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Although Nashville has skirted around the issue for a few years, this season it has done a cannonball off the high dive right into its soap status. It might have pretended to be a drama about women trying to make it in the country music industry at first, and it still has moments that transcend how pedestrian this sounds, but it is a soap. A soooooaaaaap. This “winter finale” is chock-full of paternity mysteries, possible overdoses, infidelity, broken weddings, and even a threatening long-term illness. It’s six months of Days Of Our Lives crammed into an hour.

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Not that this doesn’t make the show compelling, but compelling in a cartoony, over-the-top way. Let’s face it, this season was headed there right around the time Juliette attacked her own hair with scissors. Season three started out with Rayna making her choice between Luke and Deacon, while offering some valuable flashback moments, but come on, there was no actual choice. Because Rayna going straight to Deacon = no drama. Rayna and Deacon pining for each other while the cracks in the Rayna-Luke relationship grow ever wider = lotsa drama.

It’s no coincidence that Juliette and Avery have the best storyline going right now: Both these actors started out in soaps. Hayden Panettiere even knows from life-threatening illnesses, as her little Lizzie Spaulding had leukemia on Guiding Light. Jonathan Jackson, of course, was Lucky Spencer on General Hospital. So they can sell soapy storylines. Hell, they even embrace them. The show certainly has done an excellent job of incorporating Hayden Panettiere’s pregnancy (and it’s a relief not to have her hide behind couches and lamps). This season Juliette has completely sold her Patsy Cline performance, opened her heart to Avery, and in a scene that made me actually cackle last week, stalked him in a hilariously covered-up outfit and an old-person scooter. Avery and Juliette’s friendship could never work out, even though they started out as amazing friends: Now they love each other, and there’s no disguising it. If we didn’t get the big wedding this episode, I’m rather happy with the little one did see.

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Anyone who has ever turned on a television before could have predicted that Rayna was going to throw Luke under the bus, and I liked Will Chase’s performance as he smashed some chairs afterwards and yelled, “Get off of my property!” Rayna and Luke haven’t been on the same page since she stole the show at the CMAs, and their parenting views never did match up. But throughout this episode—and in a continuation of last week, when TV cameras invaded her home for Christmas—Rayna wonders what has happened to her life, spouting to Tandy, “I don’t recognize my life anymore,” and “I just want to make sure it’s my life I’m living.”

Rayna wants to be successful and a superstar, otherwise why would she sell Deacon out for a Rolling Stone cover? But I don’t think Nashville gets enough credit for the drama it spends weeks weaving together: Rayna has to hit it big with her Highway 65 label because she’s sunk every dime she has in to it (and even a mortgage on her house, if I’m not mistaken). Although she’s been famous for a while, the paparazzi lifestyle was never for her, and she’s always been positioned as a great mother who puts her girls first. Seeing a glimpse of them turning into terrifying boarding-school babies who fly home in private jets was probably enough for her to run scurrying away from Luke’s ranch to her modest Nashville mansion. At the end, of course, she most likely is driving toward Deacon …

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Who, in the show’s soapiest twist of all, now finds out he has cirrhosis of the liver and a white blood cell count indicating cancer: The classic soap tradition of keeping two star-crossed lovers apart, when everyone in the world knows that they are destined to be together. Deacon and Rayna have been through years of struggle at this point: Can’t we just see what things would be like for them as a functional couple, for longer than the few weeks we got in season one? Instead, undoubtedly, Deacon will turn Rayna away because he doesn’t want his sick self to be a burden, and then she will find out about his illness accidentally, and go to him and zzzzzz … sorry, I dozed off there for a second. Deacon pouting for a half-season over Rayna’s impending nuptials was a waste of Deacon, and I’m not looking forward to his continued surliness as he fights an illness and stays away from the one person who makes him happy.

Sharing space in the ”disappointing” category: The Layla-Jeff pairing of last week was kind of intriguing, as it showed a human side of Jeff’s usually reptilian self; also, Layla’s experience as a beard wife was transporting her from pop fluff into Joni Mitchell Lite. Instantly squashing this momentum, Jeff’s attempt to break things off at Will’s urging may lead to the end of Layla: She looked pretty still in that pool. This show has many Valley Of The Dolls moments (people throwing things at mirrors, Scarlett’s stage-fright breakdown), and Jeff handing Layla some pills “to take the edge off” is just the latest.

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Again, Nashville is belaboring storylines that have been going on for far too long: Will has been struggling with his sexuality since he faced down a train on the tracks, and as recently as last week, learned that there might actually be more to gay life than anonymous sex, in a welcome scene at the hipster fest. But instead of realizing how much his closeted self is hurting not only him but his fake wife, and coming clean, he sleeps with the skanky reporter. Just in the past month, real-life country stars Ty Herndon and Billy Gilman have come out. Will heading down a similar positive path would be a lot more interesting than his current mass-destructive behavior. It would be a shame if we lost Layla just as she was getting interesting, but hey, we’ll always have that image of her wasted self sobbing in her Santa hat. And her death, actually, might finally be enough of a shock to jolt Will into some positive action.

Is Jeff’s refusal to call 911, and phone his mayor friend instead, the slimiest move he’s ever pulled? And is the only other available plotline for Teddy his relationship with a prostitute? Even Teddy says, “That’s just messed up.”

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Also needlessly taking up valuable screen time: Gunnar’s custody suit. The only interesting development here, as some predicted a while back, is that Micah turned out to be Gunnar’s nephew, so that still means he has familial ties. The second Gunnar’s lawyer tells him not to let it get contentious, you know it’s going to get contentious. Micah’s grandma was kind of bossy, but for Gunnar, who has no family and just lost his girlfriend to L.A., it was nice to see him hang out with some sort of relatives. And he and Scarlett share a pivotal emotional connection as they cling to each other toward the end of the episode, both crying for different reasons.

Despite all its craziness, Nashville still manages to find dramatic moments like that one that resonate. For all the foolish plots like Scarlett attempting to help a homeless person, there’s a storyline featuring Rayna and Deacon, with two actors so emotionally invested in each other it’s hard to believe you’re not watching a real relationship. Nashville’s cast and music often either rise above the source material (Peggy and the pork blood: never forget), or invest it with so much dramatic value that it’s impossible to look away. Which makes it all the more frustrating when it gets predictable (and honestly, a chimp could have foreseen most of these developments this week), but we’ll still tune back in in January to see where it all leads.

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Season three “winter finale”: B-

Season three overall so far: B

Stray observations:

  • The Nashville Christmas album is now available: Anyone who doubts Jonathan Jackson’s greatness can head straight to his version of “Baby, Please Come Home.” He spends a lot of his Nashville time on ballads, so it’s wonderful to hear his vocals full-on here. The worst cut, by far, is Connie Britton’s “You’re A Mean One, Mr. Grinch,” a truly regrettable song selection, because we know she can sound awesome in cuts like “This Time.”
  • Glad to see the brief return of Tandy.
  • What do you think: Is this the end of Layla?
  • Anyone looking forward to the Sadie Stone abusive husband storyline? Thought not. The bonding moment between her and Luke and the CMAs makes me think that they’ll be rebounding with each other pretty soon. Nashville = tiny dating pool.
  • I enjoyed Scarlett and Deacon’s Memphis detour, especially Charles Esten’s Elvis impersonation.
  • Thanks for joining me on this brief Nashville check-in. Even with all the Nashville insanity, I still make sure to catch up with it every week, which either says something about me or the show, I’m not sure which.

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