The worst thing about the end of a long relationship is the way that you can no longer count on the way things were. Any relationship grows to a point where it settles into equilibrium, where two people discover just how well they balance each other out and find comfortable little ruts. And then when the relationship stops, there’s not just a void in your life; there’s a void in your co-dependence, a void where you’ve come to rely on someone you can no longer rely on. What’s gotten Rayna and Deacon in trouble is that after they broke up, they kept playing together. And as we’ve well established on Nashville, music is sexual, an intimate connection that extends beyond the mere act of physical coupling. The intimacy was still there. The ruts were still there. But they weren’t a couple. Rayna was married to someone else, and now that she’s kicked Deacon out of the band, they’re going through a weird, delayed break-up, an attempt to extricate each other from their lives that’s not going so well. Or just look at Rayna’s face when Deacon calls for her to come pick him up at jail and she finally just has to hang up. He can’t depend on her anymore, because it’s not her place to be dependable.
It’s no mistake that the strongest material in Nashville has consistently been about the long-simmering love and disappointment between Rayna and Deacon. It has the richest sense of history of the many relationships on the show, and it carries itself with an easy, weary sense of its own importance. The rest of the series can struggle to make viewers care about it, with storylines dipping and varying in quality from week to week, but the second the show puts Deacon and Rayna in vague proximity—or the second it even suggests a storyline about them, even if they’re all the way across the city from each other—it comes alive. The other storylines have their moments—I enjoyed the Gunnar/Avery/Scarlett triangle tonight, somewhat unexpectedly—but the show seems to rise and fall based on just how much Rayna and Deacon we get.
One of the things that’s fascinating about the show at this point is how it’s struggling to figure out exactly what it wants to be. The political drama is mostly falling flat—I realized tonight that I know very little about the general, birds-eye view of the mayoral campaign, making that weird debate (that seemed to be happening at 10 in the morning) all the stranger. The soapy stuff also suffers from a strange lack of commitment, as if the show isn’t sure just how crazy it can get with stories of sexy double-crossing and desperate druggie mothers. The music, by and large, works, but it’s when the show turns into a straightforward, earnest relationship drama that it really sings. I’m not in the least worried that Teddy’s late-night meeting with Peggy will somehow blow up his campaign or his marriage, neither of which I care about all that much, and the reveal that the two once defrauded a credit union has very little bite to it. (It’s a classic case of trying to go against the expected—an affair—and ending up with something completely abstract.) But when the show digs down and deals with these characters’ emotions head-on, it generally works.
Unfortunately, that’s exactly the kind of show that rarely does all that well in the ratings, so Nashville is obligated to keep tossing soapy complications at the characters, in hopes that this will keep everything afloat. Shows about people just living their lives and having the sorts of minor conflicts that implies rarely do all that well, but they’re one of my favorite genres of TV show, and it’s interesting to me how much more confident Nashville is when the stakes are smaller. When the stakes are something like, “Who will become the mayor of the city?” I find it harder to care than when the stakes are “Will Gunnar and Scarlett finally hook up?” All of the characters on the show have rich backstories and compelling room to tell stories about any number of issues, from class to show business to romance. Yet the series seems hesitant to give itself over to those topics (perhaps because it knows that would be an even greater invitation to get slaughtered in the ratings). This is how we end up with stuff like the whole mayoral-race plotline, which seems to exist mostly just to offer up cliffhangers we don’t care about on a weekly basis.
But, again, once the characters start to sing, the show really comes alive. This week, the musical numbers are all over the place, which lifts it above last week’s lackluster effort. We get to see, among other things, Rayna shoot a commercial (which Connie Britton appears as uncomfortable doing as Rayna ostensibly is), Gunnar and Scarlett auditioning for yet another producer, and Deacon singing yet another song in front of yet another vaguely appreciative Bluebird crowd. Here’s the thing: Outside of the commercial, we’ve seen all of these basic setups before, but they still work because they tie into the show’s generally strong stories about what it means to be a musician (at any level of fame) in the city of Nashville. It’s an endless string of auditions and rejection and selling out your principles, and any time the show can express its conflicts through song, as it does in the Gunnar and Scarlett storyline tonight, it’s on solid footing. Yet even when the musical numbers are largely extraneous—as the Deacon number is, since it mostly seems to be there to get him to punch somebody and end up in jail—they work beautifully. There have been lots of comparisons to Smash thrown at this show, and I think they’re generally accurate: This is much better at depicting the way that working artists intertwine their lives and their art.
Then there are the times when the show seems to be trying to blend the soapy stuff with the smaller-scale stuff, and while these don’t always work, I suspect they’re the best way for the show to attract enough of an audience going forward. The stuff with Juliette’s mom falls into this category, with the story falling apart or becoming compelling from moment to moment. Yet it’s also capable of a great little moment like Deacon calling on his real-life experience as a drug addict to get Juliette’s mom to commit to rehab, or Deacon meeting with his sponsor to give him the pill bottle Juliette’s mom dropped. It had seven pills in it last night. He counted them over and over. It has seven pills in it now. Yet stuck right up against these scenes are moments like when Juliette’s mom attacks her outside of rehab, moments that just don’t ring true and seem to be there to up the false drama quotient. Nashville hasn’t yet figured out how to best blend the sorts of deeply felt, intimately observed small-scale stories it does so well with the soapier stories it would like to do well, but every week, there are a number of scenes that will keep me watching, just so long as that damned mayor’s race is over soon.
- What happened to that old guy radio DJ? I know the show can’t have every single character in every single episode, but I was hoping that he would just eventually take over the show, instead of getting shoved to the far, far background.
- It’s weird, because Avery hijacking Gunnar and Scarlett’s audition for flimsy reasons doesn’t work when he tries to explain himself via dialogue—because he’s an awful person—but it does work in the moment, perhaps because the music is heightening everything. And that duet was the musical highlight of the night, so…
- I’m hoping the show finds more for Powers Boothe to do than growl at Eric Close on a weekly basis. He’s such a potential asset to the series.