When Nashville hit the promo scene last summer, I braced myself for the worst. These are country music times, after all, where Tim McGraw cuts songs like "Truck Yeah," our hottest touring act raps about Joe Diffie, and our chief ambassador denounces the Dougie. Surely a mass-marketed television show about the genre -a genre I treasure, to be clear-- would follow the same model of caricature.
Thankfully, art doesn't always imitate life. With feminist extraordinaire Callie Khouri at the helm, the first season of Nashville has shown more signs of TLC than your typical primetime drama, framing the city and its savvy, soulful, crazy characters with more regard than the Academy of Country Music gave its top award earlier this month.
There's that town - a honky tonkin' pseudo Austin (in the best way), slowly growing a hipster edge to its southern charm. The New York Times recently called Nashville the new "it" city, citing country music's rising national star, a few pumps to the economy and, maybe, the highly rated show of its namesake. It makes sense: For the most part, Nashville does right by the city, showcasing gems like The Bluebird Café, and depicting it as a town of vigor and business flair.
There's that industry - an ever-changing swirl of music and power that's all too easy to stick with labels. To its credit --and my surprise--, the show seems to understand the granularity of the industry even more than some of our own artists do, exploring its grey areas with creativity and tact. We get the new (Hayden Panettiere's shiny tween star Juliette Barnes), the old (respect-commanding Rayna James), the rising (shy poet-turned-songwriter Scarlett O'Connor) and the falling (fame-hungry Avery Barkley), among others, but they don't exist in a silo. They influence each other, reflect each other and sometimes hook up with each other. I dig it.
And then there's the drama - the battered family dynamics, the alcoholism, the inter-political-musical-whatever trysts. Barnes' current story arc has her stealing her mother's sober companion and turning him into her lover and manager, all the while attempting to up her artistry. It's not quite realistic, and yet, it's understandable. That's the funny thing about the show; by luck or design, it exists in this oddly inoffensive universe, even as it presents us with the salacious, steamy drama we reject in the real world.
Much of the show's soul can be attributed to Connie Britton, a layered actress who infuses her character --said to be a concoction of Tanya Tucker, Bonnie Rait, Reba McEntire and Faith Hill-- with authority, humanity and self-awareness. She's constantly searching for a 21st century answer to her deflated career, but only insomuch as it works within her rock solid belief system. In a genre that knocks its females down with a shrug and smile, that kind of ferocity is refreshing.
But who am I kidding - James's love life is the real draw for me. Few primetime TV relationships are as blazing as that of James and former boyfriend / guitarist Deacon Claybourne (played by Charles Esten), who grounds the show with his quiet moral compass. Their connection runs deep, with 20 years of history and unconditional support underscoring their searing physical chemistry. If those crazy kids don't get together before June, I'll have to settle for this all summer.
As for the music -Nashville's pumping heart--, it's solid, built on small, powerful jolts of chemistry at best and falling kind of airily flat at worst. It's encouraging to see Khouri's rootsy husband T-Bone Burnett serving as maestro -and featuring acts that don't see the light of country radio-- but I'm still waiting for the soundtrack to feel memorable. The real show-stealer is a pair of YouTube sensations, Lennon and Maisy Stella, who stumbled into the roles of James' talented daughters. How ironic -and appropriate-- that two digital stars are the freshest addition to a show about shifting generations.
Be sure to catch the last few episodes of the season starting May 1 on ABC, and in the meantime, let me know if you're as addicted to this as I've been:
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