The ABC series Nashville – no relation to the great Robert Altman movie – weds melodrama to the best music to be heard consistently on TV since the HBO show Treme completed its tenure. Treme, set in New Orleans following Katrina, was something special: a wide, layered, variegated exploration of a society dealing with the aftermath of a geographical disaster that was also inescapably a political one. The show’s writers threaded half a dozen stories that exposed not only the challenges for New Orleans residents of putting their lives back together but also the ways in which the catastrophe knocked up against corruption in the government and police department both during and after the storm. And as a bonus that reflected the high content of music in the blood of the city of New Orleans, each week the audience got to hear extraordinary musicians perform – some famous, some known mostly to local aficionados, playing themselves, as well as actors playing musicians.
Nashville, which begins its third season this fall, is set in another American city that is defined by its music, but the series isn’t a serious examination of its milieu, nor does it share Treme’s documentary-realist style. It’s a glossy nighttime soap with exaggerated characters and a tortuous, often preposterous plot line. But it’s as entertaining as anything on TV: energetic, engrossing, with characters you keep in your head from week to week and songs you can’t wait to listen to over again. (Each season has produced two CDs; I’ve played all four soundtrack albums so often in my car that I know every tune by heart.) Nashville is the Grand Hotel of television, except that its pop-culture secret – the element that makes it addictive – isn’t star power as much as the power of its music.