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Life goes on for 'Nashville' after the death of main character Rayna James (Connie Britton). (From left: Charles Eston, Jonathan Jackson and Hayden Panettiere)(Photo: CMT)
The characters on CMT’s Nashville are poring through old home movies, journals and recording sessions on Thursday night’s episode, as they try to come to grips with the death of Rayna Jaymes – country star, wife and mother.
They’re not alone.
For anyone who’s made the TV drama part of their life – from the show’s writers and stars to its devoted fans – the sudden departure of the show’s lead actor, Connie Britton, has been a seismic event. When Britton decided to leave Nashville this year to pursue other opportunities, the show had to find a way to write her character out of the story.
Creator and executive producer Callie Khouri said they eventually came to a “painful, irrevocable decision.”
Rayna had to die.
“We killed a lot of brain cells trying to figure out what would ever compel this character to simply stop being present in the life of her kids and her husband,” Khouri told The Tennessean. “We weren't able to come up with it … We couldn't come up with a plausible way that she would simply disappear.”
And so a grisly car crash ultimately took Rayna’s life in a Feb. 23 episode. After Thursday night, Nashville is taking a mid-season break. When it returns later this year (CMT hasn’t confirmed a return date) its story will also jump ahead a few months, giving it some distance from the trauma.
But Nashville has a tough road ahead, having lost its biggest star, shattered the lives of its characters and deeply upset a portion of its viewers.
“We know what we're risking,” Khouri said. “We know how loyal the fans are. And we have exactly the same strong feelings for these characters that the audience does. I would say in my case, probably even more so.”
Those strong feelings were in evidence on social media in the hours after Rayna’s on-screen death. A sense of betrayal ran through many of the top-voted Facebook comments – particularly from fans who’d rallied to save the show and move after its former network ABC pulled the plug last year.
But then last week’s episode aired – with a powerful musical memorial for Rayna – and some viewers changed their tune. Showrunner Marshall Herskovitz called the hour of TV “maybe the most beautiful episode I’ve been involved with in 20 years.”
“I think you’re going to see that Nashville as a world has a life and a vitality,” he told fans in a post-show discussion. “Even though Rayna is gone.”
Jeremy Chua is among the fans who says he’s still be watching, as he remains drawn to “Nashville, country music and now, Juliette's (Hayden Panettiere’s character) journey toward discovery and gospel.”
That speaks to the appeal of the rest of Nashville's ensemble cast, including Charles Esten, Lennon and Maisy Stella, Clare Bowen, Sam Palladio and other fan favorites. Even when Britton was still on the show, they were the tireless ambassadors of Nashville, performing at the Grand Ole Opry and on annual concert tours.
And the show’s new TV home, CMT, remains vocally pleased with its investment. The cable network bought the rights to the show last year as it builds a stable of original scripted shows. Last week, it continued to trumpet the show’s ratings, as the Feb. 23 episode earned CMT nearly 2 million viewers. It’s also provided a platform for CMT’s latest series, Sun Records, which airs immediately after Nashville.
“Our strategy of attracting new, diverse viewers by leaning into music-based storytelling is working,” CMT President Brian Phillips said in a release, adding that the network was seeing “a ratings lift across the entire schedule.”
“Nashville” may be taking a break from the airwaves, but production in the real Music City rolls on. And as they write and shoot season five’s remain episodes, the show’s creative forces sound more inspired than intimidated.
When she discusses how the characters she created will move on with their lives after Rayna, Khouri reflects on her own experience. She lost her father when she was 16.
“Life-shattering events happen to people every single day,” she said. “They happen to us, and to people we love. And life does go on. You pick yourself and put your life back together. I think showing people in the act of that is every bit as dramatic as showing people falling in love.”
Contact Dave Paulson at 615-664-2278 or on Twitter at @ItsDavePaulson.
Nashville airs at 8 p.m. CT Thursday on CMT.
photo of How will 'Nashville' survive without Rayna Jaymes?
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