I remember the pilot trailer like it was yesterday: seasoned country diva Rayna Jaymes (Britton) has to play industry chess to keep from being put to pasture by the latest "it" girl, Juliette Barnes (Panettiere). Political scandal, and messy familial and romantic entanglements are around the corner. The music nerd, soap-opera lover and Panettiere fan-girl in me was sold; you didn't have to tell me twice to tune in. The press swore it was a parallel to Reba McEntire and Taylor Swift; that still makes me laugh hysterically. They weren't going off anything but the stars' hair color. The vehicle was a better version of Empire (2015), before there was such a thing (ironically, Empire supporting actress Kaitlin Doubleday would join the cast in season five).The narratives were more evenly paced, grounded and detailed, including the business commentary (I especially appreciated the annotations on sexism). As for the weekly soundtrack? Oh my goodness, it was infinitely superior (beneath my commentary is a list of my favorite songs). First-rate production and thoughtful lyricism prevented it from sounding 'made for television.' The pulse of "Music City" authentically beat through, as the content was crafted by local talent (it was sung by the cast). With storytelling being country's supreme trait, the songs exquisitely accented the layered plot lines and characters. Let's delve into all of it, shall we?
Of Nashville's fictional figures, Juliette, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) and Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson) are my top three loves.
Juliette is completely intoxicating, with her sass, irrepressibility and how much of a living train-wreck she can be. Dissecting the complexities of her psyche can become an obsessive compulsion. She's a great example of what meets the eye isn't always the whole story. On the surface, she's a destructive narcissist, but it's not that simple. Having to survive successive traumas (ex. a manipulative mother who struggled with substance abuse, sexually predatory record executives) she developed a self-loathing and maladaptive preservation skills. She doesn't know how to identify or treat something of value (ex. her career, her caring husband) because she's hardly had that. Between her history and many nagging naysayers, you want to see her win (especially because her gloating victory laps are a thing of beauty). Roles like this can be difficult to write for. The question of how to evolve them without making them a 'bore' gets raised. A natural, built-in transition was available for Juliette, but the writers still strangely lost her in seasons five and six. She had post-partum depression, went to rehab, was inadvertently involved in her manager's death (i.e. Jeff Fordham) and was in a plane crash by the end of season four. Recovering from these events (ex. therapy, healing, PTSD, relapse) to come out a better person would've lasted to now. Instead, they had her accusing people of man-stealing, snatching songs from teenagers and accidentally joining a cult. Further, her background was unnecessarily revised to incorporate her mother, Jolene, allowing someone to rape her for money. This nullified the resolve brought by Jolene's sacrificial suicide, after she murdered Juliette's extortionist. The main 'JB' scenario I hated during the ABC run was her sleeping with Jeff. He did everything he could to control/destroy her career, and said she was "trailer trash covered in rhinestones." She'd fight someone like him tooth and nail. She'd never let him in her pants; it wasn't true to the character.
Deacon was the other tortured soul on canvas. He too sprouted from a hard knock life, and inherited his abusive father's battle with the bottle. It hindered his career and "love for the ages" relationship with Rayna for many years. Often, alcoholics are diabolized in media and their afflictions are depicted as choice-based. Much like the persona of Jack Pearson on NBC's This is Us, the portrayal of Deacon Claybourne humanized the addict. It showed crapulence for the ruling illness it is, and how it has a life of its own. To do this, clear division was made between Deacon and his demons. Inherently, he's a gentle and benevolent spirit you can't help but be enamored with. When alcoholism pulls him out of body, he's frigid and tempestuous. The tangibility of his duality is substantially in credit to Esten. His elegant, intricate and arresting work takes you inside each of his alter-ego's emotions. Him shedding a single tear will leave you bawling on the floor. I particularly enjoyed his channeling through his eyes and voice. Those piercing baby blues can be steely, just as easily as they can make you feel overcome with serenity. His vocal cadence is sonorous in a moment of decisiveness or seduction. It's swinging in a congenial exchange, hoarse and howling at a breaking point. Esten's performances are so gripping, you wonder where he's been this whole time. I tell ya', he's Hollywood's best kept secret.