This Fall’s Guilty Pleasure

Every fall, my wife and I each pick one new show premiering on network television, and we watch those two shows together from the pilot until such time as neither one of us can take any more of our new show. It’s kinda like launching missiles in fact, in that we both have to turn our “this sucks and we’re not watching it anymore” key before either one of us is permitted to bow out of our new show, and it’s heaps of fun. This is true for several reasons, including the fact we enjoy appointment television, and because it’s a little like gambling (seriously, more than 50% of new shows are unwatchably terrible each year, and that makes weighing the cumulative impact of every badly written line of dialogue that much more fun) but also because we’re petty elitists who enjoy being in on things early.

Basically, we have the fantasy that we’re going to catch televised gold and experience each moment live before the zeitgeist latches on, and that will make us more knowledgeable than others around the water cooler. Never mind that people around the water cooler are definitely talking about things on cable, and neither one of us has a water cooler around which to congregate at work in the first place. We like to be prepared for such hypothetical water cooler conversations anyway, because like I said, we’re elitists at heart.

ANYWAY, so far this year we’ve hung with both of our choices, one of which (my wife’s pick, for what it’s worth) puts the guilt in guilty pleasure for me: Nashville (ABC on Wednesday nights!).

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If you haven’t seen Nashville, it’s a serial drama about inhabitants of Nashville, Tennessee, most of whom have both a connection to the business of country music and piles of cash. Starring Connie Britton and Hayden Panattiere, the show weaves catchy songs (more on that in a minute), predictable plot twists, and decent acting into a very watchable show, in spite of occasionally stilted dialogue and some horrendous – I mean unforgivable – southern accents by certain cast members (I’m looking at you, Clare Bowen. I don’t care that you’re Australian. Take it from someone who’s lived in the South: you sound disabled, not southern). All in all it’s a diverting package.

So why do I feel guilty when I watch Nashville? Because I am 100% certain that the show’s writers are planning to ruin the imaginary lives of every single character on the show, and I can’t wait to see it. I admit that I could be wrong about that, naturally, but since I believe it with absolute conviction, I’ve formulated my opinions on this basis. I tune into Nashville every week eagerly expecting to watch each character’s world burn, and I’m so eager for the personal catastrophes I’m sure are coming that I’m essentially gleefully pouring emotional accelerant on the flames. And I feel terrible about it.

This is a first for me. I usually get sucked into shows when the writing and acting combine to produce characters about whom I find myself caring. For example, many will argue that The Wire was the greatest show ever made, but what sold it for me wasn’t the intricate plots or the great acting; it was the fact that I wanted to see Bodie or Poot get over, that I wanted Bubbles to get clean, and that I loved watching things go right for the characters I liked (1 out of 3 ain’t bad). In contrast, my wife and I have been unable to finish Friday Night Lights on Netflix because we really like the characters, but in every episode three things go wrong for every one thing that goes right, and that makes us hurt for Tyra, Matt Saracen, and the rest of the characters. For me, story is king. If I find the story working in favor of characters I like (in believable ways), I’m in. If not, I’m usually ready to turn the key and bail on a show.

With Nashville, in contrast, I’m basically rooting for schadenfreude, and even though the characters that I want to suffer are all imaginary, it leaves me feeling as guilty as it does certain that I’ll be back for more next week.

On the one hand, this is a little silly, because none of the characters on Nashville are real people, so I probably shouldn’t feel any guilt for enjoying their struggles. On the other hand, of course, is the fact that it’s moderately alarming to discover that I derive so much enjoyment from (imaginary) human suffering. As best as I can explain it, however, what I’m really enjoying is the fact that I’m not watching characters implode so much as I’m watching caricatures deservedly collapse.

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The thing is, Nashville presents a strangely sanitized world of country music. Not in moral terms – the characters are as amoral as one might expect in a slickly produced show about rich mavens of the music business – but in cultural terms. I’m not a big fan of country music, but I’ve heard my share of it, and three things that matter in country music are conspicuously absent from Nashville: God, patriotism, and twangy guitar. Essentially, what Nashville depicts is the world of country music scrubbed of those parts of country that make it a tough sell in Blue America. So while I find myself enjoying the show because I enjoy the fantasy country-world it depicts – it’s basically what I’ve always thought country would have to be like in order for me to like country – I think this simultaneously presents a serious problem for the show’s reality since the moral compass of country music is found in its Red American elements. I may not agree with country music’s fusion of God and nationalism (In fact, for the sake of clarity: I don’t. It makes me wildly uncomfortable), but that fusion represents an ethical polarity that is completely absent from Nashville.

Absent that ethical polarity, the characters of Nashville make decisions in an ethical vacuum of the sort that exists only on TV (or in Las Vegas), and the result is characters that consistently make transparently self-destructive decisions. Decisions, in fact, that nobody would make as casually or unhesitatingly as these Nashville people do. It adds up to a diverting fantasy, but unfortunately for the writers, there’s one glaring wart on this fantasy: because country music has a moral center, it is often about the results of sin seen as sin. So while Nashville’s caricatures are free to make amoral decisions as if there will be no consequences, sooner or later they will have to suffer if only so they can have fodder for their songs. Which means that in Nashville the consequences of sin have to exist, even if the concept of sin itself appears to escape both the show’s characters and writers. It also means that in stripping the show of country’s normal moral compass, the writers have exposed a truer compass from which they’re unable to liberate the denizens of Nashville.

In the midst of all the unreality of Nashville, this is perhaps the most real thing on TV today. Actions have consequences, and in Nashville, the characters deserve what they’re doing to each other. It fits with the natural order of things, and it feels intuitively right. Never mind how we got there; it rings true and that makes it all the more addictive, even if I feel a little guilty for enjoying the bonfire so much.

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