The process of getting to know a new TV show usually involves a point where your expectations start to meet reality. I wish I could say that every new show lives up (or down) to our expectations, but all too often, these shows need time to figure out what they’re doing. More crucially, we need time to recalibrate what we expect from them, to realize that not everything is perfect and it’s possible to love something despite its flaws. The best case scenario, of course, is the one that happens the most rarely: The show you’re watching turns out to be far, far better than you’d ever hoped or dreamed it could be, and you watch in giddy astonishment as it crests height after height. Every so often, you’ll find a series that exactly matches expectations, that turns in just what you’d want it to every week, and you leave with a satisfied nod. And all too often, sadly, you have a new show that falls far short of expectations, that takes a promising premise or cast or team of writers and tosses it out the window for whatever reason. Making TV is hard, even for talented people, and that means a lot of crap happens.
None of the above categories really explain my experience with Nashville, an experience that seems to be one a lot of people are having. No, what’s happening with Nashville is that the reality of what it is and my expectations of what it was going to be are two entirely different shows. I’m struggling to think of an analogous situation from the past few years and coming up blank, though you’ll surely be able to think of a situation where the show you thought you were watching turned out to be something else. Thus, starting an episode of Nashville is, for me, less about recalibrating my expectations to expect something better or worse than I was hoping for and more about trying to get myself to realize it’s not the giddily musical soap with epic sweep I assumed it would be, based on the pilot.
This might be okay if the show had a consistency of a different vision, but I’m not sure that’s the case. Nashville has yet to really settle on what it wants to be, or if it has, it’s being pulled every which way between the writers’ vision for it—which would seem to involve lots and lots of quiet, interpersonal scenes and small-scale conflicts—and the network notes for the show—which would seem to involve lots of soapy twists and drama. (I suppose it’s possible the network wants smaller-scale drama, while Callie Khouri is nervously twitching and screaming, “I want Rayna James driving off the top of a building by the end of the season, goddammit!” but this doesn’t seem all that likely to me.) It almost seems as if the only thing these two competing visions of the show have in common is lots of musical numbers, so the series keeps loading up on them, and even when they’re preposterous—like Juliette taking over her boyfriend’s church service to sing with the choir—they’re still largely enjoyable. I can’t say this episode is substantially better than the one I panned three weeks ago, because it’s just not. But it is a situation where I’ve started to figure out what it is the show does well, so I’m able to better appreciate those elements.
So as I try to recalibrate my expectations to figure out what the hell this show is trying to do, I find myself enjoying it more when I stop thinking about the overarching plot, which has largely stagnated, and just appreciate the thing on a scene-by-scene basis. Tonight was the big midseason finale, the last episode to air before the long holiday break, and I was expecting some real fireworks to go off, some conflicts to actually press forward. And, I suppose, in some cases, these things did happen. Peggy tries to kill herself after the photos of her with Teddy leak and she gets wrapped up in a public relations nightmare. Rayna finds out about her husband’s shady past and yells at her sister some. Juliette proposes to Fake Tim Tebow, and I’m still convinced it’s all a publicity stunt. Yet the low-key way in which these things happen leaves absolutely no momentum for the story going forward. Look at it this way: When early January rolls around—a whole month from now—are you going to be clamoring to find out if Fake Tim Tebow accepted Juliette’s proposal, or if Gunnar and Scarlett were able to patch up their differences, or if Peggy turned it around? You probably aren’t. The show takes its story developments and backgrounds them in favor of everything else.
I’m not sure what to make of this choice, either! It’s certainly a weird one, but it’s not a wholly unsatisfying one. I compared the show to Treme back in my review of the pilot, and more and more, it actually does feel like the show wants to be Treme with country music. It cuts between stories that are barely connected, giving all of them equal weight. Major life events are treated in a relatively low-key manner. The characters have occasional conflicts—like Juliette and Deacon do tonight—but they’re eventually able to work them out. Now, I love Treme, but that’s also unabashedly its own thing, marching to the beat of its own drummer. It coasts off of beautifully arrived at atmosphere and subtly intriguing character dynamics, developed over a long period of time. Nashville is hoping to get there from day one, and it hasn’t really figured it out just yet. (This is assuming Nashville wants to be like Treme. For all I know, Khouri wants it to be Mork And Mindy crossed with Rescue 911.)
Yet the show’s scene-by-scene pleasures can be substantial, particularly when people are singing. Do I terribly care that Gunnar kissed Scarlett and she pushed him away? No, I do not. Do I terribly care about Avery going to Atlanta? Not one bit. Do I terribly care about the latest fight between Rayna and Deacon? Not really, though I care more about that than the other stuff. Yet in the moment, these scenes are well-acted, well-written, and well-directed. They’re fun to watch, even if they seem to add up to nothing at all. And when the characters break into song, everything becomes even more fun to watch. I’ve never watched a series quite like this, one where I find myself simultaneously enjoying it and wondering if there’s anything else I could be doing. A lot of people really love Nashville, both in my critical and community spheres, and I’m starting to wonder what it is they’re seeing, because by God, I’d love to be seeing it too.
- It is hard to tell you how little I care about Gunnar and Scarlett at this point. These kids were the highlight of the pilot for me, a relatively fresh look at an old, often-told story, and now, they’re just trapped in the world’s longest love triangle. Jesus, Scarlett! Kiss him back so we can move onto something else! (Also: You know you want to.)
- Oh, the “big cliffhanger” is the same offer dangled over Rayna in the pilot, only it’s been altered a little. Would she like to go on tour with Juliette, only now, they’d alternate who was the headliner each night? Yes, show, yes.
- There were so many guest stars who seemed vaguely familiar in this episode, only I think all of them were versions of other ABC stars. Like, didn’t Fake Tim Tebow’s little sister seem sort of like Eden Sher? This is probably just me.