Heather Watches Nashville

With most television shows wrapping up for the year, I have a little extra time to devote to catching up on some programs that I haven’t been watching regularly. I brought myself up to speed on The Big Bang Theory, a show that I like but don’t love and that loses the DVR timeslot faceoff every week to 30 Rock and The Vampire Diaries. I watched all of the new 30 for 30 documentaries that had piled up on my DVR. And I finally got the chance to sit down and watch ABC’s new show Nashville.

I was excited, if not skeptical for Nashville. It had received a lot of praise from critics I like and respect, like Alan Sepinwall at Hitflix, and it stars Connie Britton, who I adore. She was just so great as Mrs. Coach on Friday Night Lights and she’s the main reason that I gave American Horror Story a chance when it first aired (come for Britton, stay for the bat shit crazy). I was reticent, however, because it was a freshman drama and I didn’t want to invest the time in a show that might not find an audience and wind up cancelled after its initial 13 episode run. Critics had all loved Lone Star in 2010 and I thought it was really good, but it only made it two weeks before Fox dropped the hammer. Nashville also was airing against two established shows that I already liked – the aforementioned American Horror Story, which is such a water cooler show for my friends and I that I’d be hard pressed not to watch it live, and South Park, which I also enjoy. So I decided to sit and wait to see how America responded to Nashville before I gave it a look. It’s hard to predict what will take and what won’t; I’m still trying to figure out how people let Arrested Development go the first time around. If it was cancelled, no harm no foul. I’d have saved myself some aggravation and valuable TV time. But when ABC green lit a full season order for Nashville, I decided it was time to roll the dice.

I was surprised how much I enjoyed Nashville – the characters are interesting and there are enough soapy elements to keep reeling you in. It’s not perfect, but there are plenty of strong elements that make this a show worth watching.

There is definitely a lot going on in Nashville: Rayna Jaymes (Britton) is a country music legend, but her popularity is beginning to slip. Records aren’t selling like they used to and she can no longer fill the arenas that she used to dominate. Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) is the rising star that wants to rule the country music world and doesn’t much care what she has to do to get on top. However, she has a lot of personal baggage. Both women are battling over the services of Rayna’s long time guitarist and writing partner (and former love) Deacon (Charles Esten). Rayna’s husband Teddy (Eric Close) is running for Mayor against a longtime family friend Coleman (Robert Wilsdom), with Rayna’s estranged father (Powers Boothe, a Deadwood alum) pulling the strings. Deacon’s niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen) is trying to break into the song writing business while dealing with her jealous boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson) and her possible feelings for her writing partner Gunnar (Sam Palladio). Somehow, all of these story lines are given time to breathe and things don’t feel overcrowded. I’m probably a bigger fan of the election story line than most people, given my background, but that is the only one of the bunch that feels like it could most easily be removed. The rest of the stories are intertwined with the music business, so they feel a bit more organic. There are all the dramatic elements and love triangles that you expect in soapy drama, yet it still feels fresh and new. The show isn’t a guilty pleasure; it doesn’t completely delve into the world of soap and is grounded enough in reality and the characters’ relationships that there are real stakes and you are invested in what happens. The actors do a wonderful job with these roles and really make the characters interesting. The show does a good job of balancing being sharp and being soapy. It may not be 100% realistic, but it doesn’t feel ridiculous either.

I have to say upfront that I am not necessarily a fan of country music; I dabble in it here and there, but I’m by no means a hard core fan. If you want a pretty good chance of beating me in SongPop, the modern country catalog is the way to go. But the music on Nashville is really good, in my opinion. Of course, that is bound to happen when you have T-Bone Burnett behind the scenes as the show’s music producer. I was surprised to find out that most of the songs on the show are not covers, but original songs. They sound so familiar – in a good way – that I found several of them stuck in my head after each episode had ended. When the soundtrack for the show became available last week, I immediately downloaded it. Panettiere and Britton are surprisingly good singers – though there may be a little auto tune helping them out.  One of the problems of Aaron Sorkin’s Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip was that for a program that was supposed to be taking place behind the scenes of a sketch comedy show, the few glimpses the audience received of the sketches were so unfunny that it ruined the illusion. That doesn’t happen with Nashville; if anything, the music further lends credibility to the stories that are unfolding. This show simply wouldn’t work if the music wasn’t authentic.

Some other thoughts:

  • There has been speculation as to whom the Juliet character may be modeled after in real life. Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood are names that have been thrown around, but I don’t think there is one inspiration for the character. That being said, I did have to laugh when Juliet is blamed for the poor performance of an NFL quarterback. That’s a Jessica Simpson story. And she totally was a jinx.
  • There is nothing better than Connie Britton saying “hey” and “y’all.” I’m glad that she’s back on a show where she where they are a regular part of her dialogue.
  • Britton’s hair looks so spectacular that it even has its own tumblr.
  • The Wire fans – Coleman is in fact played by our pal Bunny Colvin. Hamsterdam forever!
  • The character that I find most problematic is Scarlett’s boyfriend Avery. Has nothing to do with the actual character, but the fact that he is played by Jonathan Jackson of General Hospital fame. He originated the role of Luke and Laura’s son Lucky and I have a really hard time seeing him as anyone else. That’s really my issue, not his.
  • Heroes wound up being a pretty terrible show – it was all downhill after the season one finale – but every time that Panettiere is on screen, part of my brain is thinking “Save the cheerleader, save the world.” Shouldn’t there be a statute of limitations on how long some pop culture info is rolling around in my head?

I only have one to go and I’ll be caught up with all of the episodes of Nashville to date. It’s definitely earned a spot in my DVR rotation for the second half of the season, though it helps that both American Horror Story and South Park will have ended their runs (or be pretty close to ending) by the time Nashville returns. I’m thoroughly enjoying the characters, the storylines and the music. If you are a fan of country music or are interested in the (fictionalized) behind the scenes action of the music industry, Nashville may be right up your alley. But even if you tend to skip over the country stations on the radio like me, there is still a lot to enjoy about the show. And you just might find yourself humming along with a new genre of music.

Nashville airs Wednesday nights at 10 pm (ET) on ABC. New episodes return on January 9th. The entire first season to date is currently streaming on Hulu.com.