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‘Nashville’ Gets a Makeover

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large, Yahoo Entertainment
Photo: CMT

Nashville is back for the second half of its fifth season, and the first thing you may notice when you tune into CMT on Thursday night is … everyone got a haircut! Makeovers all around! Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) is sporting a sculpted ’do that looks as though her hair was left overnight in a salmon mold. Gunnar’s ears are flapping in the breeze, since someone (maybe his romantic rival Damien?) took a razor and shaved away the hair framing his ears. Scarlett (Clare Bowen), the neurasthenic Emily Dickinson of Nashville, has thrown off her Emmylou Harris-style shawls and now sports the close-cropped Claudette Colbert-in-It-Happened-One-Night look. All the women have upped their lipstick application; most of the dudes’ hair makes their heads look pointy.

Really, the only regular who hasn’t been redesigned by new-ish Nashville showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick is Deacon (Charles Esten), who I assume was sobbing too uncontrollably to be able to hold still in the barber chair. Chip Esten is one of the all-time-champion criers on television, and heaven knows his character has a right to be sad, given the loss of his true love, Rayna (Connie Britton waves hi-di-ho from Los Angeles, y’all!). But it’s gotten so Deacon can’t even ask 13-year-old Daphne (Maisy Stella) why she’s so blue without getting choked up and turning on the waterworks.

Daphne’s post-Mom depression is a key plotline in the new half-season, as is the pregnancy of Scarlett, whose who’s-the-daddy suspense is straight out of a daytime soap opera. Then there’s Juliette’s ongoing, culturally-tone-deaf romancing of an entire black Baptist choir during the making of her new album, an enterprise so culturally tone-deaf that tonight’s episode includes a scene in which a music reviewer is quoted as describing her new music as “culturally tone-deaf.”

One thing you notice about the new Nashville is that Herskovitz and Zwick have decided that the show is foremost a women’s drama and have accordingly redirected almost every plot-point to focus on the gals — and this is even before two new female cast members, Rachel Bilson (The O.C., Heart of Dixie) and Kaitlin Doubleday (Empire), make an appearance. The sole exception is the blossoming romance between crooner Will (Chris Carmack) and tech billionaire Zach (Cameron Scoggins), one of the few momentarily happy relationships on Nashville.

The action pauses at regular intervals to show us glimpses of the stars performing, and these too have been drastically overhauled for maximum new audience-building. Gone are the cozy scenes of guitar-pulls at the Bluebird Café, in favor of big concert-hall blowouts. Erased from Nashville is the down-home honky-tonking that music directors T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller established earlier in the series. In its place is a huge, bombastic pop sound that frames each act — whether it’s the Scarlett and Gunnar duo, or Avery (Jonathan Jackson), or Will, or Juliette — identically onstage: with flashing pinpoint lighting, in front of cameras beaming gigantic images of the singers as they perform before a multitude of cheering, screaming fans.

It’s a clever repositioning of Nashville, but between the makeovers and the soap opera, it’s not the Nashville I put in to commit to five years ago. Indeed, if this was the first time I experienced the show, I doubt I’d set a season pass for it. As it is, however, I am in this thing for the long haul. Which means I will try to summon up interest in Zach’s plan to “disrupt the music industry” or whether Maddie (Lennon Stella) is going to opt for the power-ballad production on her new single. And periodically, I’ll go over to a corner and have a quiet little sob with Deacon over what Nashville used to be.

Nashville airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on CMT.

Update: Now that it’s aired…

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