Saturday, September 6, 2014

Musical Soap: ABC Television's Nashville

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.

Nashville creator and co-writer Callie Khouri.
Creator and co-writer Callie Khouri, best known before the series as the Oscar-winning screenwriter of the popular (and idiotic) female outlaw picture Thelma and Louise, balances Nashville on the fortunes of two country stars, Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Rayna, the daughter of one of the city’s wealthiest men, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe) and the wife of a rising politician, Teddy Conrad (Eric Close) – who becomes the city’s mayor as his marriage to Rayna is breaking up – is Nashville aristocracy, a beloved singing star whose hits cover a couple of decades. Juliette is a girl from the wrong side of the tracks with a sexy, renegade image whose initial fan base is teenage girls like Rayna and Teddy’s older daughter Maddie (Lennon Stella). The two women don’t think much of each other so they’re not pleased when their shared label, Edgehill, throws them together on a concert tour. But they co-write a hit song and eventually develop a somewhat grudging friendship in which Rayna – not always happily, not always appreciated – serves as a mentor and adviser to Juliette (while Juliette fills the occasional and unexpected ole of older friend to Maddie).

Rayna’s narrative includes a difficult relationship with her corrupt, larger-than-life father, whose nefarious escapades turn out to include an unintended part in Rayna’s mother’s death; and a long association with Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), a talented musician and songwriter who was once her partner both on and offstage. She finally ditched him because of his drinking but they’ve stayed friends, to Teddy’s irritation. Deacon stopped drinking long ago, but when, at the end of season one, he finds out that Maddie is his daughter, he falls off the wagon. Juliette cycles through one emotional crisis after another – an encounter with her addict mother (Sylvia Jefferies) that ends in the older woman’s suicide; a career-threatening scandal over an alleged atheistic comment (which was, in fact, quoted misleadingly out of context); a fling with a married millionaire (Charlie Bewley); and most recently the attempts of the head of the record company, evildoer Jeff Fordham (Oliver Hudson), to blackmail her into signing a new contract with him after she’s jumped ship to record with Rayna’s new independent label, Highway 61. Early on Juliet bedded Deacon, but only casually; mostly he’s a good friend. Anyway, though he had a romance with a Nashville lawyer (Christina Chang) that fell apart when he found she’d had a one-night stand with his old nemesis Teddy, he’s never gotten over Rayna – whose latest partner is another one of Nashville’s biggest recording stars, Luke Wheeler (Will Chase).

Then there’s a crew of aspiring young musicians whose connections are even more incestuous. Deacon’s niece Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) comes to Nashville to support her boy friend Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson) in his bid for stardom. But his career implodes shortly after their relationship does, and for a while she pairs up romantically with her pal Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio), who got her to write songs with him and try them out at the Bluebird Café, where both were on the wait staff. Gunnar’s brief flirtation with success is tied dangerously to his brother’s violent death and eventually he backs away from the limelight (after losing Scarlett). Rayna discovers Scarlett and signs her for Highway 61, but the spotlight exposes all her insecurities (her new songs address her childhood traumas), and following a public breakdown she begs out of her contract. Meanwhile Gunnar falls for her best friend, Zoey Dalton (Chaley Rose), who’s pursuing a career as a back-up vocalist, while Avery, working as a roadie on Juliette’s tour, forms a close friendship with her that blossoms into romance. Finally we have Will Lexington (Chris Carmack), Gunnar’s roommate, whose burning ambition to become Nashville’s latest young recording hunk drives him to repress his homosexuality, with predictably disastrous results. He considers suicide, then makes a last-ditch move to marry an unsuspecting young singer named Layla Grant (Audrey Peebles) who can’t figure out why he’s so distant. (Will and Layla have both signed with Edgehill, and TV audiences follow their marriage on a reality show. From the outset you can see exactly where that’s going to lead, and indeed it gets there, in the final moments of season two.)

Chris Carmack as Will Lexington.
Getting down all these crisscrossed narrative lines so they sound coherent may be a challenge, but following the plot while you’re watching the show isn’t, and though the show is essentially a musical melodrama, its characters are vivid enough so that you keep their tribulations straight between episodes. That’s true even though the show, like all soaps, relies on tropes that you may find yourself growing fond of even while you realize how ridiculous they are, like the scenes in which one or another of the characters in Juliette’s corner (it varies) reminds her that she’s a major star who needs to use her power. (This pattern is countered by the scenes in which one or another of the characters – it varies – lectures her on her selfishness and bad behavior.) Or the ones in which Rayna tells Teddy or Deacon or Luke that paramount among the things she has to consider is the feelings of her daughters. (Lennon Stella’s real-life sister Maisy plays Maddie’s kid sister Daphne.) Every couple of weeks Maddie acts out in some adolescent way; these repetitions are predictable but they’ve avoided becoming tiresome, partly because Maddie is, after all, a teenager who just found out that the man she believed all her life was her father isn’t, partly because Lennon Stella is such a modest, likable young actress. And partly because Teddy, who’s supposed to be an adult, behaves far more impulsively than she does, trying to deny her the pleasure of guitar lessons with Deacon because he’s furious that she’s discovered he’s her birth dad and sleeping with Deacon’s main squeeze, Megan, presumably out of spite.

This development didn’t make much sense on Megan’s part; it felt like what it probably was – a ploy by the writers to move the character out of the way in order to restore the possibility of a renewal of the old Deacon-Rayna romance. I didn’t buy Scarlett’s phase as a pill junkie, either, which she eventually passed out of without the need for rehab or NA meetings. At least the writers stuck to it for half a dozen episodes; there was a time in season one when Juliette became an alcoholic but only for one week. Sometimes, as on all soaps, you see an idea being introduced experimentally and then thrown away because it doesn’t work or the writers came up with a better one, and that’s fair enough; the amount of invention required to keep a series afloat, week after week, season after season, is staggering. Layla began as an underhanded bitch determined to unseat Juliette as the idol of teenage girls all over the country; in one episode, she relishes the power she holds over Juliette because she’s the only person who overheard the entire exchange from which Juliette’s supposed sacrilegious comment was culled. But that didn’t work: the writers wanted Juliette to have to fight a longer uphill battle toward getting her career back, and anyway the direction in her music has been toward more adult material. So suddenly Layla morphed into a naïf hopelessly hooked on a gay man. Peebles isn’t a bad singer, but her acting has been tepid – perhaps not her fault entirely, given the unprepared-for switch in the way her character has been written. On the other hand, for most of season one Avery was an ambitious, self-involved prick who treated Scarlett badly and was only too eager to jump in bed with an oversexed middle-aged agent in order to move his career along. But the show used his unhappy ride on the road to celebrity as a way to give him perspective; he walked out on the agent, burned his tapes because he hated what his new producer had done to his music, and opted to return to work at the Bluebird and enlist as a roadie rather than continue to compromise himself. Jonathan Jackson is a good actor (and a beautiful singer, especially of ballads like “How You Learn to Live Alone”) who has made the most of his character’s development into a decent guy – who still cares about Scarlett but has truly fallen in love with Juliette.

The best of the actors – Panettiere, Britton, Esten, Jackson, Carmack – ride the show’s twisty melodramatic waves and never get swallowed up by them. Panettiere is terrific as a star who’s still as hungry as she was in her deprived, trailer-court days and whose good instincts are constantly at war with her meanest ones, and with a self-destructive bent that she’s too sharp-eyed and too sensitive to be unaware of. (Her scenes with Jackson at the end of the last season were quite moving.) The writers haven’t been as smart in their writing for Britton, and it probably doesn’t help that musically she isn't in the same class as the other performers playing musicians, but there were a few scenes late in season one and early in season two, when circumstances shake Rayna’s confidence in herself, that showed off her acting chops and reminded Friday Night Lights fans like me why we tuned in to Nashville in the first place. And whatever turns her character takes, Britton has charisma and she’s a blessedly grounded actress.

Hayden Panettiere as Juliette.
On the other hand, Eric Close, a veteran of the TV mystery series Without a Trace, is such an irredeemably dull performer that even making Teddy one of the least attractive characters in the series hasn’t done much to stir him up. (For a while Teddy was married to a woman named Peggy Kenter, who got him to the altar by faking pregnancy, and Kimberly Williams-Paisley, in the role, was even duller than Close. So dull, in fact, that when the show killed her off just before Christmas – she was the accidental recipient of a sniper’s bullet meant for Teddy – I forgot all about the incident by the time the show recommenced a month later.) I was delighted when the writers killed off Lamar Wyatt, since Powers Boothe can chew up the scenery just by widening his eyes and breathing heavily. Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio are simply dreadful as Scarlett and Gunnar: she sounds like a mouse on goofballs and he bats his eyes and affects the phoniest gee-gosh country-boy persona you’ve ever seen. (Bowen is Australian, Palladio English, but I don’t think that’s the real problem; Palladio’s southern accent isn’t bad, and Bowen’s problem goes much deeper than her artificial accent.) You wait patiently – or impatiently - through their book scenes until they start singing; then you remember why they got cast in these roles. They sound sublime together, on “If I Didn’t Know Better,” “When the Right One Comes Along,” I Will Fall,” “Why Can’t I Say Goodnight,” “Lately” and especially “Fade into You.”

The duets are often my favorite musical numbers – Panettiere with Jackson on “Everything I’ll Ever Need” and with Carmack on “Can’t Say No to You,” Bowen with Esten on “This Town,” and the Stella sisters performing absolutely anything. For a couple of episodes Gunnar, his old adversary Avery, and Zoe form a trio; Palladio, Jackson and Chaley Rose – who has a stunning voice – are so lovely in sync that when the group breaks up, for a number of unconvincing reasons, you feel a little let down. But the show provides so many opportunities for the musicians to cross-pollinate that you live from week to week in a state of blissful anticipation. The best solos are the ones that convey the feelings of the characters who sing them, in that time-honored way that numbers in backstage musicals flirt with the idea of crossing the line into so-called “naturalistic” musicals, where a song is conceived as a character’s emotional expression or self-definition. Think of Barbra Streisand as Fanny Brice singing “My Man” at the end of Funny Girl, and Liza Minnelli as Francine in New York, New York singing “But the World Goes ‘Round”: we understand that these are professional singers in front of an audience (Fanny) or in a recording studio (Francince), but their offstage romantic heartbreaks unmistakably fuel their performances. Similarly Juliette’s rendition of “Don’t Put Dirt on My Grave Just Yet” is a fuck-you to the people who want to close down her career, and – more subtly and quite touchingly – Will’s “Is That Who I Am” allows him to voice the tension between his sexual identity and his desperate, distorted self-presentation.

Khouri and the other creative forces behind Nashville know that its fans groove on the music more than on anything else. One week the show spun a wonderful surprise: half a dozen of the actor-musicians performed at Nashville’s legendary Ryman Auditorium, some with the people who’d written their tunes singing back-up. Much as I’d loved Panettiere’s rendition of “Nothing in This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again,” it sounded even sweeter with the two women who’d written it, Sarah Buxton and Kate York, sharing the stage with her. I can hardly wait to hear the new music in season three.

– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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