It pains me to have to write this. I have staked my reputation on ABC’s Nashville being a good, enjoyable show. In many a gathering of sophisticated, cultured folk I have loudly proclaimed its virtues, defended its honor, called it “great,” called it “smart,” called it “worth watching.” But as season two of Nashville comes out of its midway hiatus I’m no longer so sure it’s worth even that, and I’m so sad, and I’m so sorry.
The season started out okay. The shiny gold halo above the head of Rayna James (Connie Britton) had not lost an iota of its luster, though her glossy hair lay ashen on the pillow of her hospital bed. She survives her traumatic brain injury and comes back full-force: her sass, strength, and wonderful hair even more impressive compared to the sallow, thin skeleton that began the season. Against Rayna’s gorgeous, steady light, the other characters only look worse. Deacon (Chip Esten) is vindictive and drunk, again; Teddy (Eric Close) is a liar, and her daughters are brats. Juliette (Hayden Panettierre) is slightly more sympathetic this year, but still a raging egotist almost entirely devoid of moral feeling. Gunnar (Sam Palladio) has grown a disgusting beard and follows Scarlett (Clare Bowen) around looking pathetic. Scarlett continues to tremble like a delicate flower, except now some dead-eyed, totally unlikeable friend Zoey (Chaley Rose) accompanies her. To his credit, Avery (Jonathan Jackson) seems somehow both more attractive and more palatable.
The high drama of last season’s finale—Peggy’s pregnancy, Maddie’s (Maisy Stella) discovery of her real dad, Rayna and Deacon’s accident—is only milked for a few episodes. Things start to settle down, almost too calmly. Deacon slowly but surely gets his act together, and finds a smart, sexy girlfriend (Christina Chang) along the way. He and Rayna treat each other civilly, though all chemistry is gone. He is happy to be a part of Maddie’s life. His hand is not back to normal—just punishment, we are meant to think—but his career bounces back. Peggy’s faked pregnancy and subsequent faked miscarriage goes off without a hitch, Teddy never wising up. The loss of Rayna’s voice had serious dramatic potential: as she asks Deacon, who is she without her voice? What would happen to her family? But then, anticlimactically, her voice comes back—and while it sounds lovely, it’s not exactly thrilling.
This is, I think, exactly what is wrong with season two so far. There were serious, gripping family crises; lives in danger; relationships threatened. But all of a sudden they were either smoothed over or dismissed entirely. Instead of tuning these dramas to their sharpest, shiniest point, the writers have shipped in new characters who I just barely care about: from the unlikeable Zoey to a millionaire Juliette suddenly has an affair with—meant to stop us, I think, from liking her too much. The new bad guy is the head of Edgehill, Jeff Fordham (Oliver Hudson). There’s a new bitch in town, the disingenuous Layla Grant (Aubrey Peeples), and closeted Will Lexington’s (Chris Carmack) love affair shows potential, though it falls just short of romance. Don’t get me wrong: there have been incredibly, ludicrously dramatic moments this season, but these bizarre histrionics belong in soap-opera satire, and not in a show that used to be as good as Nashville was: remember Olivia Wentworth’s coming on to Juliette, or Peggy’s sudden accidental murder.
I loved Nashville because it was one of the only shows on television that held bad people accountable for being bad. So much of television today is about complicating the bad character, humanizing him, justifying his actions in whatever outlandish way the writers devise. Maybe it’s the denim-shirted morals south of the Mason-Dixon line that allow Nashville’s writers to create characters with good hearts, and let them win, but in this show Southern wholesomeness—that old cliché—seems human, understandable, warm. Take, for example, Deacon, whose crisis is brought on by his pain at having been Maddie’s father all along, and never having known. Take Scarlett, who refuses to lead Gunnar along because she knows he still loves her, but she wants a career. Take Avery, whose quiet reminding of Juliette that he can see through her performances brings her back to herself. These are crises of kind hearts, and these are the crises I watch Nashville to see.
Maybe Nashville can still save itself. After all, it hasn’t all been bad. The careers of its protagonists provide it with its best plotlines, a move which may save the series yet from total banishment to a chick-show purgatory of shallow drama and shallower character. It’s at its best when the illustrious, supreme Rayna James and the feisty, and eventually loveable Juliette Barnes fight for their careers. For them, the men that walk in and out of their lives are only afterthoughts to the drama of their success. (For fairness’ sake, it should be stated that when Avery pursued his career he was portrayed as greedy, superficial, and mean-hearted.) In this, the show—though drowning in soap opera cliché and overwrought plot—is still gasping for air. Maybe 2014 will rescue it, and my own confidence in my taste in television.
Susannah Sharpless is a junior in the Religion Department.