Every week in Slate’s Nashville TV club, Katy Waldman will have an IM conversation with a different Nashville fan. This week, she rehashes episode 1.17 with Todd VanDerWerff, TV editor of the A.V. Club.
Katy Waldman: Hi Todd! I feel clean. The soap quotient of this week’s Nashville episode was off-the-charts. Heart attacks, long-concealed affairs, a mother/daughter love triangle featuring a sober-but-not-chaste companion…Could you take it all seriously?
Todd VanDerWerff: Hey, Katy. Any more than I usually do? I guess. The show is so thoroughly trapped between its original mission statements and whatever it thinks it needs to be to work on television that it's almost fun to watch as a sort of dissection of who wanted which plot elements where—more so than, like, a story about characters. I feel like the real protagonist is creator Callie Khouri.
Waldman: What were the original mission statements?
VanDerWerff: If you go back and look at the pilot, it's a very earnest attempt to make a show about people who do their best to make the country music industry or the city of Nashville do their bidding. It's a workplace drama about country music, basically. Even the soapiest element of the pilot—Rayna and Juliette's "feud"—is very understated. Of course, very quickly, it became clear there wasn't a lot of inherent drama in that original version of the show, so it's slowly moved more and more toward a soap, but in a really weird way, where it seems almost embarrassed about being one.
Waldman: Where do you see embarrassment, or almost-embarrassment?
VanDerWerff: A really good soap will play up its conflicts to the hilt. Think of how Revenge, last season, took every occasion it could to put Emily VanCamp and Madeleine Stowe onscreen together. But Nashville darts away from its conflicts almost as quickly as it approaches them. A really soapy soap would have drawn out the triangle between Juliette, Dante, and Juliette's mom for episodes. Instead, it gets resolved here. The underlying problems—Juliette's mother's alcoholism—don't go away, but the conflicts of the week do. It's a weird way of making a TV show and one I've come to appreciate more as the season's gone on, but nobody involved seems to be on the same page as everybody else.
Waldman: Right, and the need to have characters behaving in ways that constantly generate new conflicts makes the characters somewhat unstable, I think. At least, I find my feelings about Rayna or Gunnar or Avery or Deacon vacillating pretty wildly week to week. Characters come off as inconsistent, rather than evolving. I'm thinking especially of Juliette here. She seemed to be on a redemptive trajectory and now she's back to being The Worst.
VanDerWerff: Right. This isn't character evolution. It's like a character spirograph or something. I really think this Dante storyline has been a mistake for Juliette's character, but I also half suspect he'll be out of the show in a couple weeks' time, so I'm not too worried about it. Deacon doesn't like him, and Deacon tends to be the voice of reason within the show's universe.
Waldman: (Yup! That's how we know that Avery should be back in our good graces by now—Deacon is defending him.)
VanDerWerff: But these issues extend beyond just the center of the show. For instance: The Gunnar and Scarlett storyline makes no sense in any real way (in that I don't understand why no one would give Gunnar another chance, given his very good reason for missing the audition), yet it keeps proceeding, even though it hasn't really provided anything to the show. It'd be one thing if it were driving a wedge between Gunnar and Scarlett, but it's not, really. This is a show that has surface-level conflict but few deeper struggles.
Waldman: There is a deeper struggle though—there is a real wedge between Gunnar and Scarlett. It’s just caused by Gunnar’s grief rather than by Scarlett’s success of talent (a la the Avery wedge).
VanDerWerff: Sure, but I think that's getting at the struggle within the show itself. Gunnar's grief is in keeping with the show as presented in the pilot, a small-scale story about people making their way in this industry. The "Rayna's label won't sign both Gunnar and Scarlett" business is soap opera ridiculousness.
Waldman: I sometimes have trouble reading Nashville’s intentions. How are we supposed to feel about Stacey the vet? Is she good for Deacon or a temptation/distraction from the ultimate goal of Rayna? And—by the way—didn’t it look, in the final scenes, like Deacon was about ready to end their relationship?
VanDerWerff: I will confess that I could not care less about Stacey the vet, even if she's played by Susan Misner, so good over on The Americans. It's obvious the show's long game is very in favor of Deacon and Rayna, and I presume we're going to see them get back together in the finale, just as Teddy realizes what he's lost (now that he knows the truth about Peggy's treachery).
Waldman: Yeah, I liked the idea of having a character who was sort of an outsider to the country music world—someone who might be a surrogate for the viewer—but she's turned into just another loose end. Nashville the show treats its supporting characters like Nashville the city treats its aspiring artists! Picking ‘em up and dropping ‘em with ruthless speed.
VanDerWerff: Well, that's one of its soapier aspects. Characters come and go from soaps all the time.
Waldman: Somewhere there’s a Nashville limbo where the shades of Juliette's footballer ex, Deacon’s hot lady reporter, and Liam flit about…
VanDerWerff: Every so often somebody turns up for five seconds or so. I mean, Watty turned up again tonight. I missed that guy.
Waldman: I guess it was only a matter of time until he got his own somewhat sordid back-story. He couldn’t be country music’s Aslan forever, showing up periodically with that flowing mane to growl wise words in the direction of the youth. ANYWAY, songs. There weren’t any striking ones this week, which was a letdown after last week’s Stella sensation.
VanDerWerff: As the season has gone on, we've gotten fewer and fewer full numbers, in favor of snippets of numbers here and there, just enough to entice us to go and buy them on iTunes. The show's stuck in a tough place on this point, because it's mostly using songs that aren't terribly well known or original compositions, so it can't skate by on the old "I know this song!" thing that could sometimes work for Glee. Thus, its songs too often feel even MORE disconnected from everything that's going on, when they should probably feel more central. It's been forever since a song did the dramatic heavy-lifting on this show.
Waldman: It probably doesn’t help that the plot needs most of the songs we hear to be life-changingly good and profound. Hence the Nashville reaction shot: close-ups on people bobbing their heads appreciatively or looking touched, meant to show us how amazing the artists are. It feels forced. But hey, I don't mean to complain about Nashville's musical numbers. They are still probably my favorite part of the show.
VanDerWerff: Mine, too. Well, that and the various ways the writers contrive to keep all of the characters hermetically sealed off from each other.
Waldman: Could you say more about that? My impression of Nashville is that it's a small world—everyone is somehow (conveniently!) connected. The random roadie used to date the artist who your co-headliner just signed to her label. Or, the guy who discovered you also had an affair with your mother.
VanDerWerff: The characters have connections, but they're only back-story connections. The most frequent flaw of the show has been that the characters mostly exist in their own worlds and rarely interact with each other. It's sort of like how characters on Game Of Thrones rarely cross paths, but, on that show, they’re separated by thousands of miles. They don't live in the same city.
Waldman: I don’t necessarily mind several self-contained storylines, as opposed to one big sprawling one. The problems just start when the inclusion of certain characters week after week begins to feel obligatory, rather than organic. Scarlett and Gunnar were like that for a while, though I’ve come to care about them by now.
VanDerWerff: Scarlett is this show in a nutshell: She gets handed a great gift and almost passes it up. She never fights with anybody. And she mostly sits back and waits for other people to encourage her to make decisions. But Clare Bowen has a lovely singing voice.
VanDerWerff: I just want to say that this whole chat makes me sound like I hate the show. I don't. I enjoy making fun of it in my weekly reviews, and I find it a very, very effective mood machine. It's very good at putting me in a uniquely Nashville-ian headspace from week to week, even if the actual events of the episode never make a lick of sense. And it was cute when the two girls sang "Ho Hey." I would watch a show about those two girls.
The problem is that, at best, I'm ambivalent toward the show. I like it a LOT on paper—particularly in how it circumvents a lot of expected ways we tell stories about interactions between men and women—but in execution... eh. On the other hand, I thought the string of episodes that aired in February were very strong, and I hope the show can return to that before the end of the season. And maybe have a little less Dante. And more singing kids and dogs.