Robert Altman worked in television for more than a decade before making MASH (1970), the satirical Korean War film that became a long-running, endlessly syndicated TV show. There was talk of a TV miniseries based on his 1975 film Nashville, but nothing ever reached the little screen. You could say that the producers of Nashville, the new series that begins Wednesday (10 p.m., ABC, CTV Two), are picking up on a long-lost opportunity to show a weekly audience some of the guts and glory of the country-music world.
There's no direct connection between this project and Altman's film, but Nashville, the series, plucks at a few of the old master's themes. It also rejects the film's shaggy narrative style, goes for tight scripting over revelatory improv, and replaces satire with soap opera. Here's a breakdown of how the film and series overlap, and where they diverge:
Watergate and the Nixon resignation made the early seventies a sour time in American presidential politics. Altman probes the malaise with recurring clips of a campaign truck that broadcasts the populist speeches of a third-party candidate, who wants to throw all the lawyers out of Washington. The political marketing is the uneasy foil for the reassuring songs we hear from the stars of the Grand Ole Opry. The politics of the TV Nashville are more like Tammany Hall: A rich operator plans to jockey his compliant son-in-law into the mayor's chair. The town's political life is run by and for money, as seems apt during a year of the biggest-spending presidential campaign ever.
Altman's music capital is fiercely hierarchical, and the figure at the top is the singer Barbara Jean, a fragile southern belle with a Virgin Mary complex. She spends much of the film collapsing in one way or another, or reclining in a hospital bed. The TV series shows a more rugged singer at the pinnacle, or just past it: Rayna Jaymes (Friday Night Lights's Connie Britton), whose chunky country sounds are no longer making big sales for her shows or records. Her story is complicated by the machinations of her evil daddy, the rich political operator, who resembles a player in another place-named film: the John Huston character in Chinatown.
The series pilot introduces "No. 1 crossover artist" Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere of Heroes) while she looks through mockups of bottles for her new perfume. She's got a younger following than Rayna Jaymes, and seems eager not just to knock the old queen off her throne, but to humiliate her as well. My colleague John Doyle likened Juliette to Taylor Swift, but I think she's more like Christina Aguilera – hard, brassy and willing to put her body into every sales pitch. Altman's Juliette is a big-haired singer named Connie White, but in another way, the whole cast is gunning for Barbara Jean's eminence. The TV series feels closed compared to the grasping world of the film, in which everyone, from drifter to demo-hawker, is trying to get a foot on the escalator to fame.
The sounds of Altman's Nashville are homely, direct and sentimental, even when you can feel the calculation behind the songwriting. The actors sing their own stuff, and don't always sing it well – one role turns on the character's refusal to accept that she can't carry a tune. The TV series comes from a different era, after the rise of New Country and Nashville's determined assault on the pop charts. The show's focus on the mainstream makes you wonder why T-Bone Burnett was brought in to simulate a sound he has spent his career trying to muss up. The series is also a creature of the Auto-Tune period, as one scene in a recording studio coyly notes, without actually pointing out that pitch-corrected production is the new normal. The corresponding moment in Nashville, the film, comes when Barbara Jean makes fun of backup singing tracks, as if only a studio rat would think of adding such high-fangled embellishment to a good ol' tune.
The love angle
The TV pilot is highly efficient at plotting romantic vectors that enhance or interfere with the characters' professional lives. Will Rayna get back with her sideman lover, or will he migrate to Juliette's band and bed? Will the humble young ingenue fall for her new songwriting partner? It's harder to see love as a motivator in Altman's Nashville. The fans love their stars, but the talent and would-be stars seem distracted by fame, money and – when those are lacking – sex. As MASH's Korea was a stand-in for Vietnam, you get the feeling that Altman saw a lot of Hollywood in Nashville, where, as he said in a 2000 interview, the bus station is always full of kids arriving with their guitars. Maybe that's what the TV series needs, among its umpteen Nashville locations: more from the bus station.
Check local listings.