Code was on Fox a few years ago.  TV writers take real risks setting shows in real places that are not NYC or LA because it's so hard for outsiders to really capture what makes a place tick, and natives want certain things about their city to be showcased or explored.  Especially when the place is essentially a "character" on the show.  Kentuckians I know have had some similar reactions to Justified.

I've never lived in Nashville, but I'm from the south and I would guess that the old/new money and general class struggles there mirror many other southern cities.  I'd also love to see that come out more in the show -- the mayoral race could easily delve into that if the writers were willing to go there.

Overall I agree with James' take.  The show is very good at most of what it is doing.  The flaws are there but small enough to overlook.  It is one of the shows I look forward to most during the week.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@wmarkwhitlock Yeah, I mean, I don't expect an ABC show to be Treme, and I'm kind of impressed it's made as much of an attempt as it has. But as long as it's going to have a political storyline, it will be more interesting to watch the more specific it is.

badgrammar
badgrammar

I truly love this show! So glad you're sticking with it and that it hasn't gotten canceled. :)

Jeanette607
Jeanette607

@poniewozik Glad to hear you're hanging in w. Nashville.Lamentable lack of Powers Boothe[who's "haunted" me since "Jonestown"].Scar-Gun:A+