December 6, 2012



ABC’s NASHVILLE has reached the midpoint of its season as one of the better dramas on network television, and also one of the more frustrating.  Particularly galling is that it seems to falter worst at the things other, less interesting shows do with much less effort.

Plotting, for example.  Within the show’s mostly parallel structure following three women at their various points in the Nashville music hierarchy (they intermix occasionally, as in last week’s benefit concert set-piece), much of the story concerning veteran Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton) has been consumed by the sadly tiresome saga of her husband Teddy (Eric Close) and his run for Mayor.  This kind of tawdry political dirty tricks material is the meat and potatoes of any number of serialized dramas, from The Good Wife to Scandal–hell, even Parenthood had a political storyline last season.  The Nashville version has been mostly dull.  That’s partly because Teddy, along with Rayna’s evil political kingpin father Lamar (Powers Boothe), are the flimsiest, most cardboard characters on the show, but also because series creator Callie Khouri, showrunner Dee Johnson and the other writers seem to be going through the motions, with no interest in the race or the warmed-over scandals it uncovers.  (There’s a particular irony in the fact that Johnson was, for the past season, the showrunner on Boss, which was nothing but political manipulation and personal trauma.)  If there’s a way to make Teddy’s embezzlement of $2 million several years ago (which he subsequently repaid) the stuff of high–or even low–drama, the show hasn’t found it.  Tonight’s addition of a failed suicide attempt by Teddy’s co-conspirator Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), with whom he did not, repeat not, have an affair, didn’t help.  The fact that Connie Britton, one of the great television actresses of her generation, has no better substance to work with than this–plus pining over old boyfriend Deacon (Charles Esten)–is downright heartbreaking.

Similarly, for several successive episodes newly-crowned country music crossover superstar Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) was mostly concerned with her addict mother and a ridiculous scandal involving Juliette shoplifting something from a drugstore that in real life wouldn’t have lasted beyond a single news cycle.  (The recent storyline that had Juliette getting involved with a Tim Tebow-like religious athlete, though, has been more entertaining.)  And the day angelic songbird Scarlett O’Connor (Claire Bowen) gets a storyline that goes beyond her tremulously uncertain choice between bad boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and sweet co-songwriter Gunnar (Sam Palladio) will be a milestone for the show.

And yet, there’s more than a little that makes Nashville worth watching.  Khouri’s portrait of the music industry feels informed and much smarter than other shows in this field have been.  (It probably doesn’t hurt that Khouri’s husband is the great T-Bone Burnett, who produces the excellent original music for the series and is also a producer of the show.)  There’s a real feel for Nashville as a music community, a genuine interest in the lines of communication that run from the top of the business to the outskirts, and the ways that the pressures of the business prey on its people.  Every so often, when Britton gets her teeth into a real piece of material, she imparts half a dozen conflicting emotions where most actors would be lucky to find two.  Panettiere and Bowen, in their wildly conflicting tiger vs mouse ways, give strong, enjoyable performances as well.

Things may be looking up.  Tonight’s episode, written by Jason George and directed by Wendey Stanzler, suggests that the show may be ready to move out of its ruts, as Rayna left Teddy, Juliette proposed to her Tebow clone, and there seemed to be the real possibility of a Rayna/Juliette tour that would certainly liven things up, as the interactions between those two characters have been show high points.  Perhaps Nashville can find its way to a comfort zone that mixes compelling storylines with the examinations of character and setting that seem to interest its creators.

Nashville has received its back order for a full season, although its ratings–while OK for a 10PM drama–have been nowhere near the down-the-middle mainstream hit ABC was hoping for.  Conventional wisdom has it that it’s very difficult for a serialized show to acquire new viewers once its characters and storylines have been established, but that rule doesn’t seem to apply to cable, where DVDs and streaming in the off-season have sometimes built audiences dramatically in a second season.  Perhaps, if Nashville can find itself, and if the network gives it a renewal, the same could happen here.  First, though, the series needs to figure out the notes to its particular song.



About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."