I’ll never not watch Nashville. I like the music, I like Rayna James, I really like Deacon Claybourne, I like the possibilities of Will Lexington, I like Glenn’s wig. I like the show despite the fact that it’s never had an episode better than the pilot written by Callie Khouri. And I continue to harbor the suspicion that Khouri has never, for whatever combination of behind-the-scenes reasons, been able to do the show I would guess she wants to do — a looser, randier, wilder show.
I also like Empire a lot. And ever since this other soap-opera-with-pop-music story premiered to huge ratings and the immediate devotion of its audience, I’ve wondered: Do the folks behind Nashville ever look at Empire and think, “Oh, that’s how we should have done a music-industry story!”
With this in mind, here are a few ideas — as Nashville airs its final episodes of the season and prepares for, I hope, a fourth-season renewal — for what Nashville could learn from Empire going forward.
1. Burn Through Stories One thing Empire viewers immediately responded to was the way any given hour could have a half-dozen sub-plots, four of which would be resolved before the episode was over, with two or three cliffhangers dangling for the following week. Nashville, by contrast, has the plotting pace of As the World Turns — it took nearly two seasons to kill off big-daddy Lamar, and I’m still not clear on whether Scarlett has conquered her stage fright or not yet. Nashville really needs to pick up its pace. Get Will fully out of the closet. Either give Layla something to do or have her move to L.A. (and off the show) to try to jump-start that sensitive-singer-songwriter career.
2. Juliette Isn’t Cookie Enough It took the cliché of raging pregnancy hormones to crank Juliette up to a level that is approximately Cookie at afternoon-nap stage. Juliette Barnes was supposed to be a fresh, livid take on every Nashville bad-girl from Tanya Tucker to Carlene Carter to LeAnn Rimes. But depending on the week, Juliette is either an egomaniacal brat or a sensitive, caring victim of a terrible childhood trying to nurture healthy relationships. She needs to be a more assiduously imperious force — the contrast between Hayden Panettiere’s diminutive stature and her character’s volcanic capabilities is a great dynamic that’s never been sufficiently exploited.
3. Rayna Isn’t Lucious Enough By which I mean: Too often now, Rayna is a reactor rather than an initiator of dramatic action. The initial concept of Rayna James was: fierce, take-charge pro, a creative dynamo who was not going into middle age as a music-industry discard, but rather an artist who would reinvent herself through her own creativity and the mentoring of younger disciples. You know, just like Lucious Lyon. But slowly, surely, most of those characteristics have been stripped from Rayna. In an attempt to make her vulnerable, she’s come off weak. One week, she’s the aggressive president of her own indie label, the next she’s a sobbing attachment to a bigger star, Luke Wheeler. Or a lesser star, the cancer-stricken Deacon, who we know is THE LOVE OF HER LIFE but Nashville keeps them apart because — well, because Nashville thinks the show would implode if two people experienced happiness together. This is not good faith in your own storytelling, Nashville.
4. Use Your Guest Stars Better This week, Nashville is touting an appearance by Christina Aguilera. I can pretty much assure you, Nashville: No country music fan is going to tune in to Nashville to see Xtina, and no Aguilera fan cares about Nashville. It’s a lose-lose booking. Other Nashville cameos, from Reba McEntire to Carrie Underwood, have been used as smiley faces for the cameras to pan across quickly. Note that Empire used Courtney Love brilliantly, as a washed-up, rare white signing to Lucious’s label — a kind of Janis Joplin-ized Teena Marie — to be redeemed by Cookie’s canniness. And Mary J. Blige was a woman from Lucious’s past. And Patti LaBelle was deployed as the force of nature she is. In short, they added something other than a guest-star-promo to the show — understand, Nashville?
5. The Music Shouldn’t Be Used in Place of Characterization If there’s one area in which Nashville is better than Empire, it’s the show’s music. First under T Bone Burnett as musical director and subsequently under Buddy Miller, Nashville has done a great job of presenting a wide range of sounds: peppy pop-country, hardcore Americana, twangy folk, and tear-in-one’s-beer weepers. Nearly every week, I hear a song and say, “Why isn’t that a hit in real life?” By contrast, Empire’s mixture of hip-hop, R&B, and soul is both uneven (two words: “Drip Drop”) and too often used to trill plot-points we already know (i.e. every tortured autobiographical lyric Jamal croons). In the current Nashville season, however, there’s been an increasing over-use of characters singing pointed lyrics to each other accompanied by dagger-glares — from, say, Gunnar to Scarlett — that say, “Get it, get it?!?” This is a cheesy way to proceed, Nashville.
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6. Whatever Happened to Deacon’s Alcoholism? If there’s one great locus of melodrama Nashville could have explored, it’s Deacon’s battle with the bottle. It’s a classic country trope rooted in reality, from Hank Williams to Keith Whitley, but one that had a good modern spin when Coleman Carlisle was around as Deacon’s AA sponsor. Look at the way Empire deals with substance abuse: Characters consume booze and drugs in copious amounts and face the consequences in varying degrees of suffering — or with superhuman powers of healing. It’s a crazy approach, but it’s a crazy they commit to. Nashville could go in a different but effective direction by taking the problem seriously. The show should never lose sight, once Deacon inevitably recovers from cancer, that booze is a better obstacle to place between him and Rayna than another man.
7. Get Rid of Characters Hey, Nashville, did you see the way Lucious murdered Bunkie in the pilot? Did you see the way faithful Malick Yoba was dispatched late in the season? Why in the world does Nashville continue to hang onto characters who long ago out-lived their usefulness? There’s no reason why Mayor Teddy should still be around. Ditto Jeff Fordham, who’s now a simpering villain who’s lost his potency. On the other hand, sometimes Nashville gets rid of the wrong character: Did we really see the last of Sadie Stone last week, just when she and Luke were circling each other in a potentially juicy Dolly/Porter, George/Tammy, Tim/Faith kind of romance-and-musical team-up? If so, big mistake, Nashville!
For Nashville going forward, to thrive it needs to summon up the gumption to take on the Nashville music industry’s pieties the way Empire is fearless about exposing the hypocrisy and glorious cynicism of its pop-music world. Nashville needs to both streamline and explode itself, the way Empire began with a plan to constantly reinvent itself from week to week. I’m rooting for you Nashville; it’s time for you to blow some stuff up.
Nashville airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on ABC.