Sing it, sister

Wednesday November 21, 2012

I had one transcendent television moment last week, which helped quell the disappointment of NBC delaying the premiere of "Community" indefinitely. There are likely only 13 episodes left in the life of my favorite show of all time, so maybe it’s okay to hold off the end a little while longer. How’s that for looking on the bright side?

Fall television this year has required a lot of positive spin because, honestly, I don’t like it. Last September and October, every station tossed up cool shows like glittery confetti with a few curly streamers saved for January and February. "Once Upon a Time," "Revenge," "New Girl," even "Up All Night," which doesn’t have the strongest premise, felt new and cheeky and fun. I spent a lot of time nursing my little baby and never lacked for distraction, and I was grateful for it.

This year -- meh. I like "The Mindy Project" but haven’t caught any of the other new sitcoms ("Animal Practice" is already cancelled, so there goes that). Of the dramas, I was into "Arrow" for one episode before it got silly; "Emily Owens, M.D." was a sweet yawn; and everything else seems glossily far-fetched. My husband is keen on "Revolution," but I can’t get on board with people who live without electricity or running water looking as clean as they do.

That leaves "Nashville," the show about two rival country music stars, one on the down slope of her career, the other ascending. They compete for audiences, for record label attention, for musical respect, and for a songwriter and guitar picker named Deacon (Charles Esten).

It has received slobbery reviews as the best new drama of the season. Callie Khouri, who wrote "Thelma & Louise," is billed as the creator, which has gotten people happy. The indomitable Connie Britton stars as Rayna James, the reigning and fading queen of the city, and Hayden Patinierre is Juliette Barnes, the saucy, sexy upstart making country-pop that Rayna’s two daughters love.

There are a few subplots, some more engaging than others--the Deacon mess; Rayna’s corrupt father and possibly corrupt husband joining forces; young unknowns making music and whoopee together. There are many helicopter shots of the Nashville skyline, which pretty much just looks like a city, and many glowering stares exchanged.

Can you tell I’m not totally in love with the show? I want to be. But it doesn’t have a sense of humor, twisty intrigue, or compelling sexiness. Juliette Barnes harlotry is so obvious it’s no more interesting than a Victoria’s Secret advertisement, and true sexiness has a little sadness in it, a little held-back secrecy or difficulty (Juliette’s addict-mother backstory is too broad to be convincing).

Putting the soapiness aside, "Nashville" does have one huge thing going for it: Music.

T Bone Burnett, the musical savant behind "O Brother, Where Art Thou?," is the show’s music producer. Holy horny toads in a vat of grits, does he know how to bring unbelievable songs into the world.

Most of Rayna and Juliette’s early tunes are predictable, as each is established musically for the audience. (The actresses actually sing and each sounds pretty good, if not extraordinary enough to be superstars.) At the end of the second episode, after poor, lost Deacon has bounced from his long, tortured, unfulfilled relationship with Rayna to the skinny-dipping hee-haw of Juliette, the action settles at The Bluebird Café.

This joint stands in for all the cool music dives in the city, where the newbies and the famous trade the stage. It’s, you know, authentic. Deacon performs here regularly, playing the songs Rayna will never record (see: tortured relationship). He’s up on stage in front of a full house, with Juliette in the audience expecting him to invite her to sing a duet they wrote that day.

Rayna slips in by the bar. Deacon sees her, and he calls her up to the stage. Juliette, humiliated and crushed, holds back angry, prideful tears.

Rayna and Deacon begin to sing a song they wrote ages ago, when they were a couple. It’s slow, pedal steel ringing in the background, with haunting minor harmonies and a looping chorus that promises bittersweet, coy loneliness: "no one will ever love you -- like I do."

The song overwhelms them and the careful mazes they’ve constructed around old betrayals and secrets. They are surprised, transported, wounded. It’s sexy and impossible and sad. It’s terrific.

If "Nashville" keeps showcasing music like this, I’ll keep watching. For Pete’s sake, I’ve stuck with "Glee" for going-on four years and I don’t even like most of those Autotuned numbers. These songs, though, they are the magic that makes me believe art is possible, even on 2012 TV.


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