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‘Nashville’ Needs to Solve Its Character Problem

Last night on Nashville, we met yet another character: Scarlett’s abusive mother, Beverly. But wait, casual fans of the show may say, which one is Scarlett again?

I could say “the blonde one,” but that would not narrow things down (and borders on sexist). The alt-country newcomer who’s been slaving over a heartfelt debut for Rayna’s new label, Highway 65, Scarlett’s been having a helluva time tapping in to her inner demons since her producer/flame, the Dan Auerbach-esque Liam, left town. His replacement, surprisingly, was someone with a familiar face: her ex, Avery, who’s now with Juliette. Oh, and Scarlett is now opening for Juliette — that is, until last night, when Beverly tore through town (and Scarlett) and poor Scarlett self-destructed right there on stage. The cause of Beverly’s meltdown: Deacon, her brother and the biological father of Rayna’s eldest daughter, Maddie — a paternity revelation that came to light publicly on last night’s episode when Deacon, Rayna, and her ex-husband Teddy went on TV to confirm the rumors. Which got out after Rayna’s superstar boyfriend Luke’s son (or rather, his son’s friend) leaked a video Maddie made using Deacon’s last name instead of her presumed father’s. And those are just a few of the storylines.

Overwhelmed? Yeah, me too.

There’s a lot to love about Nashville, despite what a dip in ratings during its second season may suggest. The ABC show has always been a glorified soap opera with a killer original soundtrack, but this season’s addition of leads and recurring characters is making it a challenge to connect with. Last week, closeted cowboy crooner Will married his beard Layla, his secret unbeknownst to her, and now this week neither of them are even featured in the episode. The writers spent this entire season fleshing out Will’s character and career, giving him a past and a future, enemies and allies. A gay country star, whose star is indeed rising in the mainstream, is one of the most taboo places the show could go. For that, I applaud them. But when they put that on the back-burner in order to have a Maury-esque showdown between baby daddies on Good Morning America, I start wonder what it is that I like so much about Nashville. 

Nashville's season one cast. Remember all those people? (ABC)

Nashville’s Season 1 cast. Remember these people? (ABC)

Elsewhere in last night’s episode, titled “Crazy,” Zoe considers a West Coast move to jump-start her career as a back-up singer. As we saw last season with Coleman, Teddy’s mayoral opponent and Deacon’s sobriety sponsor, Nashville’‘s alternative to death is relocation (in actual Nashville, LA is perceived as a nail in the country coffin). It would be a shame to see Zoe go, seeing as they’ve spent the last few episodes developing her as more than just Scarlett’s ex-best friend and Gunnar’s girlfriend. But hey, it’s better than the alternative. This season alone we’ve seen two mostly flat, albeit recurring, characters — Teddy’s new bride Peggy and Rayna’s daddy Lamar — killed off. I’m starting to wonder if they were senseless killings, merely to make room for new characters to radically change up storylines in a short amount of time but never get developed themselves. You know, the Jeff Fordhams, the Luke Wheelers, the Layla Grants, the Charles Wentworths, the Megan Vannoys. They seem like interesting people, but I have little sense of who they are besides “love interest,” “good guy,” “bad guy,” etc.

When Nashville started, I found Rayna and Juliette to be easy-to-spot archetypes within modern country music: Shania Twain-meets-Martina McBride and Carrie Underwood-meets-Taylor Swift. As the show has moved forward, they’ve grown into nuanced amalgamations of Nashville types, but at the same time, vividly distinct in their backstories full of strife. And with last night’s breakdown and performance of what’s quickly becoming her signature song (“Black Roses”), Scarlett is well on her way to joining Rayna and Juliette as the protagonists of an ensemble show. Deacon, too, has developed into his own character outside of Rayna’s sideman and a recovering addict. The Maddie-Deacon storyline has showed a side of him that was downright nonexistent when Nashville launched. His regretful speech about never getting to hold his baby daughter on last night’s episode was among the most subtly touching moments of a series that is anything but subtle.

All of these characters — Rayna, Juliette, Scarlett, and even Deacon with his solo career — have benefited from singing songs that are actually great this season. More than that, viewers are coming to love them through repeat synching on the show. Last night was at least the third time viewers heard “Black Roses,” while Juliette’s big kiss-off, “Don’t Put Dirt On My Grave Just Yet,” has played a key role in her career growing pains. Meanwhile, Rayna’s fun-loving ode to her relationship with Luke, “This Time,” is as catchy and full of personality as a country hit needs to be to actually make it to radio — though it likely never will, which ultimately keeps Nashville from finding a secondary market with non-TV-watching music fans. (Despite release through country label mainstay Big Machine, the show’s soundtrack performance on country charts remains relatively weak, seeing as it’s based on digital downloads almost exclusively.)

The music, not the drama it seems, is what the series will focus on for the rest of Season 2: first comes a concert special, Nashville: On The Record, airing April 23 in lieu of an episode; then a three-date mini-tour featuring Scarlett, Deacon, Avery, Gunnar, and Will, kicking off April 25; the May 16 season finale will also feature scenes from an upcoming concert the cast will tape in Nashville. It’s a nice idea in theory, though they’d do better to devote the air time and energy to character development instead of song promotion. Nashville is, after all, a TV show first.

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