How "Nashville" Tackled Alcoholism, Depression, and Recovery

By Andrew Scott 04/05/18

In the early seasons, the show used Deacon's addiction for dramatic effect: he would often stare at a bottle of booze with fists clenched, trying not to give in.

Undermine is a song originally written by Trent Dabbs and written and performed by Juliette Barnes and Deacon Claybourne
Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) and Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) in "Nashville." Photo via Nashville Wiki

After surviving a network’s purge and the loss of its leading actress, Nashville will finally stop filming in April, with its series finale scheduled for July. Dropped by ABC two years ago before closing on a cliffhanger at the end of its fourth season—with seemingly happy endings for all of the characters except starlet Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), whose private plane crashed, her fate unknown—the show was then picked up by CMT for two more seasons after a devoted fan base rallied to #BringBackNashville through a social media campaign. A handful of networks were already negotiating for the show’s rights, and CMT and Hulu reached their final agreements. There was, as everyone involved kept insisting, a lot more story to tell.

On this occasion—the show’s actual impending end—perhaps it’s worth examining how Nashville has depicted addiction and mental health concerns. An article in The Guardian says the show “sensitively tackled addiction,” after all. Other critics contend that country music was never really the show’s focus. When everyone thought the show had ended two years ago, Will Oremus in Slate argued that it was a “show about addiction, and it was bleak as hell.”

If so, some viewers might feel that the show occasionally blamed addiction on a character’s moral failings, rather than considering it a chronic disease. This isn’t so much an insight into how the show’s creators viewed addiction, but a reflection of one essential element of dramatic narrative. “Only trouble is interesting,” Janet Burroway reminds us in Writing Fiction, and TV writers—especially those who shape prime-time dramas straining for the soap-operatic high notes—seek more trouble than most.

Like its spiritual ancestor Dallas, this show set out to use its eponymous place for inspiration, lines of tension, and thematic resonance—and even the city’s bars, clubs, and other venues, where so much music is unveiled and discovered, played an important role. Any show about the music industry has to be set in places that people in recovery might choose to avoid for their own benefit.

Country music has a long history of songs that champion drinking to excess, too. Almost every landmark artist—Merle Haggard, George Jones, Roger Miller, Johnny Cash, Hank Williams Jr., and so many others—has at least one memorable song about alcohol or drugs. And Nashville, of course, is the capital of country music, with all of its splendor and squalor.

In the show’s back-story, Rayna James (Connie Britton), the reigning queen of country music, ended an on-and-off romance with her guitarist and band leader, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), because of his alcoholism. She opted instead to marry a dishrag of a man who later became mayor, even though she was secretly pregnant with Deacon’s baby. Of course, Rayna still needed Deacon, her “side man” (ahem) and co-songwriter, as their musical connection had helped make her a success.

When Nashville debuted, Deacon had been sober for 13 years, yet struggled openly with his addiction. A brief summary of the character’s trajectory reveals some of the too-easy ways the show’s creatives leaned on his addiction for story beats while the show was broadcast on ABC: Deacon would often stare at a bottle of booze with fists clenched, trying not to give in to the ever-present temptation. Two different characters served as his AA sponsors, and one of them later opened a bar with Deacon as his business partner. When Deacon relapsed, he became violent and dangerous, but he only served jail time after taking the blame—to spare Rayna—for a car accident where he was the passenger, not the driver. Deacon was later diagnosed with liver cancer, but survived when his estranged sister stepped in at the last minute to donate part of her organ. She then died, adding yet another victim to Deacon’s history with the bottle.

Nashville has also portrayed other types of addiction—to fame, money, power, and bad relationships—but Deacon’s alcoholism was the anchor addiction for the show. As you’d expect in any good drama about the music industry, some of the characters popped pills from time to time, including Juliette, Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen), and Juliette’s own mother. Once the show migrated to CMT, however, Deacon’s alcoholism became a non-factor. Perhaps the new network’s executives weren’t interested in perpetuating old stereotypes about their side of the music business. Or maybe the show’s new producers realized that whatever narrative power might have surrounded Deacon’s drinking, rehabilitation, relapses, and eventual redemption had run its course once he and Rayna finally got married.

Britton, who never stays on a show for all that long, eventually wanted to pursue other endeavors, so her character was soon killed off in a mean fashion, leaving Deacon to run Rayna’s fledgling record label and raise two daughters, one of whom is his biological child. Now when he’s stressed about being a single father or keeping Rayna’s record label afloat, he’s more likely to bury his face in a book, usually a biography, than to walk into a bar to tempt fate or stare down his past.

More compelling than Deacon’s stereotypical alcoholism are the other ways that Nashville portrayed addiction and mental health problems. When the pressure to maintain his heartthrob appearance and persona drives Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) to start abusing steroids, the character eventually collapses onstage. After the birth of her daughter, Juliette suffers from postpartum depression, and later, after surviving a plane crash and the subsequent gospel-themed album that becomes the first real disappointment of her professional life, she eventually confesses during a radio interview that she’s depressed. She then cancels a planned tour to seek help.

The final season unfortunately features Juliette seeking inner peace through a group that is rightly considered a cult by some of the show’s other characters. This is something of a send-up of Scientology, a Hollywood element rarely broached in narratives about the entertainment industry. Noted Scientologist Tom Cruise, remember, called psychiatry a “quack” field of study more than a decade ago, and disparaged Brooke Shields for taking antidepressants for her postpartum depression.

For most of its six seasons, though, Nashville has explored a fuller range of more meaningful treatment options, with scenes in hospitals, inpatient treatment centers, and therapy appointments to illustrate the realistic efforts taken by men and women who struggle with and seek treatment for addictions and mental health issues.

Nashville is not without flaws and may not have reached its full potential, but its handling of these matters affects many viewers in positive ways. Even just having a popular character say she struggles with depression can be an important revelation to someone watching. These characters, for the most part, invested in the idea that treatment and recovery is not always easy, and that they are worth the years of effort and struggle. In these ways, perhaps the show found an unexpected purpose. You could even say this show gave voice to such matters.

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Andrew Scott is the author of a story collection, Naked Summer, and the editor of 24 Bar Blues: Two Dozen Tales of Bars, Booze, and the Blues. His writing has appeared in Esquire, Ninth Letter, The Cincinnati Review, Mid-American ReviewGlimmer Train StoriesThe Writer’s Chronicle, and other outlets. He lives in Indianapolis. Find Andrew on Twitter.