By Willa Paskin
NEW YORK -- This week's episode of Nashville ended with a recurring character painfully clutching his chest, dying of a heart attack, while another looked on impassively, deciding to do nothing. I don't mean to go out on a limb here, because the history of horrible TV characters is very long, but it may have been the only time I fist-pumped at the sudden death of a man in late middle age with a baritone as mellifluous as Powers Boothe's. The scene could have been improved only if the character impassively watching had succumbed to sympathy pains himself. Nashville would have immediately and dramatically improved, jettisoning the most inessential character on a show more rife with inessential characters than this spelling of the series' title: N@^@*a!*%&vil*!*>>>>le!
Nashville, in its second season on ABC, still has great bones: good songs, a juicy setting, a cast of talented actors, and in Hayden Panettiere's Juliette Barnes a complicated, fiery, brash, moving heroine. But this skeleton is draped in outfits with slogans like "boring," "pay no attention to me," "definitely wasting your time." No single episode of the show is ever satisfying. Each episode devotes too much time to characters that even the show itself clearly does not care about. Plot gets held back. The pacing is beyond erratic. That heart attack scene was copied directly from Homeland's very worst episode and another character is developing an addiction last seen on Saved By The Bell.
I am carping from a place of affection: I like Nashville. I watch Nashville faithfully. But every week I wonder why.
Nashville has a serious case of Disposable Significant Other Disease. There are currently four ancillary characters on Nashville playing the temporary love interest, a boyfriend or girlfriend who might as well have "waiting to be dumped" tattooed on his or her forehead. This is a byproduct of the fact that Nashville has the scaredy-cat show's habit of saving plot for later. (The entire first season was devoted to keeping Rayna and Deacon apart until there were only a handful of episodes left.) But saving plot for later means the characters are stuck treading water. To distract from their lack of forward progress, Nashville gives them someone to make out with.
And so Gunnar (Sam Palladio), to stave off his future confrontation with Scarlett (Clare Bowen), is dating a charter with no personality who showed up this season to make the show more racially diverse. In order to let Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon (Charles Esten) keep putting off their on-again, off-again thing, Rayna is dating another country music star whose only virtue is that his job is similar to hers. Deacon's dating a lawyer who is significantly less charming than his last temporary girlfriend (that one was at least adorable and liked dogs). To delay his coming out, closeted country singer Will (Chris Carmack) has a beard, a young wannabe Juliette who looked like she might get a storyline of her very own. She has not.
All of the above drives me crazy, but the thing that really set me off about Nashville came last week in one of the very few storylines the show has developed properly. Superstar Juliette and guitarist and recovering narcissist Avery (Jonathan Jackson) have spent nearly a season becoming friends. Juliette, who trusts no one, has learned to trust Avery. Avery learned who Juliette really was. Their friendship has been preordained to turn romantic from the start (Avery and Juliette flirted in the pilot), but since the actors are good and can sing and have a very nice chemistry the slow progression has been fun to watch. At the end of last week's episode they finally got together -- in a three-minute scene that had about as much tension and drama as a lunch meeting. A show that is always delaying, finally paid something off, but botched delivering it to the audience, like a meal that has been labored over for hours and hours, but gets served lukewarm, on a broken plate, with some fruit-flies hovering over it.
This week, Juliette and Avery were already basically cohabitating, the show not taking even one moment to let us luxuriate in their new romance, the only thing the series has done well this entire season. Nashville is a show that only knows how to go too slow, or too fast, and never gets the pace just right. For a show about music, it has got no rhythm.
Paskin, Slate's TV critic, has written for New York Magazine, The New York Times Magazine and Salon.com.