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KICKING TELEVISION: NASHVILLE is the Best Network Drama on TV

KICKING TELEVISION: NASHVILLE is the Best Network Drama on TV

I can already hear the denizens
of Good Wife fandom anger-typing
emails in dispute of my title. And I’ll admit to a bit of click-baiting here,
but as much as I
bemoaned the death of the sitcom in my last column
, the
network drama stands in equal peril. The medium of dramatic television is
successful only if it’s interesting, entertaining, or a form of escapism. At
its best, it’s all three, and a survey of the current network television
landscape finds little if any of these qualities. The frustrating lack of
dramatic programming worth indulging in on ABC, NBC, CBS, Fox, and the CW is
almost enough to drive audiences to pick up a book or listen to a podcast. But
hold on y’all, before you put on the latest episode of Serial and mosey on down to the local bookery to fetch a new
hardcover, take a minute or forty-two and settle in to ABC’s Nashville.

Networks lack imagination in
their programming. They have long ceded creativity and ambition to cable,
satisfied with an unhealthy affection for naval crimes and criminal forensics. Primetime
network dramas are exclusively about fighting crime, fighting the supernatural,
fighting disease, or fighting government. The only exceptions are Once Upon a Time, a show that from what
I can gather is about House’s Allison
Cameron slipping into a coma in which she exists in world populated by drunken
fairytale characters; Parenthood, a
show about actors who were once on good shows; and Jane the Virgin, which I have not seen nor read of, but assume
borrows its plot from Tom Waits’ story from the preamble to “Train Song” on Big Time, in which a stray bullet pierces
the testicle of a Union soldier, and then lodges itself in the ovaries of an
eighteen year old girl.

Nashville is a throwback to primetime soap operas of
yesteryear. It’s about beautiful people doing exceptional things while getting
laid and singing about it. And it is absolutely fearless and unapologetic about
its intentions. In the adolescence of my affection for television, I was raised
on the saccharin frivolity of Beverly
Hills 90210
and Melrose Place, which
themselves were the TV offspring of Dynasty
and The Love Boat, Aaron Spelling
productions so wondrously escapist that we forgive him for Tori and Randy. These
shows serialized the medium, and created loyal fan bases who, in the absence of
DVRs, needed to find themselves in front of a TV at an appointed hour to find
out if Dylan would choose Brenda or Kelly, and how long our sideburns should
be.

There was nothing revolutionary
about these programs, and they didn’t aspire to revolution. They weren’t
preaching. There was very little in the way of murder. Vampires and aliens only
appeared in Halloween episodes. The beauty in shows like Spelling’s were that
they didn’t condescend to the audience, they weren’t written to be lauded by
critics, or celebrated by those who claim to not watch television except for
Ken Burns documentaries and The Wire.
Primetime soaps were built for escape, to provide a breath from the day, to
revel in the frivolous.

Nashville is wonderfully reminiscent of those programs
without being derivative. The show is soapier than a Dove factory and often as cloying
as that simile. Set in and around the country music industry in Music City,
USA, Nashville boasts what few other
dramas can: Two strong female leads. Connie Britton’s established country
superstar Rayna James and Hayden Panettiere’s embattled rising star Juliette
Barnes anchor the program in their representations of polarized embodiments of
the American dream. Rayna is old money privilege. Juliette is a trailer park
rescue. They’re the old and new country . . . music that is.

The show is rounded out by a
cross-section of not quite stock but not quite unique characters. Deacon Claybourne
(Charles Esten) is the lovelorn recovering alcoholic. Gunnar Scott (Sam
Palladio) is the aw-shucks fella doomed to heartbreak. Scarlett O’Connor (Clare
Bowen) is the shy talent waiting tables. Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) is the
rising star with secrets. Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson) is alt-country,
where punk meets Patsy. Maddie and Daphne Conrad (Lennon and Maisy Stella) are
Rayna’s daughters who aspire to be just like Momma. And though there’s nothing
exceptional about these characters by description, each actor and actress
portrays them with an honest simplicity and subtle tweaks that eschew any
notion of stock.

Oh, and they sing.

The soundtrack of each episode
is a marvel, and a testament to the exceptional work of music supervisor
Frankie Pine and established by Season One’s supervisor, Grammy and Oscar
winner T. Bone Burnett, who just happens to be married to Nashville’s creator and showrunner Callie Khouri. Being set and filmed
in Nashville allows the show to use the city’s exceptional talent pool of
professional songwriters, not unlike the ones on the show portrayed by Esten,
Palladio, Jackson, and Bowen. The original compositions, the Tennessee set, and
that the actors play and sing themselves gives the show an authenticity that is
rare on television. And counter to Hollywood tendency, the authenticity escapes
contrivance. Executive producer Steve Buchanan is president of the Grand Ole
Opry Group. The actors playing Scarlett, Avery, and Gunnar have all worked at
the legendary Bluebird Café, where Rayna and Deacon are known to drop in for a
quick set, and which the show has reproduced as a set of its own. Nashville’s sincerity is augmented by
the producers’ inclusion of contemporary country music artists in the show and
its narrative (if peripheral), which contributes to the audience’s comfort and Nashville’s genuine and natural
escapism.

[And, if you’ll indulge me and
pardon a quick digression: Connie Britton is a criminally underappreciated and
under-celebrated actress. Very few performers have the range to play such a
diversity of roles and in different genres. She makes Christopher Walken look
limited. Britton has starred in a hit sitcom (Spin City), a seminal TV drama (Friday
Night Lights
), a redefining mini-series (American Horror Story), and owns “y’all” like she invented it.]

In an era of instant gratification
and unparalleled media attention, shows are rarely given time to grow into
themselves, to discover what they truly are. Nashville went through its growing pains. In Season One, it tried
to be Dallas set in Tennessee. Powers
Boothe played Rayna’s baron-like tyrant of a father, who perhaps killed her
mother, and was manipulating her husband, who had committed fraud in a land
deal, who burned papers in the fireplace while drinking scotch, and perhaps
wasn’t the father of their eldest child. The show created complex mythologies,
but they seemed contrived and tired. Granted a second season by ABC, the show
quickly retooled, and made the country music industry the centre of the show’s
universe, an industry that comes complete with heroes and villains, defying the
need to create them from borrowed characters like Boothe’s. Nashville’s music, authenticity, and placement within the actual
Nashville and industry immersed the show’s characters into the mythology of
country music, and gave it a life it lacked in in its first season.

And that’s what sets Nashville
apart. It aspires to be itself and nothing else. It’s amplified by well-crafted
characters and measured performances. It’s a soap opera, but one that the
audience can invest in because it feels genuine. It’s at once a tribute to
country music and a bygone era of primetime television. And you can tap your
toe to its both its musical and narrative exposition in that they’re familiar
and new. Each episode is a new album from a band you’ve loved since you were a
kid.

The network drama is in dire
straits. Lost is but a distant
memory. Friday Night Lights was
perhaps the last of the medium to truly excel in craft and creation, and is the
last to be nominated for a Best Drama Emmy (along with The Good Wife in 2011). Grey’s
Anatomy
is long past its expiration date, now that Derek and Meredith’s
grandchildren work at Seattle Grace. Scandal
is parody that refuses to admit its parody. Madam
Secretary
is West Wing-lite. CSI’s legacy will be the poisoning the
national jury pool with false science. Blue
Bloods
, Elementary, NCIS: Bowling Green, The Blacklist, et al. are all ultimately
forgettable. I’ll admit I’ve never seen The
Good Wife
, but I couldn’t bear the experience of another show about
lawyers. Hidden within the cacophony of nondescript programming is a burgeoning
gem. Nashville is not a seminal
masterpiece, nor does it want to be. It’s an homage to a genre of television
that is inexplicably absent from the current network programming landscape.

Mike Spry is a writer, editor, and columnist who has written for The
Toronto Star, Maisonneuve, and The Smoking Jacket, among
others, and contributes to MTV’s
 PLAY
with AJ
. He is the author of the poetry collection JACK (Snare
Books, 2008) and
Bourbon & Eventide (Invisible Publishing, 2014), the short story collection Distillery Songs (Insomniac Press,
2011), and the co-author of
Cheap Throat: The Diary of a Locked-Out
Hockey Player
(Found Press,
2013).
Follow him on Twitter @mdspry.

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