Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Nashville: It’s Close But . . . and Some Other TV Musical Notes

The Cast of Nashville

      Nashville, produced by writer Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise), and starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panetierre is both well done and not quite good enough yet.  Nashville follows this year after the okay-but-I-wish-it-was-terrific Smash last year.  Its best element so far is the original music.  Country, pop, and even some rock is worked pretty seamlessly and realistically into the plot line because there
are always rehearsals, sound checks, and informal performances.  It’s neither the quasi-Karaoke of Glee nor the backstage self-reflexive Smash.  Brenda questioned the pace of a duet that the main pair Rayna and Deacon (Connie Britton and Charles Estin), fading country singer superstar and her lead guitarist and former lover respectively, sang in The Blue Bird, an after hours club where the music just happens because of the talent, rather than the fame, of the performers.  I agree with her, though it was needed in the narrative because the two had to face up to whether they could continue together professionally while still dealing with their shared romantic past. The lyrics in the song summed up the dilemma the two faced and the realization that the past was over.  The added fillips are that she is married while a much younger singer, who’s the next big star, is pursuing him.

Gilles and Petra on
Dancing with the Stars
     Although people may say they don’t like musicals, there are huge audiences for five ‘reality’ musical competition shows on the major networks with the same basic narrative season after season – a group of amateurs (this includes all the ‘stars’ on Dancing with the Stars as dancers) and semi-professionals battle to see who will be the winner as singers, dancers, or entertainers.  Few of these wildly popular but intermittently entertaining shows have lived up to their mission of producing stars (see our April 8, 2011 article).

Rachel and Kurt in New York
     Producers persuaded network executives that there was a closeted audience for fiction musicals and so Glee came along.  It’s been a good show, but this season finds itself in a narrative muddle.  The kids in whom we’d invested three years graduated last spring and, though they’ve moved on with their lives, they haven’t moved on from the show.  Cutting back and forth between the three alumni in NYC and the McKinley HS choir students in Lima (the Hollywood prime time version, not the Ohio reality) plus Choir Director Mr. Shuster having to figure what he wants creatively in his life is too much for the writers to sustain consistently.  I don’t care about the new kids and I never really gave a damn about Mr. Shu’s early mid-life crisis.  Let’s focus instead on Rachel trying to make it in the big city with her best pal Kurt.

A Picture's Worth a Thousand Words
     Nashville is going for a laid-back, genial tone even though the plot thrust is an update of All About Eve.  However, it doesn’t go as deep as Eve in showing the profound effects of choices that ambitious, talented women make.  The music business is a great subject it is so competitive and Americans want to know about how the industry works (even as itunes and file sharing are killing conventional rock and pop sales, country and hip hop fans buy CDs) and fame, glamour, and money are catnip.  Khouri has made the mistake of linking the music industry of Nashville with the politicians.  It worked in Robert Altman’s Nashville because he was using the city and its music as links to American political and cultural concerns.  Khouri’s Nashville is not a state of the nation essay and the political story is neither compelling nor a subtext to anything else.  Powers Boothe is fine as Rayna’s mogul father, but there’s a mayoral election linked to his business interests.  Jeez, haven’t we had enough of elections national and local, important and frivolous, already?   

     Besides the political storyline that needs to be trimmed back, the other issue is that Britton – a wise, wonderful actress in other series – is too phlegmatic.  No performer who is used to being a superstar would be so well adjusted, so well mannered, and so compassionate. Country superstars have a special problem because they have to seem approachable, ‘down home’ even though they are also sold as a brand.  The disconnect between seeming ‘authentic’ and their real selves has broken some performers, exacerbated addictions in many others, and have left others out in the cold.  Only Dolly Parton escaped it by promoting a nearly 50-year Performance Art piece known as ‘Dolly Parton’ and ‘The Outlaws’ (most
Dolly Parton
notably Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard) by thumbing their noses at ‘The Nashville Sound.’  The most recent superstars prematurely quit (The Judds, Garth Brooks and Shania Twain), faded (George Strait and Randy Travis) or were shunned when they couldn’t reconcile their image (The Dixie Chicks).  Who knows what will happen to Kenny Chesney, Brad Paisley, Carrie Underwood, or Taylor Swift?  The rest of the cast is good, though a little apple-cheek polished.

Charles Esten as Deacon Clayborne in Nashville
Best are Charles Esten, who possesses the acting and singing ability to actually be a country music star (he recalls Tim McGraw), and J.D. Souther as a wise old genie who can spot talent in just enough time to make a viewer come back from a commercial break.

No comments: