Thursday, November 15, 2012

"Nashville" Vs. "Revenge": Why I'm Digging the Music City Scene More Than the Hamptons

I hate to compare apples and oranges, or oranges and tangerines, but it's hard to watch Nashville and not think of Revenge. And that's not just because both hour-long prime-time shows air on the ABC network and epitomize TV's continuing trend of serialized dramas.

The similarities are quite pronounced: Both are estrogen-fueled, with two female leads who are -- what else? -- rivals. The older main character on both shows (top-billed Connie Britton's protagonist Rayna James on Nashville, top-billed Madeleine Stowe's antagonist Victoria Grayson on Revenge) are torn between two men, a husband and a lover from the past, who also happens to be the father of one of their two children (and, it should be pointed out, has been deceased for more than a decade on Revenge).

The younger lead on both (Hayden Panetierre's Juliette Barnes on Nashville, Emily VanCamp's Emily Thorne/Amanda Clarke on Revenge) is a blonde haunted soul, scarred by brutal family histories, with a blonde basket case of a mother still in tow. On the male side of things, both Rayna James and Victoria Grayson are married to a guy with Conrad for a name (Eric Close's Teddy Conrad on Nashville, Henry Czerny's Conrad Grayson on Revenge).

Revenge took a while to win me over, but eventually it did. Still, for all its compelling action, at the end of most episodes, the thing that stays with me most is the music that ends those episodes. Music is crucial to Nashville, too (the duets are particularly stunning), but it complements and plays off the drama so perfectly that it's hard to separate the two elements. It's a perfectly symbiotic relationship: As with the show's duet partners, one wouldn't have the same powerful effect without the other. Behind and beyond the music, Nashville, like the classic 1975 Robert Altman film of the same name, is a character study, driven by human behavior and the emotions that lead the people who populate the cast to do the things they do.

Revenge, on the other hand, is plot plot plot, which makes for an exciting ride, but when the action stops, the show leaves very little trace with me. As a lifelong fan of daytime drama, I can handle gullible characters who can't see that a woman in her mid-20s is the grown up version of a little girl they last saw when she was 10 (including her own mother), and people who have unlimited financial resources yet do very little work, but with Revenge, I'm not sure whose side I'm supposed to be on.

I'm pretty sure it shouldn't be Victoria Grayson, a mother/wife from hell who played a role in a terrorist plot that brought down an airplane and led to the conviction and death of an innocent man (her extramarital lover). This is who I'm cheering on?! Most of the characters are unlikable, driven by greed and a quench for expiation (hence the series' title), so there aren't many options. It's hard to relate to or root for the heroine, Emily Thorne, when she's so motivated by her burning desire to avenge her father's death that she has little regard for anyone or anything else.

I'm not sure if it's a testament to good writing or Hayden Panetierre's strong acting but although I know I'm supposed to hate Juliette Barnes, a country superstar cross between Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood (though the attitude, the way she glares at people while looking right through them reminds me of Christina Aguilera in person), but I find myself feeling for her and, in a way, rooting for her, too. She's been wounded by the circumstances of her life, with a mother who's been too strung out on drugs to be there for her. She just wants to be loved. Who can't identify with that? I'm excited to watch her journey in upcoming episodes.

Rayna James, a vet in decline, has two conflicts. First, her heart's divided: between her husband and her ex/collaborator, who lost her years ago due to a serious drug addiction. The love triangle is a time-tested dramatic device that for me, has kind of lost its luster, and when I watch this one, I keep having flashbacks to Smash, in which Debra Messing's character was in a similar position.

I'm less interested in whom Rayna will run to (ultimately) than I am in conundrum No. 2: How does she reinvent herself to maintain audience interest after 20 years on top and compete with the Taylor Swifts, Carrie Underwoods and Juliette Barneses of the world? How do you remain relevant without selling out? It was the same dilemma that George Valentin faced in The Artist, one to which most people in their 40s can relate, which might be the main reason why my heart is in Nashville, with Rayna James.

Despite my weariness from and wariness of love triangles, I think it's interesting how the budding one featuring poetess Scarlett, musician Gunnar and Scarlett's boyfriend and obviously soon-to-be third wheel Avery echoes the decades-long one with Rayna, her husband Teddy and her songwriting/touring partner Deacon. I have my preferences in both (Gunnar and Deacon), but I can understand why Rayna's heart is in pieces (as she said toward the end of the third episode, which I just finished watching). Unlike the charismatic but diabolical Conrad Grayson in Revenge, Teddy is a flawed but decent guy (so far), and I'd have a hard time walking away from anyone who looks like Eric Close. The same goes for Jonathan Jackson, who plays struggling country-punk performer Avery.

I couldn't care less about the triangles and quadrangles in Revenge (Emily, Daniel and Jack; Emily, Jack and faux Amanda; Emily, Aiden, Daniel and Ashley; Victoria, Conrad and David), especially since nobody seems to be really motivated by true love. Even Jack Porter, the only sympathetic one of the bunch, is with faux Amanda more out of a sense of obligation than anything else. And what a tool! He's so easily manipulated, so blind to all the subterfuge around him, that were he not played by such an attractive actor (Nick Wechsler), he'd be hard to watch. If I were fond of either woman in his orbit, I certainly wouldn't wish him on them.

The irony of it all? Revenge is set in the Hamptons, a place I've been to but had no burning desire to go back to until I started watching Revenge, which is finally convincing me that it might actually be the perfect summer getaway, after all. Meanwhile, the city that gives Nashville its name -- a place I've never had the chance to visit -- might be its least compelling angle. To me, it looks like any medium-sized American city, which might be more the fault of the town than the show. It's a testament to the quality of Nashville, though, that I'd still rather spend 43 and a half minutes there.
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