Last night, nine million of us set aside our differences, turned on our TVs, and watched Connie Britton and Hayden Panetierre go country. That's right y'all, it was the premiere of ABC's Nashville, a Music City version of All About Eve with enough rhinestones, twang, and Powers Boothe bitchface to fill the Grand Ole Opry (which they did, because the first few scenes were actually filmed there). In keeping with ABC's reputation for primetime soaps, last night's episode set up plenty of fun hot-people-with-secrets drama, but it also set up a tired Madonna/whore dynamic between its two female leads. Set to a kickass soundtrack, of course.
But who is who?
Nashville centers around Rayna James, a fading country music queen with a ton of Grammys and an old-school attitude that just isn't selling out shows anymore. She has a boring husband who is probably crooked—yawn—and two cute daughters who you might recognize from YouTube. If the name Rayna didn't tip you off already, this is our heroine. She's complicated, likable, talented, and human—a lot to pull off in a pilot, but thanks to the unstoppable country charms of Bostonian Connie Britton (we missed you Tami T!) it all works.
Not so much with Juliette Barnes, the thinly veiled Taylor Swift to James' thinly veiled Faith Hill. Played by Hayden Panetierre, who is terrific, Barnes comes across as much more one-dimensional than James—that one dimension being "slutty." She's bratty too, and spoiled, and she'll have sex with anyone to get ahead. It makes for exciting TV drama, but from a feminist perspective it's kind of a disappointment. Yes, Barnes has a bummer of a relationship with her mom, but couldn't we see her have at least one interaction that doesn't end in sex or cell-phone hurling?
Phone-hurling unfortunately included, this was one action-packed pilot that gave us a lot to discuss. To get things rolling, here are five things to love about the series so far, and five things to shove. (Not eligible for consideration: Connie Britton's hair, which is too amazing for a mere blog post.)
The music is genuinely great.
Show creator Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) is married to T Bone Burnett, whose job on shows like these is to make them sound authentic and amazing (see also: Crazy Heart). Mission: Accomplished. Tammy Wynette and Rasheeda songs get equal play in the background, and in the foreground the show's characters sing originals that are actually good. Juliette Barnes' "Love Like Mine" is getting tons of iTunes play already, and my money's on "If I Didn't Know Better," the Scarlett and Gunnar love triangle ballad written by the Civil Wars, to be a breakout hit. Nashville's being compared to Glee because of its focus on music, but these aren't just jazzed-up Lady Gaga covers.
So good, but I still don't buy Scarlett as a poet who's never performed before.
The performances are also genuinely great.
I'm on record as loving the crap out of Connie Britton, but she's not the only shining star in Nashville. Hayden Panetierre is great even with her bratty constraints, and Powers Boothe (who plays Rayna James' machinating father) could steal the screen with a mere lip curl. So far the show suffers from what I call "brown-haired scruffy handsome white guy" syndrome (see also: Game of Thrones) where many of the male leads look so much alike it's tough to tell who is who—I thought the guy singing on stage with Scarlett was her boyfriend because he looks JUST LIKE HIM—but Deacon (Charles Eston) is crinkly and charming so far. And I hope Maddie and Daphne Conrad get to go on tour with their mom—they're Juliette Barnes fans (of course!) and we know they can sing.
The plot is going places.
For a pilot, last night's episode did an excellent job of foreshadowing the drama that's to come. A sampling: Juliette is going to sleep with Deacon; Rayna and Deacon used to date, and he is possibly the father of one of her daughters; Scarlett is dating one brown-haired scruffy handsome white guy but loves another; Juliette's mother is an addict who is going to try to live with her and get her money; Rayna and Teddy need money; Teddy has a shady past; Rayna's dad paid for her first album but she only just found out; Rayna's dad likes her sister better; Teddy is going to run for mayor; Rayna doesn't really love Teddy, she loves Deacon; Deacon is a recovering alcoholic who might fall off the wagon; Randy is producing music for both Rayna and Juliette but only having sex with one of them; the label has been purchased by a money-grubbing sleazoid; Juliette and Rayna are going to go on tour together and sparks will fly—and all this in just one episode!
Nashville, and country in general, are well represented.
While also soapy and fun, ABC's last voyage South, the now-defunct GCB, was mean spirited. Sure, lots of television producers are left coast Obama-loving socialists, but that doesn't mean their viewers are. And even those viewers who are (hi there) don't want to see the South get stereotyped as backwards and bigoted. Nashville depicts powerful people being smart and sexy, and doesn't mock them because they like steel guitar and say y'all.
The industry/economy talk is at least quasi-realistic.
I'm no record exec so I can't speak to accuracy, but at least this show attempts to tackle money and the rapidly changing music industry. Rayna and her husband are "cash poor," Juliette's voice gets fixed with auto tune, and the new label head says "the old models don't work anymore." We all like reading about how musicians make less money than we thought, and now we can watch it happen on television!
So far, so good. But not so fast...
What was that you said about Madonnas and whores?
The Madonna/whore element is tired.
Rayna is nice and Juliette is mean. Rayna is married and Juliette is a slut. Rayna is a mom and Juliette is childless. Rayna has a good relationship with her employees and Juliette treats them like dirt under her rhinestone boots. I know this show hinges on a younger woman rising as an older woman fades, but I'm hoping future episodes give us more to like about Juliette and more to dislike about Rayna. As it stands, women in Nashville are restricted to the same two options so many women face: beautiful, perfect mother figure or single, slutty maneater. It's like a dang Taylor Swift song up in here.
The political subplot is also tired.
Why do we need this Nashville's Next Mayor plot? I got bored every time guys in suits came on screen. Take us back to the Grand Ole Opry—we don't care about your political dealings, Teddy!
There is an unfortunate lack of diversity.
Shout out to
Bunny Colvin Robert Wisdom, the one non-white actor on the show and the only interesting element in that boring mayoral race subplot. But why are all of the performers, backup band members, record label execs, and supporting cast members white? Are we really supposed to believe that country music is that lacking in diversity? And even if it is, couldn't ABC have mixed things up a little bit with the casting? It's kind of a broken record request at this point, but TV EXECS IF YOU'RE LISTENING WE WANT TO SEE DIVERSITY ON SCREEN ALREADY.
Traditional gender roles are in full effect.
Teddy is a broken man because he can't provide for his mega-superstar wife. Rayna's sister works for her Übermensch father. Women are women—complete with feminine wiles and fake smiles—and men are men in Nashville. And what about the musicians? Could we get some women playing instruments please? Thanks.
The catfighting must go on.
My Twitter feed was full of "meow!"s last night as Rayna and Juliette exchanged barbed remarks and side eyes. Though it's about music, and aging, and defining success, and finding happiness, Nashville is also a show about women trying to cut each other down. This might be good for ratings, but it's bad for representations of women in pop culture. Here's hoping that in future episodes the relationship between Rayna and Juliette can—slowly, this is TV—shift from catfighting to begrudging respect to mentor/mentee to best friends who own a record label together and produce awesome lady country. It could happen!
All loves and shoves considered, I found the pilot episode fun to watch and I always like to see a network show created by a woman starring women. That those women are singing solid gold country hits? Icing on the television cake. I'll be tuning in next week and see what happens in Nashville—who's with me?