I was ready to hate ABC’s new drama Nashville. I’d been burned before, by Women in the Performing Arts dramas—I’d had to hide behind my scarf as Natalie Portman tore at her cuticles in Black Swan; I’d suffered through fifteen increasingly terrible episodes of Smash last season, and it had brought me nothing but rage, existential disappointment, and a number of songs in my iTunes library of which to be ashamed. I’d seen the poster: Connie Britton in a guitar throne, practically stepping on Hayden Panetierre, devious and airbrushed at her feet. I am so sick of this trope, that when it comes to ladies performing, there can only be one. That we will destroy each other to be the one. I know from experience that it’s untrue. I remember standing onstage beside my best friend Alice in our senior year, auditioning for our high school’s production of The Hobbit. Both of us were reading for the part of Bilbo Baggins, and I was thinking, I hope Alice gets it, I hope Alice gets it. I knew she wanted it more and would do it better. I also knew whoever got it would have to glue prosthetic hair to her feet.
I get this sick feeling in my stomach a lot of the time, watching the way women are portrayed in pop culture. I had it in Nashville’s opening scenes. Britton, with her beautiful adult human face and her wavy cartoon princess tresses, plays a struggling country superstar named Rayna James, whom we first see chasing her precocious child down a hallway with curlers in her hair before a quick cut to her belting onstage in a sequined blazer. She’s every woman. It’s all in her. The deck is so immediately stacked against whichever brash young upstart would dare to usurp Rayna’s authority as America’s sweetheart that Panetierre’s first scene as her younger, poppy rival Juliette Barnes feels like overkill: look at this bitch, in her short skirt, sniffing disdainfully at a perfume that will be sold in her name, snapping at her assistants, literally throwing an iPhone away. Who does she think she is?
But it turns out that Nashville is more than that—much more than that, maybe at times a little too much more than that. There’s a lot going on, subplots about mayoral politics, meth addiction, nail polish thievery. There were, as of press time, no less than seven potential love triangles currently in play. Yet as much as ABC’s marketing department might want you to believe that the theme of the show is, “Women: Won’t They Ever Be Rational?,” showrunner Callie Khouri hits you with some sneak attack feminism and gives you a show about three women—Rayna, Juliette, and pop-eyed poetess Scarlett (Claire Bowen)—who want to become better artists.
There are male artists on the show, too, and good ones. We are led to believe that Deacon, Rayna’s lead guitarist, is some sort of magical rugged musical sprite, enriching the lives of the women around him through song. But in more recent episodes, Rayna has left Deacon behind as a songwriting partner, deciding to tackle her new album on her own. In another show, maybe, this would be depicted as an act of hubris, especially for a woman. Deacon seems literally unable to do wrong—he’s a recovering addict, but this just makes him wiser and sadder and gives the lines in his face more handsome gravitas—so surely Rayna will fall on her face for the attempt? But she plays her first solo song for her manager and he loves it. “No,” he says, for the viewer at home who might think he’s paying lip service, “I loved it.” Rayna high-fives him. Women at home rejoice. We, too, can be artists! We, too, can be geniuses!
Does this seem like too tiny of a stride to you? Then I suggest you track down the first series of Smash and watch as much of it as you can before stabbing rusty nails into your own eyeballs. Watch as our two prospective Marilyns are molded and manipulated by their lecherous director Derek, until they’ve become bewigged marionettes, sashaying at Derek’s command. The saddest thing about Smash is that it, too, contains a female genius. Megan Hilty plays ambitious chorus girl Ivy Lynn so brilliantly that you can almost feel the moment where NBC began to panic—Hilty is so good, it’s simply not feasible that the fake Broadway show’s producers would even consider casting the pleasant but forgettable Katharine McPhee instead. So Ivy is given a Percocet addiction, hallucinations, a tendency to sleep with other people’s boyfriends. McPhee’s character, Karen, ultimately nabs the role finale not because she is particularly talented, but because she’s stable, malleable, pretty, chaste. Derek has to coax the performance out of her, encouraging her to exploit her pain (it was, obviously, Karen’s boyfriend with whom Ivy slept). Moments before she takes the stage, Derek wraps his arms around Karen. “I do understand love,” he coos in her ear. Good luck not projectile vomiting onto your television screen, because we’re led to believe that it’s this sentiment—paternal/sexual, having nothing to do with Karen’s talent and everything to do with how closely she resembles Marilyn at her most fragile—which leads to Karen’s triumphant belting in the season’s final scene.
Things are different in Nashville. There are still powerful men to answer to: Rayna’s father is essentially The Patriarchy personified, always scheming in mahogany chairs with glasses of whiskey in hand; Scarlett waffles on performing, worried that her success will hurt her relationship with her greasy musician boyfriend. And there is, so far, a concerning thread which posits the music women listen to as less valuable than the music men listen to. Juliette feels a growing resentment towards her teen girl fanbase, and co-writes with Deacon for legitimate country music cred; Rayna has to convince a scruffy male rock producer to listen to her music, which he describes as “Moms and SUVs.” But Nashville feels poised, at this moment, to do something truly thrilling, and bring these three women together. Since the second episode, none of them have shared so much as a scene together, and yet you can feel that they need each other, that if their paths were ever to converge it would result in all three realizing their full potential. Rayna seeks a fresh sound, which Juliette could provide; Juliette wants credibility, which Rayna could lend just as easily as Deacon. Scarlett wants confidence, and could get a more vital source of it from two mentors than she ever could from over-zealous romantic partners. Whether this turns out to be an actual plotline or just the basis for a novel’s worth of Nashville fan fiction remains to be seen. But if it happens, I can think of nothing more exciting—not even a knock-down, drag-out catfight—than three women collaborating for the good of all of their careers. I can see them now, this glorious triptych backlit and sparkling, singing and stomping and twanging, Connie Britton’s hair blown back like an amber wave on which Panetierre and Bowen gaily surf: this is the stuff that dreams are made of.
Review by Katie Coyle.