Movies Are Prayers by Josh Larsen, Free for CAPC Members
In Movies Are Prayers, Josh Larsen exemplifies how critical engagement with a film can be an act of neighbor-love.
In retrospect, I should’ve given up a long time ago. But only very recently was I able to wean myself off Nashville (originally on ABC, now on CMT). I knew all along it was little more than a primetime soap opera, with all the melodrama and bad behavior that implies. I knew there were at least a dozen ways of spending that hour that would’ve been more profitable and worthwhile.
I kept tuning in anyway, for two reasons. The first reason was why I started watching it in the first place: the music. I grew up knowing and loving country music, and quite frankly, Nashville‘s music is generally of a much higher quality than most of the music you’ll find on today’s country radio. Though the show’s original executive music director, the legendary T Bone Burnett, left a few years ago, he set a standard that remains high.
The second reason was Hayden Panettiere’s inspired performance as devious diva Juliette Barnes. A standout even in a cast that has included well-loved actors like Connie Britton and Powers Boothe, Panettiere brings complex layers to what could’ve been just another bad girl. She always made me eager to see what she’d be up to next — and whether Juliette just might find lasting redemption one day.
But after five seasons, not even Panettiere and the music can keep me watching anymore. I’ve had it. Not just with the standard soap opera bed-hopping and backstabbing, though there’s plenty of that going on. It’s something deeper, something that I already felt all too familiar with after years of loving, tiring of, and finally ditching scripted shows.The creative minds behind Nashville are squandering their talents by taking the easy way out instead of offering something true, good, and beautiful.
It’s the storytelling format itself that always ends up pushing me away. It’s one thing to follow a movie with a beginning, middle, and end all contained neatly in two or three hours. That usually forces a writer to tell a story with conciseness and discipline, which can very often make for a great story. On the other hand, for all but the most talented writers — and sometimes even for them — the opportunity, or the obligation, to create twenty-two or twenty-three hours of original content each season is a gateway to all kinds of excess and self-indulgence.
What makes this worse is that so much of the storyline has to be dictated, not by any sort of creative vision of the writers, but by external forces — primarily, the desire to keep the ratings up and get the show renewed. And that leads directly to the temptation to go for cheap stunts rather than serious, sustained storytelling.
I remember when Smallville made a big deal out of killing off a character for its 100th episode. I was perturbed, and not just because the character in question was my favorite (and pretty much the only reason I was still watching at that point). The relentless promotion of the event beforehand, complete with viewers being encouraged to guess which character would die, created what was practically a carnival atmosphere around the impending death. Even though it was a fictional death, there was something ghastly about the whole thing. Why, I couldn’t help wondering, would you want to celebrate a show’s anniversary by killing a character?
That incident opened my eyes to just how popular ratings stunts can be, and how they can throw a wrench into a storyline, character arc, or relationship just when you’re settling in to enjoy it. “Settling in” seems to be the last thing a TV show wants you to do these days, though; unsettled is what they’re really going for. So marriages have to go bust, freak deaths have to occur at moments of peak happiness, and single characters have to vacillate between romances every few episodes. Apparently this is supposed to keep us excited, on the edge of our seats, and loving every minute.
In reality, however, it just leaves me burned out.
Not only that, but big story or character developments often don’t seem to “stick” in this format. I was fascinated, at first, by a recent Nashville storyline in which young country singer Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) dealt with an overbearing music video director who insisted on treating her like a sex object. After hours upon hours of being put in uncomfortable situations involving beds and handcuffs while being force-fed every cliché in the book about how every woman has a seductress inside her just longing to get free, and told it was all okay because the director was a “genius,” Scarlett blew up.
When the genius lectured her about female artists “embracing their sexuality on her own terms” (clearly meaning on his terms), she came back with “What if I don’t want to? … You’re not a shrink! You’re just some dude with screwed-up views about women all being secret sexpots, and it’s your spiritual journey to awaken all of us.”
I all but gave her a standing ovation. Suddenly Scarlett was the patron saint of every woman who’s ever broken free from the obsessions of a sex-crazed society and insisted on protecting her own dignity. Until the next few episodes, that is, when she obediently ditched her inhibitions after all, tapped into her inner sexpot, subsequently fell in lust with the genius, and got pregnant by him.
Joke’s on you, female viewers who might’ve felt inspired by Scarlett’s stand; it didn’t mean anything because it didn’t last. Just like Juliette’s foray into religious faith after a plane accident didn’t last. Just like dozens of other promising character and plot developments didn’t last, leaving me wondering why the writers even bothered. (The only thing that ever seemed to last was the incessant brattiness of teenage starlet Maddie Conrad (Lennon Stella).) Unless, in Scarlett’s case, they were going for a sort of double-titillation effect: teasing us with the promise of a perpetually timid and indecisive character finding her own self-worth and taking a stand, before sliding back into the sex-drenched milieu they’re convinced we all want to see.
If there’s a moral dimension to the technique of telling a story, series like Nashville are offering examples of immoral storytelling, and not simply because they contain sex and violence. The creative minds behind Nashville and similar series are squandering their talents by taking the easy way out instead of offering something true, good, and beautiful.
These flaws aren’t absolutely inherent to the TV format — there have been many great scripted series, present and past, that successfully avoided these pitfalls. But the temptation is ever-present. And when a writer and/or writing team succumbs, they’re being false — not just to their own gifts and their own vision, but to their viewers as well.
Which is why, if Juliette Barnes ever finds that elusive redemption — if there’s any redemption left to be had in a world where a character is made to swing endlessly back and forth between good and bad without ever fully committing to either — she’ll have to do it without me.
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