May 23, 2013



NASHVILLE is a superior network series, loaded with talent and powerful moments, but it can also drive you up a wall, beset as it is with sometimes infuriating shortcomings.  The same was true for tonight’s season finale, written and directed by series creator Callie Khouri.

Some of the show’s problems are glaringly obvious.  Its energy and IQ points drop discernibly whenever tycoon Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe) or Nashville Mayor Teddy Conrad (Eric Close) are on screen, as respectively the father and ex-husband of one of the series’s heroines, country music star Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton).  It’s abundantly clear that neither Khouri nor anyone else on the show has any interest in either of the men or their soapy subplots (Teddy embezzled money and may yet go to jail for it; Lamar is an all-purpose tyrant), and if they can’t be made more relevant, they should be recurring guest stars at best.  In the finale, you could practically hear the show’s own writers yawning at the revelation that Teddy’s mistress, who helped him with the embezzlement, is–gasp!–pregnant.  He and Lamar are just taking up valuable series time.

The bigger issues are more subtle.  The show is burdened by an idiosyncratic structure:  it’s built around three protagonists, country music superstars Rayna and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), and rising young singer Scarlett O’Connor (Claire Bowen), who have only glancing relationships with each other.  This isn’t Game of Thrones, where the characters barely have any contact because they’re scattered all over Westeros and beyond (and mostly trying to kill each other)–these three women live in the same city and are in the same business, but hardly have anything to do with one another.  This is probably an accurate reflection of real life in the big city and big industry of Nashville, but it makes the series feel disjointed and episodic.  Even when Rayna and Juliette were on tour together for a chunk of the season, they rarely had more than one mutual scene in any given episode.  (They did have one big joint scene in the finale, but that was an exception.)  Juliette didn’t even meet Scarlett until one of the season’s later episodes.  This structure is particularly frustrating because Britton and Panettiere are marvelous together when they do share the screen (we can’t even tell about Bowen with either one of them, because she’s hardly entered their storylines).   Among the behind the scenes rumors making the rounds is that Khouri or Britton or showrunner Dee Johnson or some combination of them didn’t want to stick with the glib “middle-aged traditionalist Rayna vs. young pop crossover Juliette” conflict of the pilot, and indeed over the course of the season Rayna’s recorded songs with a rock producer and Juliette has gone unplugged–but that doesn’t mean they should spend the season in separate compartments.

Nashville is at its best when it takes the time to develop a story and character arc, and at its worst when it’s trying to be abrupt and surprising (not every show has to be Shonda Rhimesian).  That was evident in the season finale, where two storylines that had been carefully constructed reached their climaxes.

Deacon (Charles Esten), the recovering alcoholic former and now again lover of Rayna and one-time lover of Juliette (hey, come on–it’s a soap), found out that he’s actually the biological father of Rayna’s daughter Maddie (Lennon Stella), and fell off the wagon with a sickening crash, just as violent and unstable as we’d been told he was 13 years ago.  This led to the episode’s big cliffhanger car crash (although Rayna was behind the wheel, not Deacon).  Esten was superb, finally letting loose after spending the season carefully restraining his dark side, and Britton was at her best–she was practically Mrs. Coach all over again–when she had to talk to her daughter about why she’d kept her real parentage a secret.

Meanwhile, Juliette, whose bratty exploits took up much of the season’s first half, had to deal with her recovering addict mother’s violent death and then the revelation that contrary to what Juluiette had thought, her mother had sacrificed herself to save what was left of her daughter’s reputation.  Panettiere had no vanity in this episode at all, and she really sold the season’s final song and the possibility that she’s going to come through this a stronger person.

On the other hand, Scarlett’s character has been all over the place.  She spent the early part of the season so wispy that she could have been a Victorian-era ghost, then she started developing some grit, but in the last few episodes the writers have been throwing her character against a wall to see what sticks, having her break up with seeming soulmate Gunnar (Sam Palladio) after he had a brief meltdown following his brother’s death, and flirt with the possibility of her possibly reformed ex Avery (Jonathan Jackson).  She ended the season being proposed to by Gunnar, which seems like a bad idea for many reasons.

The show has as many bad ideas (Juliette being blackmailed for millions by an evil sober companion) as good ones (Gunnar befriends a fellow aspiring singer who turns out to be secretly gay, an impossibility in the country music world), and often they’re side by side in the same episode.  Yet Nashville has the fundamentals in place to be great television.  Britton is one of television’s best actresses, and once Juliette moved past the superficiality of her character in the opening episodes (petty shoplifting and all), Panettiere has been able to show off her acting chops too.  Everyone in the cast is terrifically talented musically (even the two real sisters who play Rayna’s children), and with T. Bone Burnett as the show’s Executive Music Producer (he also happens to be married to Khouri), the material they get to sing is often exceptional, with none of the forced quality of other shows-with-music like Smash and Glee.

Nashville‘s ratings have been unremarkable, but good enough for renewal in light of ABC’s bigger problems.  (It also does very well with certain female demos and music downloads.)  It’s a show that’s well worth rooting for, but it can’t come back next season without improvements.  The series needs to address its problems and come up with a design and consistent tone that are worthy of its best aspects.  Otherwise it’ll just be another sad country song of its own.


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."