Nashville: ... You'd better sit down.

Today I'll tell you the annotated story of the most frustrating television series ever filmed.

On May 12, 2016, the ABC television network cancelled Nashville after its fourth season. Of course, it ended on a cliffhanger - amusingly enough, the original version had the show ending on a triple cliffhanger, but a modicum of sanity prevailed. Truth be told, the Nashville showrunners had made it their practice to end each season on increasingly outrageous cliffhangers in order to somehow extort the network into renewing the show - in an astonishing display of poor judgment, they even once made this public knowledge - but finally, ABC had enough of their bullshit. A bit less than a month after the show got flushed down the toilet and after tireless campaigning from its Lionsgate producers and millions of amazingly loyal and outspoken fans, it got picked up by little Country Music Television (CMT) for a fifth season of twenty-two episodes. [1]

I'm here to explain to you why getting cancelled was the best thing ever to happen to Nashville and why you should definitely give the show a chance - or a second chance, if you've already tried and had enough of its special brand of madness - when it returns to its new home from the hiatus.

The concept of Nashville gave new meaning to the word 'synergy.' Here, we had a show about the Nashville music scene, filmed in Nashville, featuring music by residents of Nashville and original clubs and locations in Nashville, performed and released by its insanely talented young cast. This was a case of the town promoting the show and the music, the music promoting the town and the show, and the show promoting the music and the town. It's an idea so brilliant that for years I maintained that the viewing numbers of Nashville were the bare minimum they could ever be.

Years ago, there was this reviewer who really nailed it in saying how the most frustrating thing about Nashville wasn't how it was a bad show. It was that it was a bad show with a good show inside it, fighting tooth and nail to get out. This statement symbolizes everything wrong about the show and partially explains how, despite storylines which only deteriorated through its run, the series still kept a loyal, devoted fan following. These people were never in it for the insane, soapy hyperbole which reviewers loved to make fun of - and yes, it deserved to be made fun of - but for the music, the actors, the setting and the wonderful concept which nobody ever quite managed to destroy. No matter the bizarre dialog these people were served, they nearly always turned in stellar character interactions.

In a way, Nashville was every shipper's dream and nightmare. This was a show which - despite the writing, not because of it - managed to produce three absolutely iconic couples. Strong, likable Rayna and her sensitive, former-alcoholic old boyfriend Deacon. Shy, fragile but bighearted Scarlett, the niece of Deacon, and her love-at-first-sight deal with supportive, mild-mannered and vaguely self-mocking Gunnar - played by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio, a musical match made in Heaven who were actually later invited to sing for Disney on Broadway. [2] Reformed bad-guy Avery, the boy with big dreams of fame, and half-crazed country-pop diva Juliette, not-so-subtly modeled after public misconceptions of Taylor Swift and the initial antagonist of Rayna.

The sparks between these people were off the charts. It was the kind of stuff that threatened to set your television on fire. I remember an interview with Buddy Miller - the executive music producer for most of Nashville's "good" fare - where he describes Clare and Sam singing their first song on set: "I was nervous as all get out about that song... cause that song, that's a difficult song. It's so high I don't even know if I could hear that high... and you're singing that heavy love song, looking at each other, and everybody in the control room with goosebumps, and could not believe the moment because it was so magical." [5]

And then the show dragged them all through the mud. Over and over and over again with no end in sight.

Significantly, T Bone Burnett - the creative genius behind season one's take on what country music ought to sound like, and series creator Callie Khouri's husband - chose to quit working on the show immediately after season one, and it was not hard to understand why. [3] Citing that he was "following doctor's orders not to work with people he doesn't like," he went on to describe the process of working for the Nashville creative team as an absolute ordeal. "Some people were making a drama about real musicians' lives, and some were making a soap opera, so there was that confusion. It was a knockdown, bloody, drag-out fight, every episode. You remember that show The Prisoner? If I were to tell you the truth, you'd think I was insane."

In a nutshell, that's all you have to know about Nashville seasons 2 through 4. Some of the writers, most of the actors and singers and all of the fans had this dream of a show a la Friday Night Lights about the reality of the music business and how it affects people. Those in charge apparently wanted car crashes as deus ex machinas, gross misrepresentations of actual real life illnesses and attitudes towards people, and faked miscarriages with pork blood.

Hayden Panettiere, 'Juliette Barnes'

Nashville painted a picture where everyone but a protagonist's closest friends were raging homophobes, contributing to a gay "siege mentality." Unforgivably, it called for first time mother Hayden Panettiere to act out an over-the-top version of a mental illness she herself was suffering from which entailed attacking her onscreen husband and newborn baby with a heavy object. Shortly thereafter, the actress had to check herself into a clinic.

Chip Esten, 'Deacon Claybourne'

The show showed us AA confidentiality meant nothing and that if you donate part of an organ to your terminally ill brother you're as good as dead. It practically told every gay man watching the show to shut the fuck up and stay in the closet because if you ever dare to come out your life is ruined. It even featured a classic 'magical negro.' [6]

In the middle of season three, I managed to write an accurate prediction down to detail - with no available spoilers - for an entire year's worth of storytelling between two main characters, simply by making the assumption that the show would recycle and abuse every soap meme known to man.

Chris Carmack, 'Will Lexington'

As the show gradually lost all focus and went creatively bankrupt, it also developed an addiction to guest stars. These guest stars would frequently stay on the show for various behind-the-scenes reasons far beyond where they'd outlived their usefulness and long after they'd run out of meaningful stories to tell for them. By season four, the show had become like a cheap crack whore begging for a fix and doing anything to get one. As long as they could get one more guest star, "just one more," they could use them to fill out the episodes with irrelevant side stories, which in turn saved them from the impossible intellectual feat of actually furthering their main plot lines.

So, what it came down to was bribing the guest stars to come there and offer them whatever they wanted. Of course, nearly all of them wanted to sing songs, despite normally being far less talented and interesting performers than the main cast, but "of course you'll get a song! Doesn't matter if you sound like a tone deaf chain smoking cow, we'll make it sound good! Oh, you want three songs? ... Okay, three songs it is!" The actual music, which had been the lifeblood of the show, was gradually diluted to a shadow of its former self and given to the most unlikable characters.

Whenever someone would ask me about Nashville, I'd give them the same advice: "watch season one episodes 1 through 14, because that's a really good show. After that, you can keep watching for the music and the cast, but be prepared to be tortured." This is where - not to spoil anything more for any masochist who wants to watch past that point - the show tells us it's no longer interested in realistic storytelling. This is where you start to notice artificially inserted elements and character assassinations designed to create synthetic drama rather than drama which evolves naturally out of the motivations of the players.

So... why am I so, so happy that this show was renewed?

Connie Britton, 'Rayna Jaymes'

Well, that's simple. Nashville on CMT won't even be the same show, and it will finally have a chance to fulfill its promise.

With news of cancellation burgeoning, Lionsgate decided to fire longtime executive producer Dee Johnson, one of the people evidently deemed the most responsible for this current trainwreck. There are more of those than I care to name. Then, they managed to get Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz - most noted for their work on thirtysomething - to take over as new heads of the project. Immediately, they set up a new writers' room and got in touch with their favorite writers for scripts for the fifth season. Apparently, a rough outline for the new 22-episode installment is already done.

Sam Palladio, 'Gunnar Scott'

After that, word got out that Will Chase and Aubrey Peeples, portraying Luke Wheeler and Layla Grant, had been given the boot as series regulars and might only be back to round off their respective storylines. The former and especially the latter had been cancers on the show, characters overstaying their welcome for years and fed failed plot after failed plot, unexplained personality transformations and copious amounts of undeserved screentime to somehow make them relevant to the story.

With this single move, Ed and Marshall immediately proved they understood everything that had poisoned the show - flaws which, curiously, had been pointed out by fans and reviewers alike for three years without the producers ever addressing them, to the point where mainstream sites such as Yahoo!TV - with reviewers who once called it "the season's best new show" - started to post brutal bashes of it, while most simply ignored its existence. "When Nashville ends its run, I’d love to read an inside-story about how and why the series betrayed the initial promise of the superb pilot written by Callie Khouri." [4]

Jonathan Jackson, 'Avery Barkley'

Zwick and Herskovitz are people with actual integrity and character. Their trademark is introspective, serious drama, not over-the-top soaps.

No longer will we have to endure the guest star of the month for the quick fix of pointless side stories, because the people in charge aren't intellectually bankrupt and they do have a plan. The era of preferential treatment and of writing for shock value is over. From now on it will be "from each according to his and her abilities and to each according to what he or she is worth."

We'll see the best musical material given to the best singers. We'll see the juiciest and most complex acting material given to the best actors.

Clare Bowen, 'Scarlett O'Connor'

Mark my words, the will-they-or-won't-they of Scarlett and Gunnar is over. The multiple personalities of Layla Grant will be gone. The days of "Will Lexington, Token Gay" are at an end.

For ABC, Nashville was always something of a headache. For CMT, it's their grandest prize - the show they always wished they had but never could afford. At the announcement of the renewal, CMT president Brian Phillips, overcome with emotion, stated,

“CMT heard the fans. The wave of love and appreciation they have unleashed for Nashville has been overwhelming. Nashville is a perfect addition to our evolving line-up of big music specials, documentaries and original series. We see our fans and ourselves in this show, and we will treasure it like no other network. Nashville belongs on CMT.”

This is their main priority, bar none. They've even entered into discussions about producing an after-show special for the show, featuring live interviews and performances - stuff a show like this is made for. Unlike the lying sweet-talkers of FOX, CBS and ABC, I think we actually have reason to believe him.

As this is so I'm taking up the position to review Nashville season five when it hits our screens. I believe in putting my money where my mouth is. There's no show on television I've been more venomous about, and that's because I felt the concept - in which I was always invested over any particular character or storyline - deserved better. It always deserved better.

#Nashies, rejoice. We are entering the golden age of our series.

[1] Why CMT picked up Nashville
[2] Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio sings Beauty and the Beast
[3] Why T Bone Burnett quit Nashville - the insane drama around the ABC show
[4] Yahoo!TV - Nashville, you're breaking my heart, and not in a good way
[5] 'Scarlett' and 'Gunnar' perform "If I didn't know better"
[6] The Magical Negro Trope


Anonymous said...

Brilliant. Everything I ever thought about this show finally put into words. Looking forward to Season 5 under new "management". Bring back the music.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Thank you, anon, love you. Love and kisses to all the fans.

alyssa wellinton said...

Hit the nail on the head. Great article, great points all around. However I am basis to 118 epi because we got some good DandR stuff but they did destroy them after that so I see your point.(writer awful PP) EXCITED for season 5 and the new show runners. Great article love your point of view.

jencat said...

Oh this whole article is just perfection! And so optimistic that it's made me almost hopeful again about the show being renewed...
I was getting very nostalgic after the final episode, but then I just saw the cast tour last month and it was just... kind of meh. They've now reached the point where Claire Bowen sings When The Right One Comes Along as a solo, which kind of seems to defeat the point when Sam Palladio is in the same set.

It has been a crazy ride over the years, and I've been so continually surprised we even made it through four series (it started in an odd year when practically nothing got cancelled and has somehow survived on music sales ever since?).

What intrigues me now is how CMT will deal with an expensive drama like this, when there are obviously going to have to be budget restrictions, as I don't think we have anything prior to base it on? Seeing as the songs from up and coming writers were so much of what made the first series, it's going to be interesting to see how they handle that. In terms of the Scarlett and Gunnar duets, Striking Matches and The Civil Wars were responsible for the iconic When The Right One Comes Along and If I Didn't Know Better. The Civil Wars ironically imploded soon afterwards, while Striking Matches have their own career now and don't necessarily need to be writing for hire.

And I don't think anyone could blame Hayden for leaving at this point (and having been given an obvious out with that cliffhanger), but it would be a huge loss to the show. That's what I want more of - her and Raina teaming up again. I'm not sure her storyline has been necessarily cruel this last year - she's certainly said in interviews that she wants to raise awareness of her illness, and she somehow always keeps Juliette sympathetic no matter how ridiculous the plot requires her to be.

Steve Trinward said...

The best news of all is: Zwick & Herskovitz at the reins. Nobody has ever made such realistic and heartfelt drama as they did on thirtysomething, and with CMT's commitment to the themes and the music (and no more need to feed the soap-opera crap of "network TV"), this has to work!

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Indeed - Ed and Marshall at the wheel, combined with a network who's publicly stated they will not meddle with the creative process, is the true gold stamp. I believe we might see some of the old names associated with the show return as well.

While Striking Matches has their own career and don't explicitely need to "write for hire" they might not be totally opposed to it - they have even played sets with Sam on stage as third voice. And, I have to believe there is no shortage of talent in Nashville. They could hire up-and-comers and also have them on their after show special singing something else, assuming we get one. That's an added incentive.

As for the budget cuts it's hard to say. Less expensive outdoor shoots? A smaller cast and less guest stars and extras? I don't know how that would add up, I'm no accountant ;-) However, CMT clearly wouldn't have made the deal without having a solution.

In closing - seeing as this post gained a certain traction on social media (thanks, Ed! Thanks, Lyndsey! ;-) - Nashville was never a show I loved to hate, but it was sometimes a show I hated to love, because as that Yahoo review said, it often broke my heart, and not in a good way. As of now, I'm looking forward to love loving it.

ChrisB said...

What a great article! I loved this show for the first year, I continued to watch it for most of the second, just for the music which rarely faulted. Finally, couldn't stand it anymore. You list ail the reasons why.

"The Wrong Song' is one of my favorites. Great for singing along to when you've had a bad day!

Holly Hinson said...

A fair assessment. I am looking forward to a revitalized Nashville under the talents of the new showrunners and more of what they always did great - the music and of course Connie Britton's prodigious talent! I hope they will stop it with the guest stars that did nothing for the show - Steven Tyler with Hayden on Crazy was a terrible combo, for example. But having said that, would not mind seeing the reappearance of Sadie or Veda's characters.

Thomas Ijon Tichy said...

Thank you, Chris! :-) Yes, the show has more good songs than you can shake a stick at. I'm really looking forward to the fifth season and it'll be a pleasure to review it. That's why I wrote this piece. I was debating with myself - do I do season recaps? Do I review every episode to have a full catalogue? (Answer to the second, no, I don't have that kind of stamina.)

Finally I decided that if I were to go any of those routes, I would've been stuck in "negative reviewing." And I hate that. I might get mad, I might vent in the fora, but this is our official review site and that's no place for that. (That's not to say I might not write some "old" episode reviews in time. It's not like every single installment post season one stunk!)

If you want to convince people who have already left a show to return it's not enough to just say "it's such a great show and now it'll be even better!" They'll know you're either lying or you don't share their taste at all. You have to address the problems and explain just why the circumstances surrounding it have changed so as to make a brilliant show not only possible but likely.