Nashville is a traditional soap opera, in a lot of ways, from its broad characterizations to its myriad love triangles, double-dealings, jealousy, and roundabout duplicity. But the show has always retained a kernel of loftier ambition, to aspire to more narratively-rewarding heights. While it’s not at all impossible for the show to achieve such heights in the near future, “We Live In Two Different Worlds” leans on soap opera conventions harder than any episode in the series thus far, from its bludgeoning obviousness of its title (from a Hank Williams classic, continuing the theme of episodes titled after famous country music songs), to the multiple contrivances, at both a structural and character level, that propel the episode forward. What’s funny, then, is that “We Live In Two Different Worlds” isn’t a bad episode of TV at all. It’s actually quite compelling, and sets us up for some pretty interesting developments in the coming weeks. But I find myself wishing there had been a smoother way of getting there than this.
So Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) is in complete downward spiral mode, she just doesn’t know it yet. The video of her shoplifting a bottle of nail polish from the supermarket has gone viral, to the tune of four million views. Her manager, Glenn Goodman (Ed Amatrudo), along with a savvy publicist named McKenna, feels that Juliette should be trying to get out in front of the problem, to keep the issue from snowballing. Juliette refuses to accept that her snafu is as big a deal as it is, and by the time she agrees to do an interview on Good Morning America (in one of several moments of network synergy scattered across the episode), she’s already losing sponsors and becoming a late night monologue punchline (oh Juliette, how shall you ever recover from the scathing revue of the SNL cold open?), in addition to having her invitation revoked from presenting at the CMAs. Glenn gives Juliette the “come to Jesus” speech, railing at her for her recklessness and saying that artists like Martina McBride and Rayna James earned their longevity through hard work, not through making one stupid mistake after another. This seems to stick in Juliette’s craw, but the real desire for change doesn’t come until she accuses her ex-addict mother, Jolene, of stealing her things to pawn for drug money. As Juliette rummages through her mother’s purse, spilling the contents on the floor, she comes to discover that she was wrong, finding, instead of pilfered goods, a picture of mother and daughter together when Juliette was a baby. Juliette breaks down, and her mother embraces her, and I guess the healing process can begin.
Well, except for the part where Juliette decides to deny she did anything wrong during her interview with GMA, arguing that this media blitz is the result of jealous haters who want to bring her down. It’s an eye-rolling bit of invective, but it almost works, owing to Juliette’s clever explanation that she put the nail polish in her purse so that it wouldn’t fall through the holes in the supermarket basket. It seems like Juliette’s indignation might finally pay off for once, but for actual GMA reporter Robin Roberts bringing up her mother as the next topic of conversation. Juliette won’t stand for it, and she storms off the set, creating her second viral video in as many days.
The problem with Juliette’s storyline isn’t that it’s not compelling. It is. My issue, instead, is with how implausible it seems. Juliette rationalizes to Glenn that she stole the nail polish out of some childhood impulse in which the act made her feel as though she was in control of her life. Maybe that was Winona Ryder’s excuse, but that explanation doesn’t really hold weight in this situation, particularly since we’re given no indication that Juliette is anywhere near as unhinged as the writers probably think we see her as. Whether that’s an indictment of the writing or of Hayden Panettiere’s performance remains to be seen, but I still hold out a lot of hope for Juliette’s storyline going forward, even if it is a bit of a trope to portray the most successful country music star on Earth as someone with basically no friends.
Of course, my issues with Juliette’s arc are small potatoes when compared with my problems with Days of Our Lives featuring Rayna James (Connie Britton). The show tries to trick the viewer by opening the episode with Rayna and Deacon (Charles Esten) in bed together, waxing poetic about how good it is to be back together, doing this again. Cue husband Teddy (Eric Close), who wakes Rayna up from her pleasant little dream, armed with a cup of coffee. The sequence was lushly shot, and Connie Britton was positively gorgeous as presented, but was a dream sequence really necessary? I thought Connie Britton and Charles Esten did more than a good enough job last week in establishing the muted longing between them, without having to resort to spelling it out in a dream. To make matters even more complicated, it turns out that Teddy’s opponent in the mayoral race, Rayna’s close friend Coleman Carlisle (Robert Wisdom), is Deacon’s sobriety sponsor. This further divides Deacon’s loyalties, as Deacon and Teddy get into a war of words just before Deacon and Rayna are set to go onstage to perform at one of Teddy’s fundraisers. Tensions are heightened when Teddy looks on as Deacon and Rayna communicate through body language what the dream sequence made overt, triggering Teddy’s jealousy and suspicions. After the performance, Rayna finally gives up on making a partnership with Deacon work, and tells Teddy that she’s going to fire him. Of course, because the longing of infidelity can never be a one-way street in a soap opera marriage, it appears that Teddy has a mistress on the side. Okay, maybe not a mistress. But he does share a secret with campaign co-worker Peggy Samper (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and whatever the nature of the vague secret to which they’re alluding, it would behoove Teddy’s campaign for it not to get out. If you couldn’t color me intrigued before, break out some crayons.
Which brings us to the pièce de résistance of soap operatic entanglements, as Scarlett (Clare Bowen) gets deeper into this sordid love triangle, through no real fault of her own. After coming across as a relatively supportive boyfriend (even if it appeared to be motivated by self-promotion), Avery (Jonathan Jackson) takes several huge steps backward into jerkass territory, which is roughly around Baltic Avenue in Monopoly parlance. The cynic in me could almost see where he’s coming from, in some respects. Gunnar (Sam Palladio) clearly has the hots for Scarlett, and while Scarlett is deeply committed to her relationship, it’s hard not to see the spark of something more than just a writing partnership behind her eyes, and I could even sort of understand the resentment of working so hard for something only to have someone close to you, who never really worked at it at all, or even intended ever to work in that field, much less succeed in it, come by and leap-frog all your progress in an afternoon. But it’s still hard to identify with a man who’d yell at a doe-eyed Southern belle just for trying to talk him up to music execs. His angst at Scarlett pretty much puts him on the level of the hunter who shot Bambi’s mom.
Of course, the complications only fan out from that point, as Gunnar gets a romantic interest of his own in the assistant of the publishing executive, a lovely brunette named Hailey. Their brief flirtation leads to a one night stand which Gunnar seems interested in turning into something more. Naturally, Scarlett happens to see Gunnar leaving the scene of the crime the next morning, and slinks down in the seat of the car, perhaps concurrent with the realization that maybe she does have feelings for this lovable bumpkin. It’s so much soap opera…
…And yet, I’m totally on board.
Here’s the thing about Nashville. It’s got great local color, and is populated with actors who are more than up to the task of bringing this material to life, with some of the actors far exceeding what they’re given. But the soap opera conceits make this feel like a lesser show than it is. The irony of this is that it’s those very soap opera elements that make the show so puzzlingly addictive. Is it any surprise that when Juliette gets her tour canceled and comes to realize that she has no friends, that the first person she talks to is Deacon? Conversely, is anyone shocked that, after being spurned by Rayna for the umpteenth time, the first person Deacon turns to for comfort is Juliette? The mind reels at how frequently two people could use each other without ever exploring just why they’re compelled to do so. But then, that’s kind of the point, isn’t it? These characters are living lives of mutually-assured destruction in their lesser moments, and the entire narrative is a struggle to get these characters to a point of self-awareness. That’s yet another reason why the series is so compelling, even when framed in the trappings of soap operas. Hell, soap tropes aren’t a bad thing when well-applied, and Nashville is doing as good a job of being a compelling hour of television. Not every episode will love up to the premise, but I’m on board either way, as there isn’t really much else on TV quite like this particular blend.