As a TV musical with a country twang and an All About Eve premise, Nashville doesn't require its audience to appreciate the music: Its greatest asset is its characters. The well-reviewed ABC drama may be a prime-time soap opera that doesn't futz with form or expectation, but its leads are richly fleshed out. Dignity and artistic tradition fuel Connie Britton's country icon Rayna James; Hayden Panettiere's upstart singer Juliette Barnes is all ambition and sex appeal. Both share a willful integrity and savvy self-preservation streak.
The fiery dynamic between the two women garners critical praise for the show and a solid viewership tune in each week. But a dozen episodes into its first season, something is amiss in the otherwise-excellent series. The badassery in the female department starkly constrasts with the men, who all rank somewhere in the sad-sack spectrum. The "end of men" trope on television is nearly a cliché at this point, but regardless of whether Nashville's trying to tap the zeitgeist or not, the weakness of its main men is so pervasive that it's become distracting.
Nashville was created by Thelma and Louise scribe Callie Khouri, and like her iconic, cliffing-jumping movie, the show revolves around the relationship of two women. But rather than depicting depths of a friendship, it details the tensions of a rivalry. Or that was the premise, but the show quickly expanded. The men are no longer sideshows or sidekicks. They take up ample screen-time, ostensibly as part of the show's attempt to earn comparisons to the varied ensemble cast in the Robert Altman opus of the same name. This expansion should engagingly complicate the plot; instead, Nashville is bloating with wimpy males.
What's strange about this is that Nashville is, overall, impeccably written. The plot lines may rarely surprise, but the characters' southern drawls all reliably deliver eloquent conversation. The problem is that only the females are outspoken in addition to being well-spoken.
Here's the proof—a list of Nashville's main men, ordered by generally increasing levels of pitifulness:
Deacon: Resident Mr. Heartbroken. Despite claims by others that he is an incredible guitar player and lyricist, all his songs are about Rayna splitting up with him 15 years beforehand.
Gunner: Is that a soul patch? Unsightly facial hair aside, he's so in love with Scarlet (Deacon's niece and another musician) that he can barely write his own material anymore.
Teddy: Rayna's husband, a sometimes philanderer, the new mayor of Nashville, an embezzler of funds and a perpetrator of the housing bubble crisis.
Avery: Scarlet's boyfriend, whose defining characteristic outside of making noise country is his all-consuming jealousy of his girlfriend's success.
It's not that the women's success comes at the expense of these guys. The central females aren't using, exploiting, copying, or stomping over these gentlemen in their scurry to the top. But the central males are holding themselves back, breath bated, awaiting their respective songstresses to decide whether they want to go on tour with them, date them, or ditch them.
Take, for example, Avery's fantastic rock-star ego trip in last week's episode. He's listening to one of his songs on the radio while driving his sexy 1960s sports car—but then, while passing his ex-girlfriend's house, gloomily cuts the sound, hangs his head, and listens to her practice with his old band that he ditched for a solo career. Sure, this gives Avery a bit of depth. It shows that he's acknowledged his sacrifices in pursuit of musical success. But it also doesn't allow him to enjoy his moment.
It's not that the women's success comes at the expense of these guys. The central males are holding themselves back, breath bated, awaiting their respective songstresses to make one call or another.
The list of slights goes on. The audience barely got to see any of Gunner's song-writing chops before it was confirmed that he'd lost his ability to write because of his unrequited love of the dollish Scarlet. Rayna refuses to sing Deacon's songs, literally denying him a voice.
To be fair, the picture for the men isn't completely hopeless. Rayna's husband Teddy finally took a stand for his family, spoke truth to power in his win for mayor, and confirmed his political autonomy—meanwhile working to prove he's a reliable husband and father. Juliette's latest beau refuses to let her off the hook after her cruel dismissal at an inopportune moment. Rayna's new music producer, Liam, is a minor figure but shows some promise. Though he did attempt to manipulate Rayna into a self-serving music contract, he's the only one to continually call Juliette on her hilarious diva nonsense.
The overwhelming emphasis, though, is on the men's fecklessness, a fact never clearer than when the two female stars sing together. Nashville's songs occupy typical country music territory: The women are wronged, and the men are no good. But this territory doesn't resemble the reality of Nashville's plot. Rayna and Julliet's big, co-written duet, "Wrong Song," cries out, "If you're looking for one more chance, a little stand-by-your-man, you've got the wrong song coming through your speakers, this one is about a liar and a cheater." The men around them, though, are generally undeserving of this of this slander. The women do most of the heart breaking.
What's frustrating is that the "Wrong Song" moment is otherwise terrific, featuring two very different characters overcoming their rivalry and bonding not over boyfriends who have wronged them, but over art and hardships in their professional lives. Whether the show's writers realize this disconnect between song and setting isn't clear. Of course, they want this show to focus on the success of its female leads; that's heartening. But the stars' success might shine more in a world filled with worthy counterparts.
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