I enjoyed the Nashville pilot. It featured several terrific performances, a potent Tennessee atmosphere and the best original music on television in recent memory. Callie Khouri’s ABC drama drew plaudits for focusing on female characters and exploring the underside of the complex country music industry.
The pilot also hinted at some soapier tendencies that threatened to undermine the more interesting ideas. Eighteen episodes later, the show has fallen prey to the tendencies of a more conventional network soap, and often a poorly executed one. Here are five ways the show has failed to deliver on its promise.
1. The show’s not really about music anymore.
In the early going, episodes devoted significant chunks of time to the songwriting process, conflicts within the record label and disputes among the country artists. Exploring this territory elevated beyond the level of Smash, which purported to be about the behind-the-scenes machinations of a Broadway musical but quickly devolved into a laughable, superficial melodrama. The best moments on Nashville revolved around these tensions: the artistic and generational rivalry between established superstar Rayna James (Connie Britton) and up-and-coming firebrand Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panetierre), the struggles of the recovering alcoholic songwriter Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), the aspirational journey of the fledgling songwriters Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and Scarlett (Clare Bowen).
Lately, though, the plots have been driven by a tedious and barely credible pileup of half-formed romantic relationships. Juliette’s dalliances with the Tim Tebow-esque football player and her mother’s conniving sober companion have only tread on familiar ground, rehashing relationships we’ve heard about in the media rather than expanding upon them. Rayna, once driven by a desire to remain relevant in an increasingly youth-driven market, now seems consumed by her oscillating feelings towards her ex-lover Deacon, her guitarist Liam and her ex-husband, Nashville mayor Teddy Conrad (Eric Close). She loves him! She loves him not! She loves him sometimes, and the other guy other times! I care not.
(Don’t even get me started on the political subplot. Despite the towering screen presence of Powers Boothe, this storyline has been a dud since the pilot.)
2. When the show is about music, the music’s not what it used to be.
One of the show’s initial selling points was its aptitude for producing high-quality, convincing original songs. Scarlett and Gunnar’s “If I Didn’t Know Better” recalled the soulful duo The Civil Wars, while Deacon and Rayna’s smoldering duets evoked Tim McGraw and Faith Hill with an additional layer of regret. “Wrong Song,” “No One Will Ever Love You,” “Consider Me” and “One Works Better” would fit right in on country radio and critics’ playlists. By the end of the season, however, the songwriting machine seems to have rusted over – each episode contains only one or two songs, rarely at the level of the show’s early creations. The music feels like an afterthought rather than a selling point.
Part of this problem might be logistical: it’s not easy to develop three or four solid songs, relevant to the story and suited to the actors’ strengths, for twenty-three episodes per season. One might even say that the broadcast network schedule has UNDERMINED the show’s ability to generate impressive new music! (See what I did there?)
Either way, though, the show used to allow the music to speak for the characters. Now, it’s just something to fill time.
3. What is this show building to, exactly?
The early part of the season focused on establishing the Rayna-Juliette joint tour, but since they’ve gone out on the road together, the writers seem at a loss for what to do next. There’s no end goal, no built-in obstacles to keep the show consistently engaging. Instead, the writers toss in new characters at every turn, as if to distract us from the fact that the show’s pace has essentially slowed to a crawl. That would be fine if we could be confident in the show’s confidence, but the random nature of many of the subplots suggests otherwise. (Now Rayna’s father had a heart attack! Now Juliette’s boyfriend bamboozled her for her money! Now Gunnar has a new friend who encourages him to amp up his swagger! Now I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for breakfast tomorrow!)
4. Connie Britton, Hayden Panetierre and Charles Esten are GREAT. Everyone else? Eh.
Connie Britton IS Mrs. Coach, but she brings a similar mixture of tender and tough to Rayna. Charles Esten’s performance as Deacon is delightfully gruff and sincere without being sentimental or off-putting. And Hayden Panetierre has continued to surprise me by making a fairly unsympathetic character (as written) feel like a human being, albeit a frequently unpleasant one.
But instead of building the stories around these three characters, Nashville gets distracted by other, far less interesting people. Why did we need to spend three episodes with Gunnar’s outlaw brother? Why do we care about Teddy’s new relationship with a government employee played by Kimberly Williams-Paisley? What is this subplot about Nashville politics doing in a story about the music world?
Nashville, you have great actors in roles that could easily be mined for a season’s worth of drama. Trust yourself! Don’t overload us with additional STUFF.
5. The sense of place has largely disappeared.
The show is called Nashville, right? And yet, the flavor of the distinct Tennessee capital has gotten lost in recent episodes. Part of this transition is inevitable: as Rayna and Juliette travel the country on their tour, we have fewer opportunities to luxuriate in the colorful Volunteer State. Nonetheless, the atmosphere in the city ought to carry over into the lives of the characters who were born and bred in that world. A minor problem, compared to the larger story issues? Sure, but it’s also related to the dimininshing returns in the music and the struggle for “authenticity.”
I haven’t given up on Nashville yet. I’ve kept up with it fairly regularly, and I plan to finish the season. But if the show doesn’t hint at aspirations beyond its current form, my enthusiasm will continue to dwindle. There are too many shows and not enough hours in the day to hope that the flashes of excellence on Nashville will eventually outweight the overhwelming mediocrity.
On the other hand, there are characters named Deacon Claybourne, Avery Barkley and WATTY WHITE. I can’t say no to Watty!
While we wait for Nashville to find its mojo, check out the show’s best moment so far: