Nashville : “I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)”
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Nashville : “I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)”

B+

Nashville

“I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)”

Season 1, Episode 2

On Nashville, sex is almost immaterial. The real intimacy comes when two people write a song together. That’s a process that opens each individual up to the other in a real, almost chemical way. It’s no wonder that when Rayna finds out that Deacon has been flirting around with the idea of going on tour with Juliette, she grows prickly and suspicious. Yet I think she’d be much more upset if she found out he wrote a song with the girl than if she found out that he’d slept with her. The sex is one of those things that’s unavoidable when a girl like Juliette gets close enough to a straight guy. It’s the songwriting that’s an active choice, and it’s the decision to share those ideas with someone else that really hurts. Or just tell that to Avery, who’s abruptly realizing that Scarlett writing a song with Gunnar is tantamount to cheating on him. She doesn’t get it yet; he very obviously does.

One of the things that makes me think Nashville is going to work as a show is that even when it’s a little messy, it’s got a firm sense of its characters’ history, but it never has too much of that history. A little personal back-story is a good thing for a show. Without it, everything can feel like it takes place in a vacuum, and if there’s too much of it, the whole series can feel like exposition. So far, Nashville is doling out the stories of who these people were over the past two decades at just the right pace. There’s even a scene tonight where Rayna lays out the entire history of her relationship with Deacon, and while it could feel like an infodump, it mostly doesn’t. (The only time it really does is when the people asking Rayna questions keep asking her to clarify her statements, presumably for the benefit of all of us at home.) Things like Teddy’s bad investments or the way Rayna and Deacon started out are dropped into the story in an organic fashion, and it’s just nice to settle in and realize that Callie Khouri and her writers know where this is all headed.

My major complaint from last week remains: Juliette is still more of a plot device than she is a character, but I’m warming to her just a bit. Maybe Hayden Panettiere has a better sense of how to play the character, or maybe the writers have a better sense of how to write to her strengths, but the scenes featuring Juliette tonight are slightly stronger than they were last week, even when she’s stripping off her shirt after a particularly intense song-writing session to go skinny dipping in a pond once owned by Tammy Wynette. This is all goofy, soapy stuff, and it’s obvious that the show is much more at home when it’s playing the more moving and emotional scenes between, say, Rayna and Deacon. But it’s at least trying to have fun with its soap opera half, and so long as that’s true, it won’t get too distracting that, say, we’ll cut from Lamar discussing Teddy’s hidden secrets (“I like a mayor with secrets! Makes him easier to control!” Powers Boothe says, reaching vainly for a mustache to twirl before remembering he shaved) to Teddy burning secret documents in the fireplace. Nashville has yet to make peace with the fact that it’s that kind of show—particularly in the Juliette scenes—but it’s at least learning.

Still, if there’s something that’s going to keep me coming back week after week, it’s going to be the twin relationships between Rayna and Deacon and Scarlett and Gunnar. (Let’s pause for a moment to reflect on how this guy’s name is Gunnar. Really?!) Let’s start with the latter couple, who seem to be reenacting a country music version of Once. The song that ended last week’s episode was perhaps the highlight of the pilot, and I really like the way Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio’s voices fit together. They don’t do any singing this week, but Watty (who might be my favorite character in this thing, as he’s basically Santa Claus in a Rankin-Bass Christmas special, only specializing in the world of country music) offers to cut them a demo if they can get three songs together. After Scarlett realizes that this will hurt Avery’s feelings, she doesn’t tell him, but the news comes out at the least opportune time. She tells Gunnar that, no, they can’t make beautiful music together, but she reverses that position within a couple of scenes. She’s on board.

Now, on its face, this might seem to be moving a little quickly. And, indeed, one of my notes in the early going of this episode was that the storyline was moving along at a very brisk clip, particularly in the political realm. (It seems a little bizarre that Teddy would be so far along in his campaign as to need to be preparing for debates, but maybe the Nashville mayoral election happens very, very quickly.) Yet I also like this, even as I have to issue the usual warnings about how shows that burn through story so quickly have a tendency to end up out of story by season three. Moving with such confidence through the usual beats of the Gunnar and Scarlett storyline indicates that this series knows we won’t buy them not singing together for too long. But it also knows it has to give Scarlett a little room to explore her doubts about the enterprise. Confining all of this to one episode is the best of both worlds.

Meanwhile, there’s the story of Rayna and Deacon, which is already turning into the basis of a really good country song about lost love and lifelong regrets. Tonight’s musical highlight once again comes at the Bluebird, but it occurs when Deacon calls Rayna up on stage to sing a song they first performed 20 years ago. Unlike many of the other songs in the show (like the song Juliette and Deacon wrote together, which is Kacey Musgraves’ “Undermine”), I’m unable to place this one either by listening or through Googling the lyrics, which indicates either T. Bone Burnett’s music-writing ability, or his familiarity with the extreme back pages of the country music catalog. All that matters is that the song is lovely, and when Rayna and Deacon go out to his truck together, there’s a palpable ache in the air. A lot of this is Charles Esten and Connie Britton playing this moment to the hilt, but just as much is in the script, which allows the longing to go unstated. Rayna asks what they do now, and there’s no real answer, because there’s never been an answer. They used to write songs together. Now they do not. And the man she is with now is not the songwriting type.

So she gets out of the truck and goes back home. She hugs her husband and tells him she loves him. Yet the residue of everything Rayna and Deacon had hangs over everything else, constantly present in any interaction she has with any man who’s not him. And even if I’m not someone who’s terribly excited by the soapier moments the show has, and even if I wonder how much story Khouri has to play with here, and even if some of this is just a little predictable, the more the show focuses on these characters and the ways in which they’re trying to atone for those bruised personal histories, the more I’m going to be into it. This isn’t a perfect episode of television, but it’s as good a second episode of a network drama as I’ve seen in a while, brimming with confidence and potential.

Stray observations:

  • Robert Wisdom continues to feel like he doesn’t have a terribly important place within the show, but maybe that’s just a function of the fact that he has very little to do with country music at present. The political storyline feels immensely tangential at the moment, though I trust everyone involved to pull it in more firmly.
  • Director R.J. Cutler’s choice to film Juliette’s music video by cutting between the “finished product” and the filming process is a strong one, and it highlights the way that he’s constantly cutting between the intimacy of performance and the artifice that surrounds it, the way that show business or art can feel more real than the reality surrounding it.
  • I am not as conversant with the country music back catalog as many of you might be, so feel free to share the original versions of these songs in comments.