The thing is, we try to play fair here at TV Club. We try not to hold it against a show when it doesn’t do what we want it to, and we try not to continually gripe about how, say, a show is forcing a particular couple together when we think they have no chemistry. We’ll try and bring it up once (or twice), then leave well enough alone. And we especially go out of our way to not write the shows we cover for the writers who actually produce them. We do our best not to say, “Well, sure, this was interesting enough, but wouldn’t it have been even more awesome if Don Draper had kidnapped that dinosaur and hauled it to Los Angeles in the back of a pickup truck?” That’s bad form. Sure, it’s tempting for critics to hold what actually exists up against the believed perfection that exists only in our heads—and we’ve all slipped into that trap a few times—but we should be ever vigilant against it happening.
All of that said, last week in comments, my colleague, Carrie Raisler, pointed out that the show has gone in precisely none of the directions you might have expected it to go from the pilot, and that’s been one of its biggest problems. Normally, a show following its own vibe and being a little unpredictable is a good thing, but Nashville has followed its muse down into a neverending wheel-spin of soap clichés and pleasant banality. Carrie points out that based on the end of the pilot—and remember how exciting that moment was—you might have expected Rayna to take the song Scarlett and Gunnar sing together and sing it with Deacon, or you might have expected Scarlett and Gunnar to start writing songs for Rayna, as she attempted to stay one step ahead of Juliette. You also would have expected the Rayna/Juliette rivalry to get much more play than it has. The show has steadfastly avoided doing any of that, and this means that the plot momentum, such as it is, pops up in the weirdest of places, in storylines where it’s hard to care about much of anything at all.
Viewers have been calling for weeks for the show to start moving its pieces closer together, but the series seems resolute on actually being a network version of Treme, where the stories are small-scale, and the characters rarely—if ever—meet. Treme is one of my favorite shows on TV, but it’s also a show that’s thoroughly dedicated to its own tiny milieu. If Nashville were similarly committed, it would be much more sprawling, and it would largely leave the soap stuff behind, in favor of stories about Rayna worrying whether she was “authentic” enough or not. Instead, the series is trapped in a netherworld, where the characters move through their paces as if trapped in quicksand, slooooooowly moving toward a destination we already know is just up the block.
Look: The show didn’t need to follow Carrie’s thoughts to be good. What it did need was to create a sense of what the point of all of this was. Plot points appear and disappear for no real reason this season, and the show isn’t sure whether it’s lurching toward a tour featuring its three main musical acts on the same bill or away from it. This means it keeps getting preoccupied with other things, like Avery’s general villainy (which is really difficult to care about) or the various scandals in the Nashville mayoral campaign (which is even harder to care about). The show still has me interested when it’s involved in the story of how these characters navigate the music business, but even Rayna’s attempts to court a new producer for her record felt weirdly context-less. Everything on this show seems to happen in a series of bubbles, where the events of one week don’t seem to really follow from the events of the previous episode, even though they technically do. That’s death for a soap, which requires story momentum above all else.
Plus, one of tonight’s big developments—the cops find the Oxycontin bottle Deacon turned over to Coleman in the councilman’s car—is just ridiculous in its attempts to twist everything in knots. The whole thing is just entirely too coincidental by far (of course Lamar would have the cops pull him over when there was something to find, thanks to pure, blind luck), and if it was meant to be a way to display Coleman’s character, it mostly just turned him further into a saint. When Deacon offers to go and tell everyone that the bottle was his, that Coleman is his sponsor, Coleman tells him there’s no need. He’ll get out of this one by telling noble lies and posting photos of Teddy’s supposed “affair.” This is dumb, dumb storytelling, and that’s to say nothing of the fact that the pill bottle travels to Coleman’s car because Juliette’s mom brought it to town, then it ping-ponged between many of the other characters, like a weird, cursed object in a Gothic novel or that magic T-shirt from the first season of The Killing.
Meanwhile, Juliette is going on a date with Fake Tim Tebow (only this Tim Tebow will have sex), and it’s as inconsequential as you’d expect. Look, I get that this show is going to give its characters one-off love interests and stuff, but Fake Tim (okay, his name is Sean) is so blatantly a plot point that it’s impossible to care about him. And when Juliette’s publicist insists that she cover up the damage she’s apparently inflicted on his life simply via her proximity to him, I bristled a bit. How on Earth is this Juliette’s fault, particularly when Sean slugs the paparazzi in the face? And how isn’t he familiar with the whole concept of celebrity photographers in the first place? At least we got some cute animals out of the whole thing.
The same cannot be said for the sad tailspin of Scarlett and Avery, the couple nobody really cares about. The episode ends with Avery and Marilyn hooking up, and it’s just the latest indication that the writers of the show have absolutely no idea what their fans are into when it comes to this show. Avery is by far the most hated character, and that his relationship with Scarlett ends is a good thing. The supposed irony of Scarlett’s anger at Avery (and subsequent break-up) being what pushes him into Marilyn’s arms is just silly, and the episode tries to treat it with much more weight than it desires. Why on Earth are we still putting up with this, particularly when the series has so clearly cast its lot with a Gunnar/Scarlett pairing?
Look. There’s good stuff in this episode. I daresay there are even positive steps in the right direction, particularly when it comes to putting Scarlett in the same house as Deacon. (It’s remarkable to me that they’ve shared barely any screentime, even though they’re related.) And I continue to like whatever it is Rayna’s up to, even if her quest to record an album “her way” is getting sidelined by the fact that the show is doing a terrible job of explaining—or showing—what that would mean, instead lathering the story in lots of buzzwords about authenticity and the like. I continue to think Nashville could randomly pull everything together in its next episode and hit the ground running, but these last few weeks have been dire. In the pilot—and this is confirmed to me by Carrie’s comment last week—I thought we were getting a show about this city, the people who live in it, and the ways their actions reverberate off of each other. Instead, we’re getting endless repetitions of what we saw there, and it’s wearing out its welcome quickly. With a full season, there is ample room to figure all of this out, but the clock is running down.
- Another sign of how listless this episode was: I’m pretty sure the top musical performance was from Avery. Avery!
- Even Fake Tim Tebow isn’t entirely sure what the words to Juliette’s big hit are. (I swear to God one of the lines is “I’m a Labrador, on the floor.”) The scene where he picks up a guitar and just starts playing it is unintentionally hilarious, though, as is the attempt to suggest that dude could be an NFL quarterback. He’s 150 pounds, if that.
- I think I know what this show is missing: subplots about Rayna’s kids. Bring on the adorable moppets, Callie Khouri! It’s not too late to turn this thing around!