By Marlena De Lacroix a.k.a. Connie Passalacqua Hayman
What’s to write about? Everyone on General Hospital is in jail, or should be. Sonny has finally been arrested for the murder of A.J. Quartermaine. Carly and Duke are there, too, for helping Sonny cover up the killing. Heather is in jail and presumably will be transported back to Ferncliff. Franco and Nina aren’t in jail, but should be for kidnapping Ava’s baby. And so should Ava, for the long ago murder of Connie.
So this week, let’s go somewhere new. Do you watch Nashville on ABC? It’s my favorite nighttime soap, and I’ll bet a lot of daytime soap fans agree.
Nashville is everything a daytime soap producer might imagine in his/her wildest dreams. For openers, it’s a superlative job of world-building, capturing as it does with such impeccable authenticity the world of today’s Nashville, Tennessee – a thoroughly modern metropolis of the New South that also occupies a fabled position in our popular culture as the home of our uniquely American country music industry.
It’s not entirely fair, of course, to compare this weekly primetime juggernaut, with its audience of nine million and per episode budget of $4 million, with daytime soap opera’s five-days-per week worlds-without-end marathon. But it’s not the glitz and glamor and the fabulous music that make Nashville so compelling. It’s the series’ old-fashioned heart and soul of family drama – intersecting stories of love gained and lost, striving broken spirits who cry out and sometimes lash out in pain, and ambition both triumphant and failed, all at the confluence of family and fame.
Behind it all is the flow of creativity that all the characters share, the desire to make music that is their own. This becomes a struggle that infuses all the story lines, a battle between artistic honesty and fakery that is not unlike life itself.
Nashville is built around the world of Rayna Jaymes, a storied country superstar whose career is on down the line, as they say, at the point where she needs and wants to take charge. She does so by launching her own record label, the demands of which clash painfully with her other lives, as mother, wife and conflicted lover. Connie Britton plays her so truthfully, we can easily believe there is a real Rayna, right up there with Tammy and Loretta and Reba.
Rayna is divorced from Nashville’s slick mayor Teddy (Eric Close), engaged to fellow country superstar Luke Wheeler (the equally believable Will Chase), yet continually crossing paths with the man who surely will always be the love of her life, the alcoholic fabled guitarist/songwriter Deacon Claybourne, played by Charles Esten, who surely is the most attractive man on television. Rayna and Deacon were lovers long ago and even have a daughter out of wedlock. They have tried to rekindle their love on several occasions, but it’s just not right. I admire greatly that these characters are all truly adults, trying to honor their choices and do the right thing for their families and children. And all without saccharine.
Nashville’s parallel story line follows the fortunes of Juliette Barnes, one super self-centered hellion of a country/pop upstart from hardscrabble roots who launches herself as Rayna’s competition, becomes her nemesis, then her partner, then the object of public scorn. She’s played brilliantly by daytime alum Hayden Panettiere, who grew up on soaps on Guiding Light and One Life to Live.
Panettiere may be the bravest woman ever on television or in film. Rene Zellwegger deserved the kudos she earned for gaining weight for the title role in Bridget Jones Diary, and Panettiere goes her one better. In real life, Panettiere really is pregnant and has gained the usual pounds. Her Juliette is pregnant, too, proudly looking the part without either slimming camera tricks or insulting fat suit. A real woman playing a real woman. How refreshing.
There’s a whole bushel of intersecting secondary stories, each populated by superb acting talent to die for. These include Jonathan Jackson as aspiring songwriter Avery Barkley, father of Juliet’s baby. (You may recognize him from GH, where he grew up playing Lucky Spencer.) Wonderful, too, are Clare Bowen as Deacon’s talented songwriter niece Scarlett, Sam Palladio as her ex Gunnar Scott, one time songwriting partner who belatedly learns he has a six year old son, and Chris Carmack as Will Lexington, a closeted country hunk who has made it big and is terrified he’ll be found out. What unites them is the steady stream of their soul-revealing music.
All of this is the work of Callie Khouri, who brought smart, flawed and therefore true-life women to the big screen in Thelma and Louise, now a classic. There’s nary a misstep in her Nashville, not a single thing I would change, not a moment when I want to look away from the screen. That is remarkable for such a broad and complex canvas. But Nashville doesn’t feel complex. Its storylines flow together like the lyrics of a country story song.
If you haven’t been tuning in – which I doubt – catch up somehow. You’ll be glad you did.