Despite the fact that the producers didn’t know if the Season 4 finale of NASHVILLE would be the end of the series when it was written (and lead studio Lionsgate, in fact, is still trying to sell the show to another network or platform, proposing a Season 5 writers room that would be run by celebrated thirtysomething creators Edward Zwick and Marshall Herskovtz), they provided–a cliffhanger in the final 15 seconds aside–a fair amount of closure.
After a bumpy year that included an emancipation court action, 15-year old Maddie (Lennon Stella) returned to the arms of mother Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton), sister Daphne (Maisie Stella) and biological father Deacon (Charles Esten), rescued from the clutches of a record producer with a history of sexual predation. Star-crossed romantic and musical partners Scarlett (Claire Bowen) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio) actually managed to be in love with each other at the same time, despite the nefarious scheming of Autumn Chase (guest star Alicia Witt). Bad girl Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) came clean to the press and, more importantly, walked out in the middle of the Academy Awards to get back to her ex (but still loving) husband Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and infant daughter, not even caring if she won the Oscar for Best Actress because she finally understood what was important in life, and the family would have a future together–if, that is, her private plane didn’t crash off-screen. Gay singer Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) not only faced his fears and a viciously homophobic TV talk show host, but found the possibility of his first real romance. And Layla (Aubrey Peeples), who somewhat puzzlingly had been rehabilitated as a character over the course of two seasons only to be plunged once again to the depths of pure bitchdom, received her comeuppance, dumped both by Avery and her kindly manager Glenn (Ed Amatrudo). Beyond that distress message from Juliette’s plane, there weren’t a lot of loose ends left to tie after the hour written by Executive Producers Meredith Lavender and Marcie Ulin (and directed by series creator Callie Khouri), although no doubt Herskovitz and Zwick would find stories to tell if they were able to take over.
It would be fitting, in a sense, for Nashville to depart the airwaves trailing a faint scent of disappointment. The show, while often entertaining, never lived up to its potential, either creatively or in the ratings. The initial announcement of a series created by Thelma & Louise writer Khouri, working in collaboration with Nashville legend T. Boone Burnett, and with a cast headed by Britton (fresh off Friday Night Lights) and Panettiere, gave rise to hopes of a smart, knowledgeable drama about the country music industry with a feminist edge. Nashville, though, was never really more than a conventional soap, albeit one with a terrifically charismatic cast and dotted with wonderful musical numbers that featured original songs sung by the actual cast members. Even though real-life country stars and iconic Nashville locations made cameos, and the singers on the show changed fictional management and labels every so often, and Rayna eventually even started a label of her own, Nashville had little to say about the realities of the music industry other than as occasional bullet points. Even as a soap, Nashville started out clunky, with characters who had to be discarded early on, and it was damaged by the decision to make Rayna a nearly-perfect earth mother character whose only flaw was caring too much.
As the seasons went on, Nashville became a slicker soap, leaning heavily on Panettiere, Esten, and Bowen and Palladio for its heavy lifting. (That was complicated when Panettiere had to be absent, first because of her pregnancy and then due to her publicly-disclosed post-partum depression.) The Deacon character, in particular, had to survive alcoholism, liver disease and a sometimes violent temper to reach a sort of happy ending. Meanwhile, partly due to budget issues, the musical sequences became sparser and smaller in scale, and the financial problems only became more serious as ratings continued to drop. Eventually, while Nashville stood in the comparative dust, Empire took the idea of a music-related soap with original songs and ran with it, able to carry off wild melodrama to a degree Nashville never even dared to attempt.
In short, this song was running out of melody, and although Nashville brought in some additional revenue through music sales and live concerts, it wasn’t enough. Perhaps a Nashville 2.0, with new showrunners and a less mainstream venue, would have a chance of being the show some hoped it would be from the start. If this is indeed the end, though, the series deserves a ballad or two for some compelling yarns, worthwhile music and a superbly talented cast.