When I saw the pilot for “Nashville” months ago, I was as excited as a teenage girl at a Taylor Swift concert. The show had impressive credentials (it had me at “Thelma & Louise” scribe Callie Khouri, to say nothing of a cast including Connie Britton and Powers Boothe), a relatively fresh setting (the world of country music) and a far-reaching scope (we don’t often get a politics-music mash-up). It was more than a simple soap, but a few suds just made it all that much more appealing.
But like a tortured country song about love gone wrong, the show kept breaking my heart with predictable story lines. Characters I initially found compelling seemed driven to defy my hopes. Rayna James (Connie Britton) spent too many episodes stomping out of rooms, railing at her controlling father and shrieking at her former flame Deacon Clayborne (Charles Esten) for warming up to her competition. That competition, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) wasn’t much more than a Lindsay Lohan knock-off, despite Panettiere’s best efforts. The “All About Eve” bickering I expected never materialized, and instead the gaps were filled with a milquetoast love triangle amongst good-looking Scarlett, Avery and Gunnar and an uninspired mayoral race involving Rayna’s husband Teddy (Eric Close) and her close friend, Coleman (Robert Wisdom). There was plenty going on, but each episode left me with an empty feeling, probably akin to what Rayna seems to feel for Teddy — a lingering fondness, but a yearning for dead-on, deep emotion that always seemed just out of reach.
While I’ve been burned too badly to love easily again (look, it’s a show about country music, I can’t help myself), this week’s episode suggests that maybe the show will start delivering the intriguing story lines the pilot promised. Initially, it seemed that the relationship between Teddy and old pal Peggy was the usual stuff political scandals (and the first season of “The Good Wife”) are made of. It’s a relief to see that “Nashville” is going in another direction, at least for the moment. That doesn’t mean there isn’t an ugly surprise in this episode, one that would likely be viewed as a clear indicator of Teddy screwing around. That the truth seems to be more complex and less “sexy” is an interesting choice, and I wonder how much of a spotlight the show might shine on how the news media distorts or skews reality in the service of bumping ratings. It’s tricky terrain, but I’m hopeful.
More significantly, the show’s previous tendency to shoehorn characters into predictable plots seems to be giving way to a more character driven approach, one that leaves room for surprises and revelations. The burgeoning relationship between Juliette and NFL player Sean Butler has been a surprise even to Juliette, and one that has shown her not only what she didn’t know she so desperately wanted, but a path to getting it. I’m sure this relationship is doomed, but it hardly matters. No matter how it plays out, Juliette will be yanked out of her careerist, wounded-child rut. When she faces off with her boyfriend’s mom in this episode, we see the familiar fire in Juliette, and what happens next seems perfectly in character — a reflection of her “don’t you tell me what to do” attitude and a true quest to be someone new. While we’ve gotten plenty of Juliette’s tragic background, I’ve gotten pretty tired of watching her wallow around in it. It’s a relief to think that there will be no more wallowing, at least for a while.
This week’s episode really is about forward movement for many of the characters, and not a moment too soon. Deacon and Rayna have stopped yelling (or, really, Rayna has stopped yelling and Deacon has stopped fuming), and it seems like these two middle-aged adults might finally start acting like middle-aged adults. Sure, Rayna stomps around a bit for other reasons in this episode (at least when Connie Britton stomps, it’s good stomping), but at least this tortured long-dead love affair is entering a new, more subtle stage.
I had pretty much given up on the Scarlett/Avery/Gunnar love triangle, as sweet as it could sometimes be. Avery was shaping up to be the predictable jerk, Gunnar the sweet “Pretty in Pink” Duckie type, Scarlett the insecure babe who doesn’t know she’s pretty and talented. It was romcom fodder without the laughs. Even though this triangle isn’t likely to do anything truly unexpected, Gunnar breaks out of his passive buddy role to shake things up and Avery, of all people, shows more of the charm that probably wooed Scarlett in the first place. I’m still not sure why Scarlett is such a wobbly, annoying character, but at least two-thirds of the triangle are showing some growth.
As usual, the music continues to be a strong point on the show (the official series soundtrack is already available for pre-order), and largely redeems the entire love triangle storyline (Clare Bowen didn’t perform my favorite version of “Ring of Fire” last week, but it was up there). I’m sure getting T-Bone Burnett to handle the music wasn’t cheap, but it was worth every penny. The show’s use of country classics and new material is seamless, and the fact that a show about Nashville actually features some really great tunes helps smooth over some so-so storytelling and strengthen almost anything it touches. When Juliette sings in church, we see her without the usual country pop princess routine. It may be fakery on her part, an act to impress her new boyfriend and his family, but it’s compelling nonetheless. When Gunnar sings without Scarlett, it’s more powerful in communicating the depth of his feelings for her than countless scenes of him telling her how great she is (and we’ve had plenty of those).
Maybe this is why the mayoral race hasn’t been quite as exciting as I hoped — there’s no music. Not that I want Teddy to break into song, but this element is the heart and soul of the show. Now, I’m just hoping everything else can continue to live up to it.