Why TV show Nashville could use a little more grit.
When the country-music soap Nashville premiered this fall, it was rightly hailed as one of the season’s best new dramas, a charming frolic through the country-music machine and the city it calls home. Showrunner Callie Khouri, who lived in Nashville for several years, told the New York Times in October, “I want to represent [the city] in a way that everybody who lives here would find completely realistic.”
Khouri has cooked up a convincing portrayal of the industry, particularly in the show’s demonstration of the interplay between different subgenres of country music. It centres on the rivalry between queen bee Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), a diva whose best days are behind her, and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), the new girl in town who’s stealing Rayna’s thunder.
So far, the show’s promising setup has failed to pay off. Despite the inclusion of real Nashville venues—like the small but venerable Bluebird Café—the Nashville of Nashville is largely limited to the state-of-the-art recording studios and mansions of its wealthier citizens. Even Scarlett, a waitress who writes songs on the side, is the niece of a veteran studio musician. And heaven forbid the writers give the struggling musicians more than a love triangle to contend with.
A show that aims to create a complex character out of the city in which it takes place can’t simply hold all but its biggest luminaries at arm’s length. It is widely acknowledged that the Manhattan of Sex and the City—in which you can live in a cozy Upper East Side brownstone and shop for $4,000 heels on a weekly columnist’s salary—doesn’t exist. Conversely, The Wire’s Baltimore is the most candid depiction of a city we’ve seen on TV so far, but the result was not pretty.
Nashville, on the other hand, is nothing if not pretty, from the stylishly scuffed leather boots to the music itself. While the program’s songs are climbing up the country charts, it’s not living up to its promise to show us the “real” Nashville. Richer portrayals of a city’s music scene are certainly possible, as evidenced by HBO’s Treme—which was co-created by The Wire mastermind David Simon. Set in post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme depicts music being made from the ground up, and takes pains to explore the lives of musicians who are talented but unsuccessful, or who have spent their lives happily playing at local venues without necessarily making it to the big-time. Nashville depicts the process much further up the food chain.
The program could play like a country version of Glee, but it aspires to be far more than a weekly karaoke session. A political subplot involving Rayna’s father, a J.R. Ewing type, and her husband, who decides to run for mayor, gestures towards Khouri’s loftier goals. But this B-story is the weakest aspect of the show, and it underscores the same tendency to focus on the upper echelons of Nashville society rather than the city’s regular folk.
It’s a shame, considering Nashville is perfectly positioned to be a great blue-collar show, something TV has largely been missing since Roseanne went off the air in 1997. NBC’s Friday Night Lights was a fascinating, nuanced look at a small Texas town, but the high-school football drama never had huge ratings, and it took a couple seasons for the media to start paying attention. Critics and viewers have flocked to Nashville—6.8 million people watched the pilot, and the show scored a more-than-respectable 84 per cent on Metacritic. It has the makings of a crossover hit.
Yet the show seems maddeningly determined to leave all the grit out of the depiction of its titular city, which may come down to Khouri’s desire to portray Nashville as a cosmopolitan hub rather than some backwoods cliché about simple Southern life. Khouri proved she could write working-class characters with her Oscar-winning screenplay for Thelma & Louise, a darkly comic road-trip film with two tough-talking Southern female leads. But Nashville is reluctant to veer towards a similarly risky place, choosing to bask in the glow of its megastars. The show teased us with the premise of an all-encompassing exploration of Nashville’s musical universe, but in order to deliver that, it’ll have to get its shiny hair a bit messy.
Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.