Country Weak

Why Is No One Watching ABC’s Critically Acclaimed Drama ‘Nashville’?

Nashville is one of the fall season’s few critical sensations. So why is no one watching? Jace Lacob on the reasons why ABC’s country music drama isn’t a ratings success—yet.

Andrew MacPherson / ABC

The fall television season has been largely disappointing. Few new shows have captured the passion or imagination of viewers, and the war of comedies on the broadcast networks—with no less than three separate comedy blocks on Tuesday nights!—has turned out to be little more than a minor skirmish.

So it’s all the more disheartening that one of the few bright spots on the fall schedule, ABC’s Nashville—which was picked up for a full season earlier this week—seems to be suffering as much hardship as a heroine in a country song.

Despite overwhelming critical praise—a Metacritic score of 84, signifying “universal acclaim”—and glowing reviews, Nashville launched with an audience of 8.9 million viewers and a 2.8 rating among adults 18–49, numbers that dipped in subsequent weeks. (The Nov. 7 broadcast, however, showed an 11 percent uptick, which brought the show back to hovering around the 2.0 mark.)

The show, from Thelma & Louise writer Callie Khouri and starring Friday Night LightsConnie Britton and HeroesHayden Panettiere, revolves around the often cutthroat musical and political scenes of Nashville, Tenn., centering on a troika of talented women during the ebb and flow of their country music careers. Britton’s Rayna James was the reigning queen of country, but she has discovered that consumers’ tastes have changed, and her stardom long ago stopped burning white-hot. Panettiere’s brash young upstart Juliette Barnes is the latest pop sensation, but she yearns for legitimacy and creative freedom. And then there’s Clare Bowen’s naive songwriter Scarlett O’Connor, who is plucked from obscurity when she duets one night with her fellow Bluebird Café waiter Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio).

Under the watchful eye of Khoury and her writing staff, Nashville is more than just a Glee clone in cowboy boots. The show skillfully explores the cost of living in the public eye, the lengths one has to go to in order to hold onto precarious financial success, the often incestuous Gordian knot of relationships in the country music capital, and the bitter pang of love lost. One subplot has Panettiere’s Juliette dealing with her junkie mother, a meth addict who careens from caterwauling to begging for forgiveness. Indeed, while Britton as always impresses with a lithe naturalism, Panettiere’s performance is surprisingly one of many reasons to watch. She infuses Juliette with a rare sympathetic streak despite her awful behavior, whether she’s trying to steal Rayna’s bandleader (and ex-boyfriend) Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) or a bottle of nail polish from a pharmacy. Her caustic exterior and slutty ways belie a wounded soul in need of salvation.

So why isn’t Nashville a bona fide hit?

The 10 p.m. time slot is struggling across the board on the broadcast networks, with Nashville’s time-slot competitor, CBS’s CSI, tying for an all-time series low last week and Revenge (which previously held Nashville’s Wednesday slot) landing at a 2.6 among adults 18–49. For whatever reason, these post-watershed dramas are not self-starters in the ratings, and viewers seem to be largely abandoning the 10 p.m. hour for other options, whether that be competition from cable or, you know, sleep.

Nashville, like many 10 p.m. shows, receives an enormous boost from DVR ratings. When Nielsen’s Live +7 data was collected, Nashville’s series premiere, which had a 2.8 rating, rose a 4.2 rating among adults 18–49, an increase of 50 percent. Subsequent airings brought that number higher to 65 percent among the key 18–49 demographic, making it one of the most DVR’ed shows this season.

But even the inclusion of those time-shifted figures doesn’t position Nashville as the hit the show ought to be, given the reviews, the strength of the subtle writing (which soars when it captures the relatable ephemera of daily life for its characters), or the dynamic performances.

To outsiders, the show seems to require a love for country music, and, given the number of Nashville songs that appear on iTunes these days, a passion for the Grand Ole Opry might be seen as necessary to sit through an episode. Untrue. I have no love for country, and yet I find the majority of the songs within the show to hew closer to the folk/bluegrass model or crossover pop than traditional country.

The songs themselves are beautifully arranged and gorgeously performed, whether Britton and Esten are reminiscing about their doomed past love affair through song or Bowen and Palladio are offering the promise of future happiness in their cover of The Civil Wars’ “If I Didn’t Know Better.” These are songs that speak to heartbreak, discovery, passion, and freedom, concepts that go beyond mere musical genres. And while the plots center on the country music scene, much of the intrigue on the show comes from the soapiness of quotidian life.

Nashville does lack the overt soapiness of Revenge, the ABC drama that features regular dramatic takedowns, ass-kicking fights, and popped polo collars. While Revenge offers a tantalizingly heightened reality, its billionaire glamour is contrasted by the sense that, on Nashville, even the rich are somehow struggling to get by, perhaps making it a harder sell to an audience seeking escapist thrills. Still, Revenge, it should be noted—most ironically—now airs at 9 p.m.

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Then there’s the misconception that Nashville appears to be a “women’s show.” Putting aside any casual misogyny that might be involved in relating a show to one gender, the idea is simply untrue. Yes, the show’s leads are three women and there’s a soapiness involved with love triangles, marital relations, and the Sturm und Drang of the heart. But Nashville is only as much a women’s show as Friday Night Lights was a “men’s show” or a football drama.

What Nashville and Friday Night Lights instead offer is a look deep into the lives of others, a prism through which to see the American dream. Against the backdrop of the Nashville music scene is a drama about mothers and daughters, husbands and wives, lovers and friends. Greed and complicity play a role, as does regret and envy. Rayna’s husband, mayoral candidate Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), may or may not be a philanderer, but viewers now know that he is an embezzler; her father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), is a Machiavellian businessman whose every word contains an unspoken threat. A family friend, Coleman Carlisle (The Wire’s Robert Wisdom), becomes an adversary in the road to City Hall. While the political graft plot is one of the weaker in the show’s panoply of storytelling, it speaks to a larger worldview beyond the music industry, as well as broadens the show’s focus.

But for the show to succeed, it will need to find its audience and soon, even with ABC giving it a vote of confidence with a full season order. As in Nashville, in today’s increasingly cutthroat broadcast television landscape, you can be in the spotlight one day and forgotten the next.