The concept behind ABC’s new one-hour drama, Nashville, is a bit of a hard sell for a leftist. As a genre, country music is the province of the right. Many of its stars are actually registered Republicans, these days. And it’s not just the Hank Williams demographic: Taylor Swift, LeeAnn Rimes, Sara Evans. It doesn’t help that the perception (if not necessarily the reality) of its audience evokes pickup trucks, NASCAR and the Confederate flag, and the songs themselves rely on images of a ruggedly individualistic (not to mention lily-white and macho) America to capture hearts. I grew up with parents who were (Canadian) country-music fans, and still I know that much about it: it’s a particular world unto itself, and not one that, as an adult, I’m always eager to go back to.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I’ve found myself loving the show. As you probably gathered from the title alone, it’s about country music stars, and it certainly traffics in some showbiz-about-showbiz clichés. On the one hand it gives us Rayna James, played by Connie Britton, an established star in whom the establishment is losing faith. On the other, Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, is a starlet who senses, already, that she can’t keep the teenybopper routine up forever. Those are pretty blunt archetypes to start with, ones that scream “catfight” in a show that could easily have been high camp.
But their rivalry was perhaps overstated in ABC’s promotional campaign. The rise of Juliette’s star is coinciding with the fall of Rayna’s, sure, and it has been transposed onto a romantic rivalry over Rayna’s soulful songwriter Deacon (Charles Esten). But the warfare is low-level—on Wednesday’s episode, when Rayna and Juliette briefly crossed paths the insults came fast and were more underminery than missile strike. “That girl has 500 miles of nerve,” Rayna observed in a half-compliment, as Juliette walked away, and she was right. The smoothness of exchange is a credit to both Britton (aptly termed “the blue states’ red-state dream girl” by The New Republic’s Noreen Malone for her turn in Friday Night Lights) and Panettiere (who I’d never have called a particular talent until now). But the intelligence in the way they’ve been scripted, as successful women on television, feels somehow fresh in its subtlety.
That finesse comes, I think, from the show’s creator, a woman named Callie Khouri, who prior to this was best known as the screenwriter behind Thelma & Louise. It’s been a long road since then, by way of movies like The Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood, but the sort of level-headedness that permeated that first melodrama prevails in Nashville too. It’s funny to say that now, that that particular movie was level-headed. Younger readers might not recall the brouhaha around Thelma & Louise when it first appeared, when it became a staple of political commentators everywhere. Male political commentators were so anxious about this could feel the shaking in the text. One now-forgotten critic for Commentary actually titled his review “Killer Bimbos,” I kid you not.
Now that we live in a post–Terminator 2 and Buffy the Vampire Slayer world, one in which the “kickass” heroine is the norm, you could say that female aggression is no longer quite such anathema to the culture. But in the kickass paradigm, the female heroine gets to engage in cartoonish retaliatory violence—the kind of thing the real world would never put up with—and in that way poses no real threat. The warrior women are positioned as outsiders and subversives and usually, their heroism must be kept under seal. Even in something like Mad Men, where we are meant to quietly root for Peggy Olson, and to some degree Joan Holloway, relies on their lack of success in the matter of structural change for our sympathy. If Peggy could and did steamroller Don Draper on a regular basis, the culture might be less prone to admire her pluck.
So to get back to Nashville: the interesting thing about the way Rayna and Juliette play out their aggression is that it positions them as aggressive professionals, and models a dynamic you could see playing out in the real world. Sure, as I said above, there’s a romantic element here, but Juliette’s interest in Deacon maps onto a desire to have him write songs for her. She’s hoping that with her he’ll have the same torch-like chemistry he shares with Rayna because it will make her work better. The connection is intricate and complicated, and the subtlety and grace with which the show addresses it rather unique. The show takes as granted that both Rayna and Juliette are in control of their professional lives, and the men secondary to those concerns.
Of course, subtlety and grace, not to mention a careful understanding of gender and power dynamics, are hardly what network television is known for. And one wonders if a show as careful and intelligent and this can possibly survive the fall gauntlet as a result. One indication that it won’t came when the ratings for the most recent episode came out: the audience for Nashville had already fallen 29 percent. People came for a catfight and got a real power struggle, and that isn’t what anybody comes to the rodeo for.
Michelle Dean blogs about culture for The Nation. Check out her previous post on Hilary Mantel's second Man Booker win.