Welcome back, Nashvillians. In the four weeks since we’ve checked into Music City, the parts that the show pulls off (musicians making music) continue to be done so very well, which makes the parts that don’t work all the more frustrating (Rayna’s new boyfriend, and oh God, Peggy and Teddy). But this show’s vibrant musical songbook (back to stellar after a few stumbles at the beginning of this season) and its in-depth look at this fascinating arena make Nashville like nothing else on television.
As usual, Nashville excels when examining dealings within the music industry, whether our young artists like Will, Scarlett, Gunnar, and Layla are undergoing “media training,” exploring which tours to join, meeting and greeting the media, or getting used to life on the tour bus. Scarlett’s musical career has become our gateway to the big time; all those months of her stammering and blinking finally have purpose. Seeing the arena through her eyes in this week’s episode as she has to go out there and face 40,000 drunk people in Tampa? Even a non-shy person would rightly be terrified. So Scarlett’s first time out on Luke Wheeler’s humungous stage was so awkward, it was actually painful. But Scarlett’s subsequent overnight transformation from scared wallflower having a meltdown to fearless performer was so extreme, I wondered for a moment if she was on some sort of drug. And the fact that she’s not over-the-moon about how she succeeded on stage the next night is interesting: She’s not a Rayna. She’s an artist, but doesn’t feel the need to sing to thousands of people. Can she turn her back on the possibility of that kind of success? (And, she called her mother, Deacon’s sister.)
Another intriguing viewpoint offered in “Hanky Panky Woman”: The transformation of the song “Ball And Chain.” From poor Gunnar trailing around after Luke Wheeler with a guitar trying to come up with a hook, to working the song out with Scarlett at the pool, to turning it into an arena number over the course of a single episode: Nashville gets a lot out of the drama of the creative process. Plus, we see that a good song somehow seems to work on any of those levels (I like the poolside version, myself).
The show’s musical strengths are tied to its emotional ones. Nashville has always straddled the soap/drama line, and none of it works if we don’t care about these characters, if we’re not gutted when inexperienced Scarlett flails at the professional aspects of her new music career, or when Deacon considers buying into a guitar store, leaving his life as a performer behind. After getting eviscerated on the red carpet in “Don’t Open That Door,” what better way for Scarlett to express her feelings than singing a moody, sinister song like “This Town” (in a duet with her Uncle Deacon that was extremely overdue)?
This brings us to my favorite feature of this part of season two: the unexpected duet! Nashville has shuffled its cast of characters into ingenious pairings, so that we get the honestly great duo of Avery and Gunnar on “Don’t You Want to Be My Girl?” (why is that song is not on iTunes?), Scarlett and Deacon’s moment above, and best of all, Avery coaching Deacon on his stage presence for his triumphant return to the Bluebird. In “She’s Got You,” Deacon realizes that to be a father Maddie can look up to, he has to keep the best part of himself: his music. And there was no more emotionally vetting scene so far this season than when Deacon found out that Rayna might have lost her voice due to the accident he caused. Deacon/Rayna scenes are always super-saturated with raw emotion, but in that scene the devastation was off the charts: They believe music is all they are, so what are they without it?
Which is why Nashville’s highpoint so far, is also Rayna’s, in “Don’t Open That Door”: Onstage to invite Juliette to join the Grand Ole Opry (which is when I started to get choked up), Rayna is forced to sing “The Best Songs Come From Broken Hearts” with her still-shaky voice. As she helplessly clutches her microphone, and Juliette empathizes from the sidelines, Rayna is saved, as I bet she often is, by her audience. They sing the song for her, and the “tension” that had been holding Rayna’s voice back is released (which is when I started to bawl. I’m not proud). Such a great moment, easily Connie Britton’s best vocal performance, and a testament to the connectivity that binds music lovers to artists, and the songs themselves.
That moment was smacked down, unfortunately, only a few minutes later, by obnoxious Luke Wheeler (didn’t think the show could ever find a love interest for Rayna I would like less than Liam: well done, show!), who complains that Rayna’s return to the stage had to include giving that “flash in the pan” an Opry invite, which of course Juliette overhears. As she ponders her many awards that night, she must be thinking the same thing we are: What else does she have to do? In fact, pretty much every time Juliette gets something, something else is taken away. Sure, she got the CMA award, right after her junkie mother killed herself to save Juliette’s reputation. Or she’s excited about polo invite, thinking she’s finally being accepted into Nashville society, then realizes it came from a guy she’s trying to avoid. (Loved this line at the polo match, which completely summed up Juliette’s amount of awesome and how hard she’s trying to fit in: “According to Wikipedia, that horn means the game is about to start.”) Now she’s finally with a cute, smart man who seems really into her, and he’s a wealthy heir trapped in a loveless marriage with a crazy-eyes wife. Obviously Hayden Panettiere can take literally anything the writers throw at her and turn it into solid gold (anyone else hoping she wasn’t remembering her career as a child actress when she explained what show business life was like for a pretty young girl a few weeks ago?), but at this point it’s almost comical. We know why Juliette’s tortured; the amazing turns come when she’s still generous (offering Avery her studio, getting Deacon to rehab, even trying to counsel the devious Layla).
Which makes her hangouts with Avery this week so beneficial: She basically had no one on her side that she wasn’t paying, and now that Avery doesn’t work for her, he’s a friend. Guessing the show will probably go the romance route for them eventually, but was so glad it didn’t this week, and even their duet was nice (“Dreams”). But just as Juliette released herself from those creepy Wentworths (the crazy wife’s threeway proposition was undoubtedly her way of separating Juliette and her husband, but her kissing Juliette at the end of “She’s Got You” was a definite WTF moment), Charlie shows up again at the end. Poor Juliette.
But Nashville has other WTFs: Lamar gets arrested after Tandy turns him in; crazy Peggy is now Teddy’s wife and fakes a miscarriage with pork blood (the reveal of the blood tub was up there with Kimberly pulling off her wig on Melrose Place for shock value); I guess Gunnar and Zoey are okay, but Deacon and the lady lawyer are a snooze. Nashville is so flabby with storylines, it sometimes seems like it’s floating dozens of characters, and there’s enough working here that the show can easily get rid of what isn’t (Let’s get Teddy Conrad elected to Congress!).
Which is why this week worked so well, with most of our main players out of Nashville, but still circling around eachother, and tying plots together (the digital single of “Ball And Chain” will become the ticket to getting Rayna her master tapes back from skeevy Jeff Fordham): It was tight, concise, with hit-ready songs and enjoyable drama (give or take a crazy nonpregnant lady). As long as Nashville keeps concentrating on the music, it can deliver more episodes like this one.
“Hanky Panky Woman”: B
Season so far: B
Stray observations from tonight’s episode:
- “Oh, I have a private jet too.”
- Is Luke Wheeler’s corny silhouette-themed tour actually called The Moon Or Shine Tour? How does this make sense? Moonshine, rain or shine, moon is opposite of sun, nope, no sense.
- Shep the long-haired tour manager is fantastic.
- C’mon, that winged Rayna James Rising From The Ashes cover art was hilarious.
- Pork blood.
- So this review is the first in the series of monthly “check-ins” on Nashville coverage, where I’ll be looking at a few episodes at a time: see you next month, and I really hope this musical momentum continues.