"Treme" embarked on its final season Sunday. "Smash" is gone. "Glee" and "Nashville" soldier on, but the bloom of pop-cultural significance is off their respective roses. With this age of the hour-long musical television series fast coming to a close, I set out searching for its origins, and I found it at the movies. Robert Altman's "Nashville" (1975) may be the finest American film of the 1970s -- and the first modern TV musical, too.
"Nashville" weaves a world from flats and sharps, major and minor keys, from singing waitresses, high school marching bands, and country starlets. There's rock, folk, country, and gospel; Gwen Welles' tinny Sueleen Gay and Karen Black's soulful Connie White; intimate acoustic and big band bombast. Dispensing with non-diegetic music in favor of studio sessions and the Grand Ole Opry, Altman and writer Joan Tewkesbury fashion a kind of "pure" musical -- thanks to Jim Webb's multi-track sound system, even the overlapping dialogue possesses a symphonic quality, always operating in several registers at once.
Of course, "Nashville" wasn't made for television, and two of television's most iconic series of the pre-"Nashville" era -- Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" (1952-1989) and "The Partridge Family" (1970-1974) -- placed music at their core. But reconsidering Altman's film, now available in a new DVD/Blu-ray dual edition from the Criterion Collection, it seems, in the other sense of the phrase, made for (today's) television. It's sprawling and anarchic, shifting gears from sorrow to satire and back again, featuring so many main characters (24) and subplots that it bears more resemblance to the ensemble complications of "Glee" or the microcosmic New Orleans of "Treme" than the focused melodrama of "Meet Me in St. Louis" and "Singin' in the Rain." You might even say "Nashville" is one long television episode. The opening titles frame the film as an infomercial promoting an omnibus album, playing "right before your very eyes without commercial interruption" as if you'd recorded it on your DVR.
If "Nashville" suggests, and at times surpasses, serial television's rangy loose ends, television's recent musical dramas suggest the imprints of "Nashville," too. The band of eccentrics driving the note-perfect first season of "Glee" inhabit the fringes of the high school hierarchy as surely as L.A. Joan (Shelley Duvall) and BBC Opal (Geraldine Chaplin) sidle alongside country music fame. At least at first, ABC's "Nashville" and NBC's "Smash" aspired to a similarly detailed, lived-in authenticity, balancing the specific patois of hermetic worlds against the demands of network broadcasting. "Treme," closest kin to Altman's epic, blends politics and music to forge an equally ambitious, sometimes slack portrait of a city's multifaceted melody.