As Todd VanDerWerff so accurately pointed out as he reviewed Nashville last year, by the end of its first season, the show had finally seemed to understand that it was not an in-depth drama about country music or Nashville politics, but was in fact, a soap. In its second season premiere, fortunately, the show seems to have not only remembered that fact, but embraced it. All our prime characters are in place (well, one’s not moving much), and they are amped up to the umpteenth versions of what we saw in last season’s finale.
First off, ladies and gentleman, Juliette Barnes. Hayden Panettiere has fortunately kept every shimmering facet of her young country diva intact, so that she is still domineering, manipulative, in denial, and finally, achingly vulnerable. Juliette rose from a caricature to become one of the most interesting parts of the show, and it looks like that will still be true this year. She seems to heartlessly take advantage of Rayna’s medical condition (who is in a medically induced coma after her car crash with Deacon) to increase her own popularity (to the glaring disapproval of her guitarist, that paragon of virtue, Avery Barkley). Juliette then has a surprisingly sympathetic moment when she stops by the hospital just for the publicity and winds up spotted by Maddie (Lennon Stella), who confides that the reveal of her real parentage led to the car crash. Juliette seems to be healing herself when she tells Maddie it wasn’t her fault: If Maddie isn’t responsible for her mother’s actions, neither is Juliette. Then Juliette holds her own, private, affecting silent vigil to her two mother figures. She’s amazing.
Deacon (Charles Esten) is amped up too, into the most monstrous version of himself. I rewatched the finale before watching this episode: Remember when Deacon visits Juliette before her mother’s funeral and he’s just about the nicest guy in the world? And then the scotch or bourbon or whatever is like gamma rays and turns him into Nashville’s own smashy Hulk? He’s even more demonic in the premiere, with a broken arm (Oh no! Not his guitar-playing hand!) and an all-out unwillingness to help himself or have anyone else help him. There seem to be dotted lines connecting Deacon to his public defender, a smart, sassy lady who figures out that he wasn’t driving and gets him out of jail. Gawd, I hope I’m wrong, because the last thing this show needs is another Deacon girlfriend red herring to keep him away from Rayna (Connie Britton), like that poor vet last year.
Especially as we’re faced with engaging flashbacks of the young and in love Deacon and Rayna, around the time of Maddie’s conception (What she is remembering in her coma? Or he is remembering in jail?). The actors actually look younger and innocent and giddy as the thirteen years of separation have not passed between them. When we see that Deacon blacked out his marriage proposal, and has done his Jekyll and Hyde act on Rayna too, too many times, it’s clear why she married Teddy (Eric Close) and didn’t tell Deacon she was pregnant. Fortunately, Rayna awakens by the show’s end (glad that didn’t drag out any longer): Watch Deacon’s face fill with emotion when he learns she’s conscious: he looks like he’s about to cry, then almost smiles, then remembers that he’s destroyed everything. It’s another remarkable performance in a character much more deeply nuanced than when he started out.
The only downside here is sadly, a former high point: the music. The show ended on a peak last year, with Juliette’s “Nothing In This World Will Ever Break My Heart Again,” but the season’s music overall had enough for a few excellent albums. No song in this episode even approaches those heights. Juliette’s ode to a classic (but middling) Rayna song, “This Love Ain’t Big Enough For The Two Of Us,” is marred by a bizarrely over-the-top stage set with a weird bridal mullet dress, wind machine, and about 35 guitar players. The obligatory Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio) duet, “Why Can’t I Say Good Night” is certainly pretty, like they all are, but shows no real progression from similar songs. That forgettable duet between Rayna and Brad Paisley last episode, “Bitter Memory,” was better than the best song on this episode. Hope this is just a weak starting stumble.
Miracles do happen, because there are even glimmers of interest in the show’s snooziest of storylines: Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) miscarries, ending what was bound to be the worst plot ever, and then tells Teddy she heard the baby’s heartbeat. Ha! She’s nuts! Or, eager to snare Teddy, for whatever reason. And the show seems to realize that no one ever wants to hear the words “credit union” or “baseball stadium” or “mayoral campaign” or anything else related to Lamar Wyatt’s domination of the world ever again. But the frequent and obvious references to Rayna’s mother’s car crash (pretty sure all TV stations in Nashville are on a 24-hour Rayna James vigil) lead to the episode’s final twist: Lamar (Powers Boothe), Rayna’s father, might have had a hand in his wife’s death. Now, that’s a plot I can get behind.
- Hooray for the return of Glenn!
- I laugh every time Juliette tosses her ceremonial Rayna James glowstick.
- I also laugh at Deacon’s sarcastic attempt to make conversation with Scarlett in prison: “Oh yeah, it’s great. How you doin’, what’s new, girl?”
- First piano-plinky song by the revamped Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson), with a less-than-subtle Icarus reference to his time in the big leagues: “First you fall, then you fly/And you believe that you belong up in the sky/Flap your arms as you run, every revolution brings you closer to the sun.”
- Already bored by Scarlett’s friend Zoey (Chaley Rose), who basically functions as a sounding board for Scarlett.
- Aaaaand Juliette hooks up with her assistant in 3…2…1…
- How she then sends home her gentleman caller at the end of an intimate evening: “Get home safe.”
- Hey, Maddie, how are you doing at your mother’s coma bedside in the hospital? “It’s so weird. He was just my Uncle Deacon. Now he’s my dad.” No, maybe the weird part is that your mother is in a coma! And you’re talking to your dad! Teenagers.
- Painful Scarlett/Gunnar dialogue: “Thanks for singing with me.” “To be honest, I didn’t really want to.” “Why did you, then?” “You don’t give up on people you love.” WHAT? That was an incredibly awkward shoehorned morale, there.
- Avery and Gunnar, after Scarlett turns down Gunnar’s marriage proposal: “Can’t take no for an answer, huh?” “Guess that makes two of us.”
- Was anyone else afraid that Nashville was going to go right over the soap cliff and make Rayna an amnesiac?