Tuesday, 19 February 2013

There's no Nashville in Nashville

If a TV programme is named after a place, you expect to find the essence of that place running through the programme at every level. Boardwalk Empire is a classic example of this. It is intrinsically Atlantic City during prohibition, every element of the programme evoking the setting to create the atmosphere that makes the characters and storylines believable and compelling. The first episode of new crime series Vegas, is also an example of drama that uses its setting. It captured the mix of old style Golden Nugget gambling and dust-bowl desert, and the storyline belonged in that place and that time. Going back further, the mixture of cattle country and oil barons in the original Dallas may not have been a realistic portrayal of the city, but at least felt authentic until Bobby headed into the shower, and the show headed down the plughole.

With this in mind, a programme called Nashville should surely feel like it’s set in the home of Country and Western music, bringing to life the vast array of music bars and struggling musicians that define the downtown area of the city, and showing how for every Willie Nelson or Dolly Parton, there are several hundred Willie Parton’s and Dolly Nelson’s more likely to end up drunk or waiting tables than they are to give Taylor Swift or Garth Brooks a run for their money in the US charts.
It should do this, but it doesn’t.  If you watch the programme you get the impression that Nashville has only two singers and two music venues, The Bluebird Cafe, and an aircraft hanger style club somewhere on the outskirts of the city with a very large car park (good to see ABC studio’s parking lots being used in such an active way).

The Bluebird Cafe is a real bar, although both the interior and exterior in the programme are Hollywood reconstructions. For the interior they’ve decided it’s a very respectable establishment where a young and attractive crowd sit at tables just the right distance from each other for it to be vibrant but not cramped, and where no-one ever tries to leave just as a tip jar is passed round. Hell, in Nashville the TV programme they don’t even have tip jars, the bar owners presumably paying more than their real life counterparts, and not leaving musicians reliant on extra public donations to supplement the income they get from any day job, and give them an amount they can afford to live on.

Meanwhile, the exterior of the reconstructed Bluebird Cafe consists of windows and doors only, the producers feeling no need to show any other buildings in this street, let alone the rest of the city, in case it suggested something that could impact on its main characters, or that would require Nashville, and the rest of the world, to have more than two country and western singers.

And what of these singers? Well there must have been a long time when no-one new started singing, as one of them (Juliette Barnes, played by Hayden Panettiere, who will now be known for something other than being in Heroes and having a surname that sounds like a small French loaf), is young, and the other (Rayna James, played by Connie Britton) is old. That’s about all you can really say about them. Both are sanitised versions of real singers, stripped of any back story that could suggest their fame came at any cost or effort on their part.

The eldest of the two is admittedly struggling a bit now, with her new album not selling well and a tour playing to half empty venues, but it’s a relative failure. The venues are spread around the whole country, and even half full probably seat more than most Nashville musicians play to in a year. The younger one just seems to have had fame thrust upon her and unlike any currently popular singer, is on an upwards curve unlikely to be disrupted by a chance meeting with a member of One Direction.
The lack of any back story, takes away any depth the characters or storyline could have had, and turns it all into a battle between old and new, a forty-something stalwart and a twenty-something upstart. It maybe that this is why the programme is so light on location detail. The music and city are also irrelevant to the plot. The only reason for it being country and western is it’s the only type of music where people over 40 would even have a chance of competing against a younger rival. If you don’t believe me, consider the sales of Madonna’s last album in comparison to those of Lady GaGa or Nicky Minaj.

In short, it seems like the programme isn’t about Nashville at all, and the producers couldn’t be bothered to make the effort to pretend that it is, they thought that once they’d given it its name, that was it, job done, no need to capture the atmosphere of the real place, particularly when doing so would expose the storyline to scrutiny on the grounds of plausibility.

Having said all this, it’s winning awards and racking up nominations in the States, so maybe I’m in a minority of one, but for me it’s still a weak programme and a wasted opportunity.