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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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.