By Alyssa Rosenberg | Women and Hollywood December 11, 2013 at 3:00PM
The ratings for Nashville, ABC's drama about the personal and professional tribulations of artists on all rungs of the career ladder in the titular city's country music scene, aren't exactly spectacular. T. Bone Burnett, the musician, songwriter, and record producer who is married to Nashville creator Callie Khouri, and who crafted the show's signature gorgeous sound, left after the first season, explaining, "Some people were making a drama about real musicians' lives, and some were making a soap opera, so there was that confusion. It was a knockdown, bloody, drag-out fight, every episode."
There is some inherent conflict in trying to craft a successful network show, but Burnett's not wrong, either. In the first half of this season alone, Nashville has thrown in several suspect subplots, including a fake pregnancy that ended in a fake marriage, complete with pig's blood. A country starlet started an affair with a millionaire record-station owner, whose wife would like to make their situation even more complicated. And, in what seems like a positively mundane subplot by comparison, a daughter helped send her own father to jail.
And yet I can't stop watching Nashville, and not because it features the kind of drama that makes me want to inhale an entire bag's worth of popcorn. The show's network-ordered soapy excesses, designed to lure in new viewers, are bringing them into what's become a remarkably sophisticated exploration of how women are processed into the entertainment-industrial complex, and what happens to them when they try to carve out independent identities within it.
If we start at the bottom of the ladder, it's striking to compare the trajectories of the show's two ingenues. Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen) began the first season of Nashville as a true naif, a waitress who loved country music, but never imagined that the poems she writes could be turned into lyrics -- or that she could be the one to sing them. But Scarlett is both physically proximate to the music industry by virtue of her job, and she has a powerful connection in the form of her uncle, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten). And whether she recognizes it or not, her abilities with words, and her exceptionally pure, clear voice, are tremendously valuable commodities. Scarlett's quickly signed to a songwriting contract, and then as a solo artist by Rayna James (the marvelous Connie Britton).
Rayna is an artist at the height of her powers and commercial viability, who's trying to establish an independent label. But as well intentioned as Rayna, who's in the midst of a creative revitalization herself, is when it comes to Scarlett's career, she ignores that her protege is neither psychologically nor technically prepared for her career to move forward so quickly. When Scarlett is first delivered to the parent record company that owns Rayna's label, she has an experience similar to Little Women's Meg March at her first fancy party: "they powdered and squeezed and frizzled, and made me look like a fashion-plate." Scarlett's shocked by the way her identity is casually cast aside by the people who are making her over, flails at a rope line, and freaks out at her first appearance opening for a superstar named Luke Wheeler (Will Chase).
Unnaturalness doesn't come naturally to everyone. And Scarlett's experience is an often heartbreaking illustration of the very real costs of success. Even after she scrapes herself off the stage and manages to recover from a booing at her first Luke Wheeler show, Nashville finds Scarlett on the phone telling her mother that she isn't cut out for the fame that's been thrust upon her, but that she feels obligated to live up to Rayna's hopes and her label's investment in her.
Contrast Scarlett's experience with Layla Grant's (Aubrey Peeples). As the winner of a major televised singing competition, Layla's effectively been through a boot camp that polished her hair, clothes and makeup, prepared her to talk to the press, and equipped her with a roster of iTunes-friendly cover versions of a popular song to give her an immediate connection with her audience. Grant's completely at ease with the seemingly simple tasks that cause Scarlett the most trouble, but that doesn't mean that she's no longer at risk of show biz chewing her up and spitting her out.
Jeff Fordham (Oliver Hudson), the bottom line-conscious executive hired to run Edgehill Records (the label that's at the heart of the show) signed Layla in part to reign in Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), a former teeny-bopper favorite who now looks at Rayna's artistic integrity with covetous eyes. The two young women quickly fall for Fordham's machinations. Barnes interprets every gesture from Grant as a threat, and tries to nuke her perceived rival at every turn instead of co-opting her or redirecting her artistic ambitions. And Grant can't resist yanking Barnes' tail, giving herself an encore while opening for Barnes, and thus cutting into Barnes' set.
On a personal level, Grant, who's in her late teens when she rises to prominence, lets Fordham set her up in a press-friendly fake romance with her labelmate and fellow opener on Juliette's tour, Will Lexington (Chris Carmack). Will is gay -- or at least bisexual -- and deeply closeted, and views the arrangement with Layla as convenient cover. But Layla, who is in the dark about Will's sexuality, can't help but fall for the facade they're putting on for the public. Watching her begin to care about Will is a strikingly sad, even cruel sight. It's just as bad to mistake a facade for your real self as to recoil from the face that other people are trying to paint on you.