To put it in the context with which it’s associated, “Nashville” started out as Hank Williams and ended up as Hank Williams Jr.
When this ABC series set in country music’s capital premiered in 2012, it had some of the subtle realism and classic style that the late roots-music pioneer brought to songs like “Your Cheatin’ Heart” and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.” Four seasons later, the show is a louder, tackier, more cartoonish version of what came before. But that doesn’t mean I won’t be sad to see it go after Wednesday’s series finale at 10 p.m.
I mean, have you ever caught a Hank Jr. gig? The guy’s a rootin’-tootin’ riot.
In case you’re not among the dwindling number of folks who’ve kept up with the show, “Nashville” still revolves around a group of interconnected musicians, including the town’s reigning diva, Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton); her lover-turned-guitarist-turned-husband, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten); the troubled young star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere); and Will Lexington (Chris Carmack), a bro-country hunk figuring out how to be gay in a stiflingly conservative industry.
The show’s early seasons put these characters through plenty of drama. Yet the goal in those days always seemed to be a peek behind a musical curtain; even the central conflict between Rayna and Juliette (as the former began to feel usurped by the latter) had mostly to do with business rather than, say, a man.
And “Nashville” spared no detail when it came to presenting that business credibly, arranging cameos by respected figures like Del McCoury and Pam Tillis and shooting scenes in real-life Nashville establishments such as the Bluebird Cafe. To further boost a sense of authenticity, the show hired T Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller, both esteemed producers, to oversee its original music, which came out on a series of successful soundtrack albums.
Last year, Esten, Carmack and another of the series’ stars, Clare Bowen, were even invited to perform at the annual Stagecoach country music festival — a clear indication that “Nashville” had done its job convincing Nashville it was for real.
Somewhere around the beginning of Season 3, though, the show’s action took a hard turn toward the soap-operatic. There were betrayals. There were overdoses. There was a scene in which somebody falls off a high-rise rooftop in veeeery sloooow mooootion.
Which isn’t to say it wasn’t fun: Oliver Hudson was great in his role as a creepy if weirdly endearing record executive, while a multi-episode arc by Christina Aguilera gave her more room to play than an entire season of “The Voice.” Panettiere also did fine work portraying a meltdown by Juliette after she has a baby (even if the actor’s off-set struggles with postpartum depression made enjoying her scenes feel like an act of exploitation).
But as these over-the-top storylines came to occupy the show’s emotional bandwidth, music started to feel like mere window dressing. Lately it’s been possible to watch without even thinking about the fact that Rayna launched her own record label — something you could never imagine with Taraji P. Henson’s Cookie Lyon on “Nashville’s” hip-hop-themed competitor, “Empire.”
What’s surprising, perhaps, is that it’s not just the music-obsessed like me that miss the unique way the show once brought its scene to the screen. Ratings for “Nashville” steadily declined over its run, which suggests that, for the first time in network television history, a mass audience wanted more Del McCoury and less Christina Aguilera.
There’s a slim chance they’ll get that: In the days since ABC canceled the series, fans have taken to social media to wage a #BringBackNashville campaign, one helped along by some of the show’s stars. And Lionsgate, the studio behind “Nashville,” has reportedly said it might look for a new home for the series.
Are you ready for some small ball?
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)