Something I always find fascinating about following a new TV series is in seeing just how quickly the show realizes that it’s going to have to burn through story more quickly than the initial plan would have suggested. Though few series have hard-and-fast plans for where everything is going in the seasons to come, most creators of series—particularly dramatic ones—have very rough estimates of when the show will need to reach which signposts. Inevitably, the actual production of the show moves the story along more quickly than would normally be expected. One of the little realities of the TV production game is that TV time moves more quickly than real time. Something needs to happen in every episode, so the thing you were saving for the first season finale gets trotted out in episode 10, and the big idea you had for somewhere in season four has been used before season two is up. Fans want to hear that writers have “a plan,” but even if they do, TV is merciless at exhausting that plan before it ever comes to fruition.
One of the reasons so many critics glommed onto Revenge last season, for instance, was the fact that the show very, very quickly realized that to be successful at all, it would need to step up its timetable and leave behind its “revenge procedural” aspects for the most part. This led to a well-executed opening arc, one the series has been struggling to live up to ever since. Looking at this TV season, it’s easy to see that Last Resort, love it or hate it, is burning through story at a very confident clip. The people with their hand on the tiller there are telling a story that’s moving at a very assured pace, and they have a good sense of when to play certain cards to keep TV time clicking along, but without making the story developments feel unrealistic.
Nashville is struggling a bit in this regard, as of its fourth episode. The problem, I think, is that the show seems to relentlessly tease things without really paying them off. To a real degree, it’s rehashing the conflicts of the pilot, over and over, and we have yet to see any of the relationships shift in even a minor way. This doesn’t have to be a bad thing. When this episode opened with Rayna and Deacon in bed, I groaned, because it would be too soon to go there if real, and if not, it was a dream sequence, and who needs one of those? (It turned out to be the dream.) There’s a certain value to longing, to keeping the audience from a story development everybody watching knows is coming, particularly if the actors are in the groove of the storyline. And Connie Britton, Charles Esten, and Eric Close are all very much into this love triangle, in a way that makes the story work very well, even when nothing’s particularly happening. (Tonight’s big development mostly involved Teddy glowering a bit.)
What’s weird about this is that the story is progressing at a steady clip. Take Juliette stealing the nail polish, which is a dumb, dumb, dumb storyline but at least moves quickly enough. Last week, she took the polish. This week, it’s exploded into a scandal, and she’s being obstinate about making nice on the PR circuit, because she’s good at being obstinate and her mom is all up on her case and all of that. Robin Roberts (and I dearly hope this was the last thing she did before her bone marrow transplant) has Juliette on Good Morning America to talk with her about how she’s sorry, and instead, she makes a dumbass excuse about how she’s so much more famous and so much better than everybody, so of course she forgot she had the nail polish in her purse. When Roberts tries to pivot to talking about Juliette’s mother, she removes the microphone and says, with icy precision, “This interview is over.” I think Hayden Panettiere is mostly stuck in some pretty unworkable storylines, but I like the way she’s warming up to playing the character’s bitchier aspects.
So, yeah, the nail polish storyline blows up in Juliette’s face, and that endangers her concert tour (which seems extreme, but I’ll go with it). Obviously, this is pushing her toward the big tour with Rayna, the one that Noel talked about wishing the show would just get to already last week. It’s very, very strange how the story is moving inexorably toward this happening, but it also feels like everything is standing still. I’m not precisely sure how to explain it, other than to say that I’m not sure anything is moving. Maybe I’m spoiled by cable pacing, but it really does feel like we should have learned more about the characters in the present and not just in their back-story by this point. Instead, we seem to keep endlessly rehashing the same five or six things, and even if some of them are compelling, there’s still an increasingly feeling of been-there, done-that.
I’m not turning on the show—nor did I think this episode was terrible, though it was easily the weakest so far. I do think that it’s settled into a bit of a pre-November sweeps malaise, which is a fairly common problem for a new show to have. As such, I’m not too worried, particularly so long as we keep getting interesting insights into, say, the class situation in Nashville. The relationship between Rayna and Juliette is inspired as much by the class differences between the two, and the show also seems at least somewhat aware of the ways that Rayna’s background as a child of privilege has mostly made her blind to some of the concerns of people around her. That’s an interesting dynamic, and it’s one I hope the show keeps exploring.
It’s also possible I’m being cranky about this episode because it had little to no music. I get that the series isn’t going to be a non-stop song-fest like Glee, but I think we got one performance tonight (when Rayna sings at the rally for her husband’s mayoral campaign), and that was far too little. If we’re not getting Scarlett and Gunnar singing a duet every week, then we’d better get some hardcore Rayna and Deacon action, and we’re sorely missing all of that in this episode. If this is a series where the songwriting is an easy stand-in for sex, then by depriving the audience of that aspect of the show, we’re missing one of the core elements of any soap. Nashville is still figuring out exactly how much of a soap it wants to be, but I hope it indulges us enough to give us that.
- There’s one other thing I really like in this episode: Hailey, the girl that Gunnar meets when he and Scarlett check out the record company. She’s a nicely feisty presence, and even if she’s blatantly a plot device designed to make Scarlett reexamine her feelings for her songwriting partner, she’s written as if she’s a character of her own, instead of a way to move two characters closer together.
- Also, Kimberly Williams-Paisley drops by to offer up cryptic hints about some secret she and Teddy are keeping or whatever. I have to admit I’m struggling not to zone out whenever Teddy’s not sharing the screen with Rayna.
- The Gunnar/Scarlett/Avery thing is already old. I suspect Avery will become much more interesting once he’s on his way to having a much less successful career than his former girlfriend has. Plus, I like the way the series suggests these echoes of relationships that occur across generations, and setting Scarlett and Gunnar up as Rayna and Deacon 2.0 seems very promising.