The TV Room: Nashville Season 3, by David Bax
When ABC’s Nashville premiered back in 2012, it was one of the critical favorites of that year’s fall crop. With the pedigree of Thelma & Louise scribe Callie Khouri in the creator’s chair and headlined by Connie Britton (essentially television royalty after five years on Friday Night Lights), early reviews were glowing. Entertainment Weekly’s Ken Tucker called it “probably the best drama anyone’s made about the town and its songbirds.” The Washington Post’s Hank Stuever called it “tender perfection.” They weren’t wrong but by the end of the first season, the show seemed to be stalling out. What had been an insightful, mature, female-driven look at the divides in fame, upbringing, money and more across generations began to lose its focus. Maybe it was the enormous cast mixed with the impracticality of the standard, 20-plus episode network order but the show started to downshift into familiar soap storylines while still trying to maintain the more thoughtful air of its initial identity. The results were a bit of a bore. Luckily, for those of us who stuck around, Nashville found a new path in its second season, around the time one character had a miscarriage, pretended that she didn’t so the mayor would still marry her and then later recreated the miscarriage with a container of pig’s blood to dowse suspicions. Once the writers admitted to themselves that they were making a soap opera, they committed to being one of the best soap operas on television. But in a television genre whose chief necessity is to sustain the cliffhanger/surprise/repeat cycle, is it possible to actually be a show about something? Of course it is. And by the end of the recently concluded third season, it’s become clear that Nashville is a show about the importance of family. Not the de facto kind found in a million workplace dramas and comedies but the measurable bonds of blood and marriage.
This season saw weddings happen and not happen, babies being born, custody battles, abusive spouses and a sham marriage. It’s all basic soap stuff but it’s also all about different forms of familial links; and that’s without mentioning how Nashville even manages to connect its other commonplace setups, like terminal illness and shady business dealings, to various family ties. Before getting into all the different clan alignments of the third season, though, it might be helpful to trace this trend back to the show’s very beginning.
From the start, Nashville was set up as a clash between two figures, established country star Rayna James (Britton) and up-and-comer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panatierre). The wholesome Rayna was a mother to two daughters (Lennon and Maisy Stella) and a wife to aspiring politician Teddy (Eric Close). The nakedly ambitious Juliette, on the other hand, surrounded herself only with managers, assistants, publicists and perhaps the occasional backup dancer. She didn’t even have friends, let alone a family.
By now, quite a bit has changed. Juliette and fellow lone wolf Avery (Jonathan Jackson) have married and had a baby. Deacon (Charles Esten) has not only found out that Maddie (Lennon Stella) is his biological daughter but has finally won the commitment of Rayna. And Gunnar (Sam Palladio) – whose only previously seen family member was a criminal older brother, introduced in the first season only to be murdered a few episodes later – becomes father to a son he never knew he had (who turns out to actually be his nephew because that brother was a rapist in addition to everything else; soaps, right?). Gunnar’s story is perhaps the purest illustration of the show’s values. He went from part-time at the Bluebird Cafe to being a major songwriter successful enough to buy a house with a detached studio space but the show never fails to hammer home that his connection to young Micah (played by the coincidentally named Gunnar Sizemore) is his first priority and greatest pride.
Being a television drama, though, there are more examples of people separating from their families than coming together. Layla (Aubrey Peeples) may have become a better songwriter through the dissolution of her marriage to the closeted Will (Chris Carmack) but her personal life is in shambles. She has allowed herself to become contractually latched to Jeff Fordham (Oliver Hudson), the show’s delightfully manipulative, mustache-twirling bad guy (though it seems the nurturing Rayna may be able to free Layla from his grasp the same way she did for Teddy earlier this season). Will, meanwhile, found himself re-disowned by his father after revealing his homosexuality. Luke (Will Chase) was abandoned by Rayna on the day of their wedding. Sadie (Laura Benanti) flees town (to go back to her parents’ house, it should be noted) after shooting her abusive ex-husband. And in the most stark example, the dark reflection of Gunnar’s story, Teddy’s rise to mayoral power is matched by an increased estrangement from his wife and daughters which has led him down such a spiral that he briefly flirted with leaving the country and now finds himself under arrest on major corruption charges. Dire as things may be for Teddy, hope does exist for many of Nashville’s down and out. While gay marriage remains illegal in Tennessee, Will’s relationship with Kevin (Kyle Dean Massey) will suffice as his real family, providing Kevin forgives Will’s duplicity next season. And the disintegration of Luke’s engagement actually seems to have strengthened the bond between him and his son Colt (Keean Johnson), who has consequently become far less of a shithead.
There’s always a chance for redemption on this series. In cases where characters have wronged their families too much, that redemption is only a prelude to death, as we saw with Juliette’s mother (Sylvia Jefferies) and as we will see – if the season ending cliffhanger resolves the way I think it will – with Deacon’s sister (Dana Wheeler-Nicholson). But even these doomed folks had a chance to make amends. On Nashville, family is the perpetual silver lining.