I have a new Nashville heroine, and it’s drunk Juliette Barnes. Playing drunk is one of the hardest things for an actor to pull off, and I don’t really think Hayden Panettiere came anywhere near what a real drunk person might act like, but in the process, she turned into something else altogether: a hoarse-voiced superstar who pushes people out of her way and philosophizes about fairy tales before making a pass at one of her roadies. (It’s Avery, in case you were thinking this show would forget to be completely predictable.) The bulk of this episode is taken up with Juliette’s self-pity bender, and suddenly, everybody is worried about her becoming an alcoholic, because her mom is one, and that runs in the family, and all I want her to do is drink more, because she’s a fictional character, and when she’s drunk, she’ll charge through a wall if it means more conflict. Of course, by the end of the episode, Dante has reared his ugly head again—and it sure sounds like he has a sex tape of Juliette and himself—so now I’m eagerly awaiting drunk Juliette’s encounter with the evil Dante.
It’s all par for the course for another episode of Nashville that lurches awkwardly between small-scale melodrama and full-out theatrics, sometimes within the same scene. At this point, I’m so used to it that when a rather poignant little scene about Rayna realizing just why she can never be fully honest with Deacon is followed by Juliette sauntering around and dedicating her performance to her manager, who’s out getting engaged, that I don’t bat an eye. But I wonder just what somebody who stumbled upon this program would make of all of this. ABC seems likely to renew Nashville because networks rarely like to admit everything they put on the air completely bombed, but I wonder how much upside there is for a show like this, a series that is an occasionally trenchant look at the lives of country music superstars and their emotional pain but is also occasionally an over-the-top primetime soap. The pieces don’t fit together, but that’s starting to become the point of the whole damn thing.
By far my favorite moment tonight is when Scarlett, who’s attending the Edgehill CMA nominations party celebrating Rayna and Juliette competing in the best female vocalist category against each other like this is Smash and the Tony Awards or something, watches Juliette perform, only to realize in confusion that, hey, that’s her ex-boyfriend performing on guitar. Will, attending with Scarlett so Gunnar can lay down his demo, looks confused. “I thought your uncle was her band leader,” he says. “Isn’t that your…” Scarlett’s eyes go wide. That is her ex-boyfriend. At which point she admits she has no idea what’s going on. Scarlett, who has stayed mostly clear of the soap opera craziness, finds herself realizing that everybody around her has been dragged into it thoroughly while her back was turned. (Perhaps this explains why she’s so upset about Gunnar recording Jason’s song. She realizes the genre she’s in now and understands what she must do to play by its conventions. It would be a hell of a thing if season two of this show began with Scarlett becoming fully genre savvy.)
Now, a lot of the time, when TV critics use the term “soap opera,” they mean it as an insult. I really try not to do that. The primetime soap can be as entertaining or well-done as any other genre. But it also implies a certain heightened tone, a kind of willingness to keep crazy twists coming and make things as ridiculous as possible. Dynasty never really took off until women were falling into ponds and slapping each other, after all, and I found the first season of Revenge, at least, a hoot. (I’ve also praised Scandal at length just recently, and that’s a show with its fair share of unbelievable melodrama.) Anyway, I think there’s room for Nashville to become a crazy-ass soap. I just don’t think it’s really comfortable doing it.
Look, for instance, at the scene where Rayna and Juliette meet on the red carpet before the CMAs, which seems for all the world like a meta-commentary on how the show was initially received in the press and in reviews. A reporter stops the two women for an interview, and they tell her how if she wants a catfight, she’s barking up the wrong tree, so to speak. Perhaps, Juliette suggests, these twin nominations will just make the two women respect each other even more. Then they pull back for a series of photographs and hiss insults at each other under their breath. It’s actually a pretty fun sequence (largely because the Juliette we’re dealing with is drunk Juliette, and as we’ve established, she’s the greatest character ever), but it points to some of the show’s ongoing structural issues. The series wants to nest the soap opera craziness in the small-scale melodrama, but that’s a trick that almost never works. It’s hard to fit the big into the small, in both the physical world and when it comes to TV structure.
Yet there are still places in the show where the series gets things just so. Take, for instance, the fact that Maddy is Deacon’s daughter, not Teddy’s. Teddy has known this since she was born, but he’s been fine keeping silent, thanks to some sort of deal he and Rayna cut. (Really, when you get down to it, everybody is as obsessed with some random things that happened over a decade ago on this show as the characters are on Game Of Thrones.) He’s raised Maddy as his own, and now, he’s taking her to a father-daughter dance, one that seems to be placed to create maximum tension between Maddy’s father who raised her and Maddy’s father who conceived her, who is back to having sex with her mom. And as Rayna gets back into a relationship with Deacon, she realizes that a part of the reason everybody thinks this is such a bad idea is because she simply can’t be honest with him about a fairly major secret. The water under the bridge does threaten to drown them, as Deacon insists.
See, this is an example of how a crazy soap opera twist—a child’s father not actually being her father—can be used to house some more complicated and complex emotions. When Rayna is lying in bed next to Deacon, the realization of what’s going on slowly dawning on her face, it’s a surprisingly powerful and moving moment, one that gets at the devil’s bargain all of these characters made over a decade ago. It’s a great example of the show taking a big idea and treating it with the sort of smaller-scale, more emotional storytelling the show fitfully excels at. It’s, dare I say it, pretty darn good, but it also throws everything else into sharper relief. It becomes harder to wholly buy drunk Juliette’s rampage or Gunnar’s angst over stealing Jason’s song when we’ve got this perfectly executed little story element right there in front of us. And if those storylines struggle a bit, well, just imagine how problematic the political story has become.
Well, at least the “next week on” promised the ultimate soap opera twist for next week. We’ll see how the show handles that, but I’m… skeptical.
- Mimosas are not something people who are upset drink! “When people get upset, they drink vodka!” says drunk Juliette. She’s just a ball at parties.
- The life and times of Avery Barclay: “A roadie, young madam!” he wished to spit back in the charlatan’s face. “I had a deal with Mssr. Jean of the house of Wyclef, but I turned it down to stay true to my spirit and my art. A pox upon your house!” He threw the money Lady Barnes had given him into the mud and trounced upon it. “A pox!”
- The moment when Teddy brought Maddy back home from the father-daughter dance was shot using the standard series of close-ups that would suggest two characters about to kiss. It was… uncomfortable. (On the other hand, Teddy being a dorky dad was the most I’ve liked him all series.)