Chasing Nashville, a new docu-soap debuting tonight on Lifetime, made me mad. Then sad. Then bored. It's the reality show trifecta.
First off, this isn't really a show about Nashville. It's a show about "Nashville," and young singers from Appalachia who dream of making it there. The hourlong program follows a group of aspirants who have absorbed enough industry lingo — "showcase," "producer," "total package" — to consider themselves on the direct periphery of superstardom. All they need is a tiny crack in the door. (Enter a reality TV producer.) The premiere showcases the first round of a singing competition for teen girls at the annual HillBilly Days in Pikeville, Ky.
We have certainly entered a new era in the reality genre — the tropes are so ingrained that production companies think success comes from simply pressing the right buttons: dramatic pre-commercial-break tension builders; backstories accentuated by soft-focus camera, idle walks to nowhere and stares off into the middle distance; sassy confessionals; easily digested personality types; tiny moments of genuine intrigue teased relentlessly through the episode and, of course, a cast willing to play the game and look terrible in the process.
This on its own is no great tragedy. People have a God-given right to make a fool of themselves on TV. This is America! But what makes Chasing Nashville problematic is the fact that the cast consists mostly of very young women, ages 14 to 17. (The stage mothers are a particularly repugnant sideshow: Step right up! Teenagers that act like grown women! Grown women that act like teenagers! Huge loss for all of womankind!) Seeing these girls ape the behaviors they have witnessed in a lifetime of reality TV consumption is upsetting — they know exactly the types of soundbites they are supposed to provide and the roles they're supposed to inhabit. They also wear way too much makeup.
Those assigned roles are horrifyingly explicit. Each singer comes with her own tagline, like Savannah, the "Spoiled Starlet." This young brunette is anxious to play the villainous mean girl, doling out sick burns through her braces. She holds court for a gaggle of minions, snarks on the other contestants and continually refers to herself as "the total package." And she's doing it on TV! I now hate a 14-year-old girl from Kentucky. Thank you, Lifetime.
On the other side of the coin is Autumn Blair, the "Coal Miner's Daughter." Blair refers to herself as "just another girl from the holler." She rides four-wheelers and talks about wanting to make it so her daddy doesn't have to work in the mines anymore. She is also genuinely talented, and therefore responsible for the episode's best moment: She blows away the competition in Pikeville despite a much-hyped sore throat. She also has a "Memaw" who's awesome. With her tacky curls and homemade sparkly top (with bell-bottom flair to match), she's the authentic backwoods gem.
The second most squirm-inducing young lady featured is Lauren Marie Presley, "The Outsider." Her mom is obsessed with the idea that the young blond is a "Presley" — mommy dearest married (and then divorced) someone who might have been a distant cousin of The King. There's a particularly excruciating scene in which Presley and her mother pretend to be lost so they can stand by the side of a pickup truck and talk about her music career.
At first, I was kind of enjoying the strange theater of this thing. You have young girls mimicking reality stars, the codification of "Nashville" into a distant Shangri-La and Meemaw on a mechanical bull. But then, as with so many of this new generation of shows, Chasing Nashville just got relentlessly boring. Instead of great singing and country charm, we just got shot after shot of nervous handwringing backstage and carefully edited side eyes. It's all build-up, no release.
Then there's the fact that this show takes itself incredibly seriously, while the stakes feel comically low. (The grand prize in the singing competition is $500; not chump change, but nothing life-altering either.) Even the fact that there is a "Nashville producer" on the judging panel does nothing but expose the silliness of the whole spectacle. In the era of YouTube, you don't need to win a county fair singing competition to gain exposure. Gone is the era of the one big shot. Hell, if this show gets cancelled, these girls can always try out for The Voice in a couple of years.
In an attempt to blend the singing show trend with the docu-soap trend, the producers of Chasing Nashville have exposed the weaknesses of both. I kind of hope the days of the ensemble cast are numbered — you cast a bunch of people and then try to figure out tortured (and transparently produced) ways for them to interact. It's dumb. And to do it to a bunch of teenagers with their ooey-gooey centers and impulse control-averse brains seems borderline immoral.
And it's also kinda of a shame. I might watch a show about Autumn Blair, clear-voiced coal miner's daughter from West Virginia with an amazing Memaw, trying to make it in the music business, suffering setbacks and triumphs — and people who try to cheat her out of her publishing points. But unfortunately, it's not this show.