Will 'Nashville' take the television musical into new country?
Wendell Pierce in Treme
The cast of Nashville.
The history of television is littered with disastrous attempts to replicate the success of musicals in theatre and film, but ‘Nashville’ hits all the right notes, writes PATRICK FREYNE
In a briefing room filled with hard-as-nails cops, a police sergeant outlines the crimes of the day – assaults, burglaries, flashers – as his underlings bicker and banter. He finishes his speech with a familiar sign-off: “Let’s be careful out there.” But he sings the words, and soon, he’s atonally crooning about a litany of criminal cases to a country rock tune and a clunky synth-heavy backing track. The moustachioed actor looks vaguely embarrassed. Mid-song, he flips around his desk to reveal organ keys and he vamps a jazztastic solo. “Sorry, I’m so sorry,” his wizened brow seems to say.
Cop Rock was produced in 1990 by Steve Bochco, creator of the ground-breaking Hill Street Blues, in what could be described as a reckless fit of reputational self-immolation. It’s one of the most misguided television programme ever made, possibly second only to the sitcom about Hitler, Heil Honey, I’m Home!, made for British satellite channel Galaxy but cancelled after the first episode was broadcast in 1990. An otherwise po-faced police procedural in which soft-headed criminals and hard-boiled cops regularly broke into song, Cop Rock was cancelled after just 11 episodes.
Bochco was ultimately found guilty of crimes against television (the jury possibly sang He’s Guilty, a horrendous gospel number that appeared in the pilot episode of Cop Rock), and his programme regularly turns up in worst programme ever lists.
Musicals didn’t quite take took off as a medium on the small screen. While theatre and film have often gravitated towards all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas, there isn’t really a strong musical tradition in television drama. And yet, in recent years, this repressed form has been bubbling through.
It started with well-established programmes producing musical episodes. Usually these one-offs feature internally consistent rationales for going so dramatically off-piste. One of the earliest and best examples is Once More, with Feeling, a special episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer in which the characters sang their inner thoughts thanks to a nefarious spellcasting demon. When Turk and JD in the sitcom Scrubs started crooning the bromantic duet Guy Love to each other, it was an auditory hallucination caused by a character’s brain tumour (brain injuries can indeed result in musical side-effects, as readers of Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia will be aware).
A musical episode of Fringe emerged from the skewed perspective of Walter Bishop (John Noble), who had in that episode indulged in a strain of marijuana called Brown Betty. And there were others.
South Park has always been awash with musical pastiches. Oz saw its murderers and rapists perform song and dance numbers to punctuate an episode in season five. Meanwhile, Grey’s Anatomy, practically a musical anyway with its ponderous approach to soundtracking every character’s inner torment, produced a musical episode in 2011.
More recently, however, whole series such as Glee, Smash and Treme have been built on musical pillars. It was only a matter of time. Drama producers must have spent the past decade looking enviously at the cross-platform money-making synergies of reality talent shows. The lucrative possibilities of telemusicals were first demonstrated by Ryan Murphy’s Glee, the happy, clappy tale of a high-school glee club.
While grown-up viewers revel in its subversive humour and offbeat characterisation, teens lap up the soundtrack albums and live shows, built around heavily sweetened cover versions.
Smash, billed initially as “the adult Glee” and featuring Anjelica Huston and Debra Messing, isn’t quite so successful. An ambitious metamusical, it follows a bunch of not-particularly-likeable writers, producers and performers as they attempt to stage a show-within-a-show called Bombshell about the life Marilyn Monroe.
Unlike Glee, many of Smash’s musical numbers are originals written for the programme. Sadly, its plot and characterisation are not half so original and audiences are deserting it like a sinking HMS Pinafore.
Much more artistically successful is Treme, the post-Katrina New Orleans drama from The Wire writer David Simon. It features real and fictional jazz musicians and intertwines musical jams with its loosely-structured socially-conscious plots. Musical contributors have included John Boutté, Kermit Ruffins, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello and Dr John.
Keeping it country
The latest addition to this musical canon is Nashville, a soapy drama written by Thelma and Louise writer Callie Khouri and co-produced by documentary-maker RJ Cutler. The show focuses on the waning fortunes of country music star Rayna Jaymes (Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton) and the rise of another, Juliette Barnes (Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere).
The script calls on the characters to perform, write, rehearse and record their music, much of it shot on location in famous venues such as the Grand Ole Opry and the Bluebird Cafe. T-Bone Burnett, Khouri’s husband, is the executive music producer and established songwriters such as Elvis Costello (him again), Lucinda Williams and John Paul White (from the band The Civil Wars) write the songs.
Having seen two episodes, I really like Nashville. It features naturalistic acting and dialogue, a swathe of melodramatic plots (musical, political and romantic), and in the opening episodes at least two soon-to-be classic songs (both co-written by John Paul White).
Like many more conventional dramas, the music is used as emotional punctuation, but here it isn’t pushed into a regressive soundtrack. Instead, it merges organically with the characters’ musical lives.
So it appears the television musical has arrived. However, it’s striking how far from the stage and screen musical tradition the newer genre strays. In none of the newer programmes do characters burst into song in the street, woo a loved-one with a spontaneous melody, or discover that passing sailors know all of their dance moves.
Indeed, all the recent examples of television musicality find some plot-driven reason for singing (magic, drugs, music industry shenanigans, general campness) to assuage more musical-phobic viewers.
There are many unlikely and inexplicable things contemporary television audiences can accept – laugh tracks, sweeping background music, improbable montages, Ryan Seacrest, the news – but dramatic personae breaking into song as a hidden string section swells?
This is a bridge too far (musical pun intended).
Nashville starts on More 4 on Thursday, February 7th