When good TV goes bad: how Nashville turned country music into a trashy panto

The super-soapy drama didnt so much jumping the shark as partake in a furious exhibition of shark dressage that continues to this day

In October 2012, Taylor Swift abandoned her cowboy boots with fourth album Red. Country music needed a new savior: a bankable female act to split a sea of indistinguishable bros. She didn’t arrive toting an acoustic guitar down Music Row, but via a glitzy drama named Nashville that premiered that month.

And there were two of them. Made by Thelma and Louise writer Callie Khouri, what looked like a show about the vicious rivalry between faded superstar Rayna James( Connie Britton) and the ruthless, rising Juliette Barnes( Hayden Panettiere) was more complicated than that. The tirelessly compassionate Rayna actually coaxed Juliette through endless crises: shoplifting, rash decisions and her drug-addicted mother’s death in a murder-suicide pact.

Nashville was relentlessly soapy, relying on collisions, love triangles, paternity suits and tantrums. But its first series had depth, exploring a city at the heart of US culture with a feminist lens on its music industry( both starrings and amateurs) and scathing insight into government corruption, via Rayna’s crooked mayor spouse. It felt like cable drama on network TV and attracted appropriate heavyweights: Powers Boothe as Rayna’s dastardly father, Lamar Wyatt; The Wire’s Robert Wisdom as deputy mayor Coleman Carlisle. Plus, it had killer songs.

It also sensitively tackled craving: to alcohol( Rayna’s lifelong flame Deacon Claybourne ), pills( Juliette and meek Scarlett O’Connor) and destructive relationships( literally everyone ). By season two, however, the display was losing its shit: memorable scenes included the mayor’s mistress buying a pail of pig’s blood to fake a miscarriage and blackmail him.( She got a soapy comeuppance: DEATH .) The city angle faded. The villains were pure panto: Rayna’s slimy label boss Jeff Fordham; conniving ex-talent-show-star Layla Grant. Scenes lasted about 30 seconds, the drama provided by someone walking in at an inopportune moment to offer some more expository dialogue. There was so much dry shareholder chat that you could understand why so many superstars behave badly. It had an appalling reliance on the” magical negro” trope: black characters who aid white characters’ self-discovery. And when all its songwriter characters achieved reputation, the stakes dissolved.

And yet Nashville was wonderful. Daft, campy magnificence, anchored by empathic leadings( such as Chris Carmack as gay vocalist Will Lexington) who softened its ridiculousness. There was no single shark-jump; this was shark dressage, and beautiful to watch- until it wasn’t. To pinpoint exactly when Nashville fell off, you’ll need a lot of pins and a hardy constitution for trash Tv. Was it when you mourned Jeff, the worst character, falling to his death? Or when Rayna’s bratty daughter Maddie relentlessly sought liberation? For me, it came in season five, when Rayna died- at performer Connie Britton’s request!- following a car-crash-related coma( she’d already survived one in the opening season ). Cue a neverending scene where each character saying goodbyes felt like a funeral for the show’s good sense. A sixth series starts next year, but the old Nashville can’t come to the phone right now. Why? Because it’s dead !

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