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15:41

Watching “Nashville” in Iowa

Lonely, depressed, and newly single, a writer finds refuge in the comment section

I’ve always found comfort in camp. I used to hurry home after school to watch the last few minutes of General Hospital with my mom before she switched the channel to Inside Edition. Melodrama was the base of my media food pyramid. It’s no mystery, then, how I later came to be a fan of the ABC musical drama Nashville. It’s not a very good show, but it was delightful country camp — a bedazzled rabbit hole that I dove into on Wednesday nights in 2012 as an escape from the melancholia that crept in every time I returned to my empty apartment. Lengthy elliptical sessions and trips to the grocery store killed only so much time in the evenings, so I turned to Nashville for refuge.

But after each episode ended, I’d look around and realize that I was still in Iowa, alone with my thoughts on a show that nobody else watched. It would have been easy, back then, to find a co-worker or a guy at a bar eager to engage in a spirited postmortem about the latest episode of Breaking Bad. But where was I going to find anyone willing to gush with me over Nashville’s dreamy male protagonist, Deacon Claybourne, or to contemplate whether my crush was indicative of some unearthed daddy issues? The show wasn’t exactly a hit with my particular educated, millennial demographic — and besides, when I lived in Iowa, I spent most of my free time alone.

Things changed one evening when I discovered a cohort of my Nashville-loving peers congregated in an obscure corner of the internet, deep in the comment section of Vulture’s weekly Nashville recaps. Finally, I had found my people. Sifting through the conversations in the comments could eat up more time than an elliptical session, a grocery run, and an hour-long TV drama combined.

The Nashville pilot arrived right when I needed it. It was the antidote to my comparatively crappy real life: I had spent the two years since graduation feeling mostly miserable and convinced I’d be happier with a change of scenery or a career upgrade. So, when I wrapped up my job teaching English in Spain in the summer of 2012, I sprinted back to my Midwestern college town — Iowa City — where my boyfriend still lived and where I had landed a job at the local newspaper. I was 23 and thought if I could just settle in somewhere for more than six months, my feelings of instability would subside and the turbulence of daily life would magically level out on its own. I’d start to remember how to be happy again.

Within six weeks of schlepping my stuff back to Iowa, I was single. I wasn’t shaken by the breakup; I had seen it coming. But I was renting a room from an acquaintance just down the block from my ex, and now I needed my own space. For the first time in my life, I was determined to live alone: No roommates. No co-signers. No need to worry about anyone but me.

Most people my age lived in Iowa City, walking distance from the downtown bar and restaurant scene, but I could only afford to live alone if I migrated to the suburbs. I found a two-bedroom apartment in Coralville, Iowa, for $670 a month. The place was situated in a strip mall, next door to a Burger King and a tattoo parlor. I was flanked by budget motels, gas stations, and many of the state’s registered sex offenders — my little corner of Coralville wasn’t within 2,000 feet of a school or daycare. The unit was ludicrously large for me and my sparse collection of hand-me-down furniture. My aunt and uncle donated an unwanted sectional couch to my cause, and I carefully laid out an old kid’s Pocahontas beach towel in lieu of a welcome mat. What the place lacked in charm it made up for in being mine, and only mine.

But moving into your own place can be more fraught than idyllic when you’re fresh off a breakup and two years deep into a depression that you’ve rationalized as post-college blues. At first it was refreshing to live in a space where I couldn’t hear my roommates reach climax or clip their toenails. But I started to wonder if the alone time was doing me more harm than good. Weeknight bottles of wine that seemed socially acceptable around roommates took on a darker tone as I singlehandedly polished off another cheap pinot alone in my oversized apartment.

I also quickly learned that despite the familiarity of my college town, most of its familiar faces were gone. I spent more than 20 minutes crafting a Facebook post one Friday night, trying my hardest to exude chill instead of desperation as I put out a thinly veiled call to see who was around and wanted to hang out. No one took the bait. When I was lucky, an out-of-town friend would glow green on Gchat and I’d have another soul to talk to, even if it was just for a few minutes before they went out for the night. I called my mom so often that her voice started straining to feign enthusiasm each time she picked up the phone.

By the end of 2012, I was in constant pursuit of connection. I wanted nothing more than a kindred spirit to pass the time with — really, any person with a pulse would suffice, kindred or otherwise. By Christmastime, I had started dating a co-worker. He was the photo negative of my ex, so I figured it couldn’t go wrong. But it could, and it did. The relationship might as well have been quantified in drunken spats and instances of emotional withholding, and it created a wedge between me and my only close friend in town. For all the time I spent seeking an interpersonal remedy for my loneliness, I never considered that it might be time to seek help. An hour-long drama on ABC was as close as I’d get to 60 minutes in a chair across from a therapist.

Within the first few minutes of the Nashville pilot, we learn that Rayna Jaymes (played by Connie Britton) is the show’s principle protagonist. She’s a Reba-esque country music legend, maternal but not matronly. She performs to a packed house at the Grand Ole Opry, at ease on stage in a supremely sequined jacket, fist pumping into the air before wrapping up her song with a “Thanks y’all!” directed to the crowd. Rayna is the show’s Venerated Queen of Country. We also learn in those opening scenes that Juliette Barnes (played by Hayden Panettiere) is the new kid on the country scene — the poorly behaved prima donna dressed in a strapless-dress-cum-tube-top who gets what she wants at all costs, which includes sleeping with her producer and shamelessly flirting with any vaguely attractive dudes who cross her path.

The show’s earliest episodes rely heavily on the Rayna/Juliette dichotomy — Rayna ever revered, Juliette as the living image of reckless entitlement. It was formulaic, and Nashville wasn’t exactly breaking the glass ceiling with its representations of women. The protagonists would claw at each other during a drawn-out catfight before sharing a few tender moments and writing a lovely duet together. This was a musical drama, after all.

Yet, despite the show’s shaky premise, Britton and Panettiere were really, really good. They made me want to watch every minute of the melodrama. I’d impatiently sit through a scene with Rayna’s bland-as-skim-milk husband, Teddy, or an interlude with a character we’d never see again (whatever happened to the reporter Deacon slept with in season one?). And when I stumbled upon Vulture’s Nashville recap, I discovered a community of viewers who watched the show the same way I did — sneeringly, but also lovingly and kind of obsessively.

The recapper for Vulture, writer Max Weiss, seemed to feel the same way. Reading her recaps quickly became my favorite weekly ritual. I’d often do so at work, where I sat a few seats away from the co-worker I was dating. He and I were usually fighting, which made the hours between nine and five especially unbearable — other than Thursday afternoons, when I treated myself to a close read of Weiss’ latest recap. It was like opening an email from my funniest pal. Weiss interjected her recaps with an exaggerated twang (poking fun at the show’s dialogue that was heavily peppered with y’alls and drawls). When Rayna’s two adolescent daughters fawned over Juliette during season one, Weiss wrote, “Kids today. Always insensitively fan-girling over their mama’s arch-rival.”

I snorted with laughter and did my best to prevent spit-takes as I followed along each week. It felt like Weiss was writing the recap to me, and by the end of season one, I had started to think of her as an old friend.

If Weiss was an old friend, then her commenters were my fellow barflies at our own Nashville-themed pub. Weiss slung the beers and the one-liners while the rest of us talked shit about Deacon’s niece Scarlett and her overdone southern accent (the poor Australian actress who played Scarlett tried her best). When I read through the threads of conversations among commenters, I felt seen, even though, technically, I wasn’t — I was a lurker, never once leaving a comment of my own. I showed up for the barside banter in silent solidarity, nodding emphatically at other people’s theories about Rayna’s father, Lamar, and his shady dealings in business and possible wife-murdering.

If I had been feeling like my old self, I might have joined in the conversation. I’ve never been shy about speaking up at work, in class, or anywhere else. During and after college, I had a reputation among my friends for penning snappy blog posts and op-eds about Kesha (née Ke$ha) and female body image, or writing impassioned defenses of the lowest of lowbrow reality shows (including VH1’s Charm School 3 with Ricki Lake; I stand by it). The old me wouldn’t have hesitated to jump in with the other commenters. But in 2012, it felt like I had emotionally flatlined. I was enough of my old self to appreciate the snark in the comment section, but I was too worn out from the effort of moving through each day while depressed to partake in it myself. It was comfort enough to know that other people like me were watching the show — people who were critical, somewhat caustic, and at times a little too self-aware as we lapped up this glorified soap opera. But every week, in spite of ourselves, there we were.

Reading the comments was addictive. The conversation crackled like a live discussion among friends: “raynas [sic] hugh hefner robe was way chic,” wrote a commenter called uws4life. “that is exactly what she would wear before going out to a party.” Weiss dedicated an entire section of a season two recap to dissecting some of the peripheral characters’ hairstyles: “Tandy up and got a haircut mid-episode. Who does that? You get a new haircut (and a strangely immobile forehead) between seasons or maybe after a long hiatus. Not during the commercial break!” To anyone else, the hyperfocused commentary might have seemed like a petty attention to detail. But to me, from the recliner of my donated sectional — wearing sweatpants, eating fistfuls of peanuts, and drinking a Miller Lite — that pettiness was the most fun I’d have all week. I could talk for hours about Tandy’s new haircut, or at least read along for hours while strangers online talked about it.

Admittedly, as a journalist who used to spend a chunk of the day moderating online comments as part of my job, simply hearing the words “comment section” still brings to mind an all-caps crusade led by a semiliterate trolls. But the Nashville recap comment section felt like something beautiful and unspoiled. Even as the commenters debated the plausibility of an incestuous love triangle between Juliette, Deacon, and Juliette’s mother, there was a pureness to the conversation that I’d never seen in any subreddit or forum.

Perhaps my time would have been better spent in an online support group for depressed twentysomethings. But the Nashville commenters reminded me of the way I used to feel — quick-witted, a competent conversationalist, a little snarky. I was none of those at the time, but peering into the conversation made me feel like maybe someday I would be again. In a different context, these internet strangers were people I could see myself hanging out with on a Friday night. People who would share a cheap bottle of pinot with me.

Or maybe it was good old-fashioned Freudian regression that sent me into the open arms of Nashville, harkening back to those early memories of watching General Hospital with my mom. The show and its recap comments filled my nostalgic need for campy pop culture — one of my oldest sources of comfort.

Along with kitsch, self-deprecation is my longstanding and destructive crutch when I’m most in need of comfort. In 2012, I joked often about my loneliness, especially before I started dating my co-worker. It was a tired but favorite trope: How pathetic, I’m a single lady living alone, all I need is a cat or four, call me Liz Lemon, who will perform the Heimlich when I choke on a ham sandwich? It felt better to poke fun at my circumstances than to confront my loneliness. The more I made jokes about what a sad sack I was, the more I internalized that negativity.

Meanwhile, I tried to make things work in my relationship with my co-worker despite our glaring incompatibility, and sharing an office space made matters worse. We fell into a draining rhythm of fighting, reconciling, and, in my case, rationalizing. I begged him for a sign that he cared: an unprompted arm around my shoulder, or even an update to his Facebook profile to replace “single” with no relationships status at all. Instead, he withheld affection. He blew off plans with me in favor of plans with his buddies. When it came to his abysmal communication skills, he told me exhaustedly that he was “working on it.” All I wanted from him was the bare minimum, but I started to believe I was expecting too much. I ran myself into the ground trying to force him to care as much as I did. A typical night together ended with me in tears while he chain-smoked in silence, and I felt more alone in the relationship than I had felt before we were together — despite spending 40 hours a week in the same room as him.

I recently reached out to Max Weiss. The spirited conversation among the recap commenters had been sustenance on my bleakest days in Iowa, and Weiss was a familiar and reliable voice when everything else felt volatile and uncertain. I wanted her to know. I was a bit embarrassed to out myself as a recap fangirl, but she responded quickly and graciously. Although I’d hoped for an IRL chat (or as close to it as possible, with her being in Baltimore and me now in Milwaukee), I chalked up our email interview to something symbolic of my own online relationship with her recaps. The fourth wall between us remained mostly intact.

Before she started recapping Nashville for Vulture, Weiss told me she recapped reality shows like The Bachelor and Top Chef on her blog. “I confess I was loath to recap Nashville,” she told me. “For starters, it was scripted…Also, I’m an East Coast girl and (gulp!) not even a really big fan of country music.” (I, too, had been wooed by the show’s romantic portrayal of the good ol’ South and country music, despite my Yankee sensibilities.)

I told Weiss about my situation — that I was an avid follower of her recaps and a lurker in the comment section because it made me feel like I wasn’t alone during a time when I was struggling. I asked her if anyone else had ever reached out to her with a similar story.

“You’re the first person to tell me that the recaps/comment section helped them get through a tough time. That means the world to me,” she said. “Sometimes, when you do silly stuff like recaps and you feel like maybe you should be pursuing more ‘serious’ journalism, you try to convince yourself that providing humor and distraction to people can be meaningful. So it’s kind of awesome to hear you say that.”

My fog of depression eventually started to lift, as it always does for me, even though it never feels that way when I’m in the thick of it. By the start of Nashville’s season two in September 2013, I had accepted a new job in Milwaukee and found a subletter to take over the lease on my apartment in Iowa. Emboldened by new beginnings, I ended things with my co-worker.

I unceremoniously stopped tuning in to Nashville sometime during season four, not long before ABC axed the show. CMT soon picked it up, and Nashville lives on there, but I haven’t been watching. After I moved, I slowly started to find myself again, even though I had been convinced just a few years earlier that the best parts of me were gone for good. By 2015, I had also grown weary of Nashville’s ever-complicated storyline and rotating cast of characters. As Weiss wrote all the way back in her season one, episode 10 recap: “Sure, with any soap-opera-ish show, there are going to be far-fetched plot twists and over-the-top characterizations. But still, the show has to have its own internal logic. It has to feel somehow plausible in the world that it has created.”

For me, Nashville no longer felt plausible in the world that it created. But more important, I no longer inhabited the same world in which I existed in 2012. I was becoming comfortable being alone with myself. I could read the comments for entertainment instead of emotional fulfillment, and my old compulsion to pore over the recaps every Thursday had started to fade. It was time to move on from Nashville. And it was time to say goodbye to the old friends who never knew me, would never miss me, and would never know how lucky I had been to find them.