The network show I was most looking forward to this season was ABC’s “Nashville,” a country-and-western drama starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere as rivals in the music business. I didn’t expect too much out of the show from Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), but with Britton on board and given a perfect venue to Tami-Taylor sashay across the screen, I expected a modestly entertaining drama featuring twangy musical performances that I’d likely fast-forward through. When the pilot arrived, I was pleasantly surprised that “Nashville” not only exceeded those expectations, but that the music — produced by T. Bone Burnett — was the best thing about “Nashville.”
Five episodes into the freshman season, and now the music is the only good thing remaining in “Nashville,” a show that, narratively, has barely advanced beyond the pilot, while the writing continues to grow weaker and more cringeworthy by the episode. A good Southern lilt can save a lot of bad writing, but it can’t salvage the platitudes, nor the love-sick dialogue that would make Taylor Swift blanch with embarrassment.
The pilot laid out the narrative threads that “Nashville” would take up this season: A veteran country musician Rayna James (Britton) is trying to contend with the modern music business where singles, sex, and auto-tuning are prized above soulful songwriting, albums, and personality, while the young sensation, Juliette Barnes (Panettiere), represents everything Rayna dislikes about the contemporary Nashville. Stuck in between is Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), an ex-lover and ex-member of Rayna’s band who is being pursued as band leader by Barnes, while Rayna — booted from her stadium tour by lagging record sales — wants to go on a smaller, intimate tour with Deacon. There’s a lot of sexual friction between Rayna and Deacon owed to their shared history, while there’s an equal amount of chemistry between Deacon and Juliette, owed the fact that she’s young and pretty and he has a penis.
On the side, Rayna’s husband is running for mayor of Nashville, although he’s expected only to be a figurehead for Rayna’s father (Powers Boothe), with whom Rayna has a strained relationship. Meanwhile .Juliette is also dealing with a drug-abusing mother who is an embarrassment to her career and a reminder of her white-trash upbringing. A third major arc is also opened up by two fledgling songwriters in the midst of their own love triangle. Their music performances have anchored the show so far, but their acting abilities represent the low point of the series.
Five episodes into the season, and everything is about where it began: Deacon is still vacillating between touring with his ex-flame or the young blonde who is f**king him, while the option for Rayna to open for Juliette laid out in the pilot is still on the table (and will likely be taken up by mid-season). Rayna’s husband is still running for mayor, while also attempting to stave off a financial scandal, and the two fledgling songwriters are still fledgling and still wrestling with competing affections. It’s one of those shows where you can fill all of the season’s major plot developments into a 20-second previously on segment.
But the tunes are great; the songs work seamlessly within the narrative, and the music is typically the only genuine, authentic thing about the show. Unfortunately, the story lines are treading water, killing time dealing with silly scandals like the public relations nightmare Juliette ignited by stealing a bottle of nail polish. Likewise, the relationship between Juliette and Deacon is laughable, while Deacon and Rayna’s husband are so interchangeable that it doesn’t seem to matter who she chooses; she’ll be waking up with the same, bland face in the morning, and the chemistry will lack with either choice. They lack relative to the the towering presence of Connie Britton, and it shows.
The biggest problem with “Nashville,” besides the increasingly bad writing, the flat characters, and inert story lines, is that the stakes are too low in “Nashville” compared to most of today’s best cable dramas. Shows like “Boardwalk Empire,” “Dexter,” “Game of Thrones,” and “The Walking Dead,” are dropping bombshells, shocking twists, or killing off major characters week-after-week, while over in “Nashville,” an annoying flash-in-the-pan country singer is shoplifting nail polish. You can get away with lower stakes if your show has a lot of heart or characters you feel fully invested in (see “Parenthood”), of if your show is anchored by solid writing and outstanding performances (see “The Good Wife”) but “Nashville” has none of that; it only has good music. Indeed, yesterday’s announcement that the drama has been picked up for a full season means that it will air a full 23 episodes. Unfortunately, unless the stakes are raised, and the moving parts actually start to move, I don’t see myself watching many more than seven or eight before it’s cancelled from my DVR.