Are TV's New Country-Music Shows Really About the Recession?

By Anthony Easton

ABC's Nashville and Malibu Country grapple in different ways with a problem that programs like Dallas never had to face: looming financial ruin.

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ABC

Nashville, a glossy new evening soap, and Malibu Country, a broad new sitcom, have some things in common: a country music background, middle-aged women as protagonists, and a presence on ABC's evening schedule. But beneath those superficial similarities is a deeper connection—a fascination with money—that make these shows worth at least a cursory viewing. The two programs happen to center around the tensions between different generations of women, but that tension really stems from the uncomfortable fact that being rich doesn't always make you as powerful as you want—and that being more powerful doesn't always make you as rich as you need.

Malibu Country, though, is the far worse show, and that's in part because it feels like its economic reality is ported in from at least a half decade ago. To spot the differences in the two programs is to spot the differences between how we used to relate to our wallets and how we do now.

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Malibu Country tells the story of a singer-songwriter Reba Gallagher (played by Reba McEntire), who's married to a much more successful performer, Bobby (Jeffrey Nordling). For 20 years, the Reba's has lived in her superstar husband's shadow. But that all ends when it comes to light that he's had an affair with a back-up singer. Instead of standing by her man, Reba humiliates him at a press conference. After the divorce, she discovers that he has maintained a Malibu beach pad.

The whole show rests on this gag: her move from Nashville to LA. But like everything in Malibu Country, it's utterly shopworn and strains credulity. McEntire's singer-songwriter is too ignorant not to note the purchase of a multi-million-dollar piece of real estate? She's been around the music business for decades, but doesn't realize how difficult it is to get back into it? And after all that time, she has no sympathetic contacts to lend her a hand? It's all a stretch, stemming from a preposterous cluelessness about how wealth really works. There are people who live this way of course, but many of them got their comeuppance around the same time as Bernie Madoff.

But the country soap in this case succeeds where the country sitcom fails. From the previews and advertising materials, it would seem that Nashville is merely a protracted catfight between the established, middle-aged country diva and the young upstart (and because critics are obsessed with the meta, between someone like Faith Hill or Martina McBride and someone like Miranda Lambert or Taylor Swift): genre purity versus genre corruption. While there are hints of this, Nashville's producers and writers know better than to lean on a clichéd conflict. The show's actually a surprisingly trenchant critique of late-recession capitalism and of the music business in a world of easy digital distribution.

This doesn't mean that the sexual tensions aren't there, or the drug use, family intrigue, politics, or even the bitchy one-liners that the audience has come to expect. But consider Dallas, a classic example of the genre. Oil oozed from the show, lubricating everything with a slick shine. There was no real risk for Ewings that the money would dry up, because they operated in a resource-based economy, wherein something very tangible was used to acquire other tangible things. And indeed, in the '80s it often seemed like the money would never run out, and if by some curse it did, there were other ways of gaining more of it.

Malibu Country's pocketbook conflicts come from ignorance, but Nashville understands that there's just less cash to go around.

But in 2012's Nashville (both the show and the city it depicts), the money is at risk of running out; in fact, it may not have been there in the first place. Connie Britton plays Reyna James, the aforementioned country diva. Her 20-year career is skidding to a halt. The singles aren't charting, the tour isn't selling, she can't afford her house, and her husband lost a lot of money during the real-estate market crash of '07. Decades ago, her father secretly bankrolled her first album, which became such a success that it birthed a label, now preparing to drop her. For a variety of complicated and (thus far) unclear reasons, the father has spent the last two decades cajoling her to quit singing. He also keeps trying to loan her money. (In one scene, a courier delivers a half-a-million dollar check to James's home. As she holds it, the camera lovingly closes in on the numbers.)

Reyna's rival is Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), a pop star who plays country. She knows how the new business works. We see her approving perfumes, making viral videos, putting songs up on iTunes, and dispatching potential singles with a pro's quickness. She is selling out stores and concert tours; she's doing so well, in fact, that both her people and Reyna's people suggest a Reyna/Barnes co-headlining tour, which the elder singer refuses.

All of this is plot—plot written and supervised by Thelma & Louise writer Callie Khouri and shot by veterans who worked on Dallas. But it's important that the rivalry is not about men or sex, but about money. There is less money for Renya, but also for Juliette, who has ascended in an age when auxiliary business streams for musicians are a necessity, rather than a bonus. That's different from the throwback nature of McEntire's pocketbook problems in Malibu Country, which stem from sheer ignorance of where money goes and where it is coming from. Five years after the financial crisis, in an election season that's made the reality of our economic malaise inescapable, a riches-to-rags story based on obliviousness rings false. The problem these days, as Nashville understands, isn't that we don't know where our cash went. It's just that there's a lot less to go around.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/11/are-tvs-new-country-music-shows-really-about-the-recession/264464/