How CMT Transformed Nashville Into Its Most Successful (And Progressive) Show

In 2015, Rolling Stone said ABC’s Nashville “reflects real-life struggles in the entertainment industry.”  This was in reference to the country soap’s gay characters, Will Lexington (Chris Carmack) and Kevin Bix (Kyle Dean Massey).

At the time, Bix was a new addition to the Nashville family, and as an openly gay singer, struggled to have a successful career. Lexington was hiding his sexual identity from his fans, while flourishing professionally.

Flash forward to 2017. Nashville moved to CMT for its fifth season earlier this year. Now, Lexington is out and proud, realizing he could still embrace his role as a country music star as an LGBT individual after being forced out of the closet in season three by a rival musician.

Since joining the CMT roster, Nashville has become the network’s highest-rated and most-watched series ever. Even after losing a beloved main character (Rayna James) in a tragic car crash, the show has remained wildly successful.

At least part of this success can be attributed to CMT’s inventive and progressive storyline and character development. Take Lexington’s evolution, for example. Entertainment blog Cinemablend commended CMT on “sprucing up” his character, giving him more than just romantic story arcs and LGBT-drama to fill his screen time.

Even the network’s portrayal of his sexuality has adopted more realistic angles. Even though Music City is full of heartbreak and drama, being a gay country singer doesn’t have to be riddled with conflict. In a recent episode that aired during Pride Month, Lexington got the opportunity to be a brand spokesperson for Budweiser.

Watch the fictional spot:

Lexington had his doubts about taking the role as Budweiser’s spokesperson—not because he was afraid to showcase his LGBT identity, but because he was concerned a corporate sponsorship might affect his musical integrity. His fears were quelled by his boyfriend, Silicon Valley billionaire Zach Welles (Cameron Scoggins)  who encouraged him to film the spot. “Imagine John Wayne coming out of the closet: an openly gay man portrayed as the pinnacle of masculinity,” said Welles. “It would be historic.”

In the fictional universe of Nashville, it was. While the wider real-world impact was less dramatic, the fusion of a major brand name with a progressive plotline (part of a larger deal CMT inked with the legendary lager corporation during last year’s Upfronts) has important ramifications, positioning the show as a platform for exploring the important social issues of our time.

The ad shows Lexington walking through Nashville, every part the tall, dark and handsome country heartthrob. He wears a black suit and matching cowboy hat, casually saving an elderly pedestrian from being struck by a car and catching a falling paint can with one hand. He winds up in a saloon and cracks open a cold beer, all to the backdrop of his song Good Man.

Rolling Stone summarizes his persona as “a beer-guzzling cross between Johnny Cash, Ellen DeGeneres and a Boy Scout.” In other words, he’s an badass, heroic country star who happens to be gay.

In less than two minutes, this faux Budweiser spot managed to send a subtle message of diversity and inclusion, values consistent with Viacom’s overall social justice orientation.

Nashville has been particularly focused on the social environment of its characters this season. An episode last month explored police misconduct and racial profiling with an unnerving scene in which two characters—Maddie, a young white woman, and Clay, a young black man—are pulled over while driving in an affluent neighborhood. The alleged offense? Rolling through a stop sign, although this isn’t exactly how viewers saw it.

GIF courtesy of CMT.

Watch the arrest scene at the end of this clip:

The textbook routine of racial profiling unfolds: Clay calmly tells the officer he is reaching for his wallet, lest the officer become alarmed and shoot him out of “fear,” an outcome we’ve seen play out tragically in real life. Maddie lashes out at the officer, arguing that Clay shouldn’t be treated differently because of his skin color. Her agitation escalates the situation, especially after she leaves the car to film the incident. Both characters are arrested.

It was an important moment for the show and for CMT, and one that critics applauded. “Color me concerned,” wrote Vultures Max Weiss. “Nashville took on racist policing and managed to do it in a sensitive and insightful way.”

To CMT’s credit, this season has shown both positive turns like Lexington’s smashing ad campaign and detrimental blows such as Clay and Maddie’s brush with racial profiling through a hyper-realistic lens. Nashville is CMT’s most eminent show because viewers tune in for enchanting rhapsodies of country magic and gritty slices of everyday humanity. It’s challenging to make a dramatic soap consistent with cultural ennui and everyday politics, but CMT does this, and manages to avoid losing any of Music City’s sparkle in the process.

Watch new episodes of Nashville Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CMT. Watch old episodes on the website.

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