[I've been sitting on this post for a bit, for reasons that escape me now. Although the plots of the show have progressed and complicated since I wrote it, as well they should, it still holds true in its analysis, I think, of what I regard as the best new show of this season.]
I've become very upset about Nashville. By which I mean this: I've been utterly ensnared by the seductions of Nashville. I'll be honest: I started to watch it because it starred Mrs. Coach, the incomparable doyenne of naturalistic relating and stalwart defender of both clear eyes AND full hearts, Connie Britton. But early on, I was worried. It seemed to be a straightforwardly soapy drama of artistic privilege. In the pilot, the ground felt cluttered, the cast too large: there were too many twanging has-beens and upstarts milling around longing for attention, hoping for a chance to sing or flirt or something in between.
But this very crowdedness of the plot is now the strength of the series. It's become truly what theatre scholars call a drama of coordination (rather than one of subordination, like the highly centralized Terriers), with multiple plots traveling in parallel, perpetually echoing, jostling, and commenting on one another. Themes float up from deep in one plot, and seep into another, just as songs that arise diegetically from one storyline (that is to say organically from the performances of the characters) become a critique of another in one of the most successful uses of the hackneyed music-driven montage I've ever seen.
The snarl of dramatis personae from the pilot has become, three episodes in, a churning sea of amorous geometry. There's so much desire here - ambition, lust, and every intervening longing - it's a wonder my television isn't fogging up. There's a love triangle among the youthful up-and-comers, and a veritable parallelogram of smothered, misplaced ardor among the mature and famed. At first I felt compelled by these as romances: in each case the true and false heroes were very clear. Real love, desirous and faithful beyond sex, is musical: it transcended marriages and earthly promises. Those who sing together know real longing on this show: merging voices is more exquisitely perfect in its paradox than merging bodies could ever be. It is the union that preserves the pleasure of tension; the harmony that blends without touching, without losing the individual I.
merging bodies entail their own debts of emotion. The singers here are tied to other people,
whether it's Connie Britton's aging legend Rayna and her lost love and
bandmate Deacon (played with yearning gruffness by Charles Esten in what
may be the role of his lifetime), or the young friends, Scarlett and Gunnar, who are
discovered singing together in
a bar (you can see them wilting moonily and melodically in the video above). They're tied tight, in fact, by bonds of
marriage and sex and longstanding devotion that they by no means take
lightly. Rayna married her husband while her partner - in both life and
art - of eleven tumultuous years was finally in rehab. Scarlett adores a
singer-songwriter who supports her art even while he's threatened by her
professional "discovery" in collaboration with another man. This is not, in fact, a
soapy show. Fascinatingly, it's a show about protagonists who are scrupulously
sexually faithful but tied emotionally to the wrong people. It's about
how separate love and fidelity are, and how many variations a single
person can ring on the theme of faithfulness. It's possible, Nashville
shows us, to keep the faith with a beloved even as you marry someone
else. To keep the faith with an artistic partner, even against a
conflicting duty to your love. To keep the faith with your husband, even
as you long for a lost love.
Possible, certainly. But, as the show progresses, increasingly fraught. The center cannot hold, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned.
It's a show about artistic chemistry's entanglement with sexual chemistry. There are all of these erotic scenes of people singing, very close, into the same microphone, the longing of artistic inspiration - that craving towards the perfect note - unfurling between them like a smoky, impossible lust.
At first I felt compelled by the love triangles as romances, feeling they'd be easily resolved. I mean: the choice is clear, right? How could anyone deny the churning intensity of a love wrought through artistic creation? And the characterization and casting seemed at first to back this up. By far the weaker characters in each amorous arrangement were the pre-existing partners. They were the known quantity, the taken-for-granted, the ones who begin in a state of exasperation rather than sexual tension and longing, making demands and having squabbling fights. But they were also consistently the less attractive and less fully characterized.
In the third episode of this first season, these easy allegiances that unbalance the amorous geometry change utterly, and the show makes a major play for rich ambivalence. We see how competing loyalties - competing loves - are breaking Rayna's heart. She's suspended in heartbreak, unable to move for fear of hurting those she loves, or of destroying herself. Deacon is facing Faustian temptations, struggling with how much professional fidelity he owes to a woman (Rayna) with whom he's emotionally entangled, but who has herself long ago moved on romantically. Scarlett's no-good singer-songwriter, Avery, puts his own ego aside to support his girlfriend, just at the very moment when she's about to scuttle her fledgling career to flatter his pride; he's given this opportunity by the hopelessly enamored Gunnar, who tells Avery of her worries in what is either a profoundly selfless move in her interest, or an apple of discord thrown straight into their relationship. The result of this episode's developments - more balance in these divided loves - is significant anxiety for me: the balance is created by the fundamental decency of these characters, who want to do the right thing but are torn by the complexities of many variants on love, loyalty, and affection.
The only exception to this rule, Hayden Panettiere's auto-tuned pretender to Rayna's throne, is so hateful, so despicably manipulative, that no amount of characterization made me feel anything but disgust at the idea that Deacon is attracted to her. Of course, she raises another important issue for the show in this episode - that of class and privilege - but that, my friends, will have to wait for another day.