You can’t really blame the writers and producers of new primetime soaps for throwing as many storylines as possible into the mix in the early goings, until they figure out which ones are popping and which are grinding the show to a halt. Of course, the downside to all that see-what’s-sticking is that sometimes the audience has to wait out the less effective material to get to the good stuff. For example, this week the respective parental issues of Rayna and Juliette dominated much of “Someday You’ll Call My Name,” which is why this episode of Nashville was a step down from the first two weeks in the drama department, even though it was maybe the best episode yet in terms of the music and local color.
The problem isn’t the storylines themselves, necessarily. If anything, this episode clarifies why it matters to the conception of Nashville as a whole that Juliette has a drug addict for a mother and Rayna has a rich bully for a dad. From the outside, Rayna sees Juliette as some spoiled teen, not realizing that Juliette’s songs and videos are just projecting a fantasy image of the childhood she didn’t have; while Juliette sees Rayna as an arrogant rich kid who grew up in Belle Meade and had her entire career handed to her, not realizing that Rayna’s had plenty of struggles and compromises along her way to the top. Their individual issues with their upbringing deepen both characters, and add dimension to the dynamic between them. It’s a good storytelling choice.
As written and played though, so far these plot threads have led to a lot of Juliette rebuffing her mom’s begging for help by saying, “There was a time when I needed you too,” and a lot of Rayna acting huffy at her father’s attempts to manipulate her life. (And this is so even after Rayna learns from her sister that her dad resents the entire music business because his wife once had an affair with a singer-songwriter… yet another storyline crammed into these early episodes). The situations themselves are ripe for drama, but the scenes having to do with the situations have largely been flat and clichéd, at least so far. It all speaks to the as-yet-unresolved question about what kind of show Nashville is going to be: Is it just a well-acted-but-conventional primetime soap, or something more original?
That question also haunts the show’s various romantic triangles (and quadrangles). On paper, the Gunnar/Avery/Scarlett entanglement is Nashville’s strongest, because it’s apparently a shadow of what Rayna and Deacon went through 20 years ago (and perhaps what Rayna’s mother went through before that), which makes it a good vehicle for carrying the show’s theme of how some things change in this business and some things merely repeat, from generation to generation. And initially, the Gunnar/Avery/Scarlett plot features some of the best moments in “Someday You’ll Call My Name” (or at least some of the best songs). Gunnar and Scarlett head into Watty’s studio to record their demos, but Scarlett’s thrown off by the deadened studio sound, the distancing effect of the headphones, and all those eyes behind the glass monitoring every note. Those are all things that could rattle any young writer who never planned to be a professional musician. But Gunnar thinks that Scarlett’s holding herself back because she doesn’t want to outpace her boyfriend’s career. So Avery gives Scarlett a pep talk, and then everything’s fine. That’s kind of a weak resolution to a plot point that at first seemed grounded in real complications, not the sudsy kind.
The Juliette/Rayna/Deacon/Teddy entanglement works much better this week, though there’s no reason why it should, because the motivations for all concerned remain fairly thin. Credit Connie Britton, who doesn’t even need to say anything to convince Deacon to stay with her on their scaled-down theater tour rather than going with Juliette on her big arena tour; she can just flash her pleading eyes. But Rayna does say something. She tells Deacon that he, to her, is music, and that even if she’s not going to be his lover any more (maybe), she can at least love him in the same way that she loves her vocation. Give credit too to Hayden Panettiere, who really sells Juliette’s counter-pitch to Deacon, in which she talks up the romance of the road and how it would feel to leave behind all the drama in Nashville and just play. I’m still not sold on Juliette’s character, which is a little too one-note—and the development at the end of the episode, with her being caught on camera stealing nail polish, doesn’t seem too promising—but I do enjoy the withering looks she gives her assistants when she’s making demands, and I do believe that she was so messed up by her childhood that her primary impulse is “escape.”
Nevertheless, it seems like so far Nashville keeps coming up with artificial reasons to delay what could be its most fruitful plot direction: putting Rayna and Juliette on tour together, with Deacon in tow. If the show does head that way, it’ll allow so many opportunities to explore the changing nature of the music business and the differences between these two characters. Heck, put Avery’s band on the tour too; and Gunnar and Scarlett. It’d be contrived, but the crucible effect would really get Nashville’s various stories moving, after three straight episodes of relative stasis.
That said, there’s nothing wrong with taking the time to lay some groundwork and to establish the world of Nashville itself. For me, the most consistently fascinating part of Nashville so far has been the details about the business side of the business. I’m not so wild about the slow tease of Teddy’s involvement in sinking the credit union he used to run—this week he panics when he hears that the bank’s being audited, all the way back to 2008—but it’s been interesting to sit with Rayna and Teddy as they hear about how they need to tighten up their household expenses, even as they’re surrounded by fancy decor and clothing. (“That jacket is worth more than your college education,” Rayna snaps at her daughter at one point.)
Where Nashville has been most effective is in showing how these characters’ pasts—as overcomplicated as they may be—are affecting the choices they make now. It’s touching in a way to see the long-pampered Rayna going over her set list for her tour with Deacon and wondering why they can’t do her big, crowd-pleasing hits. And it’s funny to see Juliette flipping through pictures of herself on her iPad, and sneering at her assistant when she praises the effectiveness of tooth-whitening strips, and telling that same assistant that she wants more of the plastic, processed cheese on her catering trays… y’know, “the good kind.”
- The unsung heroes of these first three Nashville episodes have been Lennon and Maisy Stella as Rayna’s daughters Maddie and Daphne. This week they were involved with two of the best scenes in the episode: the very Friday Night Lights-like breakfast-table talk (“Your breakfast is getting cold!” “It’s yogurt. It’s supposed to be cold.” “Where’s my tie with the little ‘u’s?” “Those are horseshoes.”); and their performance of Juliette’s “Telescope” at their school talent show. They were even adorable saying “sideboob.”
- I was trying to come up with a nickname for Avery Barkley to sum up his presence as a kind of mix of Ryan Adams and Jack White, but “Ryan White,” “Jack Adams” and “Jack Ryan” are all too much like real names. “White Adams,” perhaps? Of course Gunnar says that Avery reminds him of Link Wray. Seems a bit of a stretch.
- Mitigating factor to the corniness of Scarlett overcoming her nerves thanks to the power of Avery’s encouragement: It’s possible that Avery was just playing a part in order to get closer to Watty.
- When Todd and I reviewed the Nashville pilot, we waved off comparisons to Robert Altman’s Nashville, which this show really doesn’t resemble in any significant way. But then last week’s scene at the Bluebird with Deacon asking Rayna to come on stage instead of Juliette was very similar to the movie Nashville’s Exit/In scene—not precisely, and probably not consciously, but there it is.
- “Undermine” is a really good song, and would help Juliette present a more mature image. I doubt it’d be a hit, though.
- I checked the upcoming episode titles. Looks like they’re all going to be Hank Williams songs. Can’t complain about that.