New 'Nashville' Boss on CMT Move, and Deeper, More Diverse Season 5

"It was definitely an experiment," co-showrunner Marshall Herskovitz tells THR about the new tone. "I had no idea if it would work or not."
Mark Levine/CMT
'Nashville'; Marshall Herskovitz (inset)

When Nashville kicks off its fifth season on Thursday, the country music drama begins a new chapter in more ways than one.

In addition to finding a new home on CMT, which partnered with Hulu to resurrect the series in June one month after ABC surprisingly pulled the plug, there will be two new showrunners at the helm deciding what's next for Rayna, Deacon and — if she lives — Juliette. Writers and executive producers Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, best known for creating thirtysomething and My So-Called Life, take over for Dee Johnson.

The drama marks the duo's first TV series in eight years, since the 2008 NBC entry Quarterlife, and one of the first projects the Emmy-winning team has worked on that they did not create.

In advance of CMT's sneak peek of the season five premiere, The Hollywood Reporter spoke with Herskovitz about "slowing down" the storytelling in season five, those two series-regular departures ("We just didn't know how to serve those characters") and the leap from his longtime home at ABC to CMT ("I don't want to be where I'm not wanted").

I read that you hadn't seen the show before, so what appealed to you about coming on board Nashville?

I knew of it, but I hadn't seen it. I sat down to watch it and I saw two different approaches in the show. One I could relate to very, very intensely and the other is something that we see in television a lot and works very well in television, I just don't know how to do it, which is a sort of externalized, incident-based storytelling where things happen to people and they happen at a very fast rate. I have nothing against this, I just literally don't know how to do it. It's not my approach. My approach is always from inside the people and inside their emotional dilemmas. And what I saw in Nashville was this sort of interesting dynamic tension between these very strong characters who did have these strong inner lives and this kind of externalized storytelling, and I thought there was a way to sort of do justice to the beating heart and the beating heart of these characters and slow down the storytelling, go deeper and tell more intimate, more emotional stories. It was definitely an experiment. I had no idea if it would work or not, but I had a good sense it would because the characters are so strong and the cast was so strong.

How do you go about making a tone change like that while also making sure the show stays true to itself for those viewers that have been watching the last four seasons?

First of all, I don't think I could have done it without [series creator] Callie Khouri. Callie's decision to stay on was key. I think we were at first wary of each other and then within the first week, that we realized we basically saw everything exactly the same. It's been a total delight working with her, but I think she and Geoffrey Nauffts, who was one of the writer-producers who stayed with the show as well, have really helped us stay onboard and not contradict storylines or characters or character arcs that were set up before. And, really, look — Callie is, in many ways, the heart of the show, so if a story worked for her, I felt good. She was very much in favor of this idea of deepening the stories and slowing down the rate of storytelling. And when I say "slowing down," I want to make sure that it's clear; slowing down just means that you don't try to tell a whole story. First of all, you don't try and tell seven stories in one episode, you try and tell two or three stories in one episode. What that means is what you're slowing down is that, for instance, if I'm telling stories about Scarlett and Gunnar, I can’t tell a complete story about them in every episode because I'm using episodes to tell other people's stories. So the rate at which we tell the Scarlett-Gunnar overarching story slows down. It's not that the episodes feel slow, it's that we just take longer to complete these story arcs.

You're also dealing with a smaller ensemble because you have two series regulars not coming back full-time (Aubrey Peeples and Will Chase). Why did you think it was important to downsize the cast?

We didn't make the cast smaller because we added people. What we felt was that — first of all, I'm a huge admirer of Will Chase and Aubrey Peeples; I think they're wonderful. Their characters, for me, had sort of reached an endpoint. I didn’t know how to write them anymore. I didn’t know what else to say for their characters. And we just brought back Will Chase and we will try and bring back Aubrey Peeples, it's not like they just disappeared from the face of the earth. But in terms of regulars and with ongoing stories, we just didn't know how to serve those characters anymore and we did want to make room for new characters and we've added three or even more new characters. So in many ways, it's a bigger cast now but there were certain names we wanted, we wanted different voices in the show, we wanted more diversity in the show, we wanted to serve certain aspects of the storylines. For instance, we wanted to give Maddie a boyfriend, we wanted to tell stories about Highway 65 and that entailed creating a new character whom we love named Zach Wells. And also, we discovered Rhiannon Giddens, who plays Hallie Jordon, an incredible singer who just got nominated for two Grammys. She's essentially never acted before. It turned out she was just an incredible natural. She made the transition seamlessly.

We've actually expanded the cast is the truth, but we've done it in such a way so that the characters are in relationship to other characters, so that when I tell a Juliette story, I can involve Hallie or when I tell a Maddie story, then I can involve her new boyfriend. So it's trying to integrate all these characters together in ways that you can tell their stories together.

Coming into the show, what was your biggest challenge as the new co-showrunner?

I think it boils down to two areas: One has to do with personalities and the other has to do with story. In terms of personality, I was just very mindful that this is a group of people that have been together for four years and they were like a family. And by the way, families always have their dysfunctions as well as their functions, and I had to be respectful of what worked and who was there always doing a great job and it was very important for me to listen and observe and try and make sense of the dynamic and not fix what wasn't broken. It was really important to me to let everyone know, very clearly, that I was there to help, not to make their lives more difficult. This took some time. … I had to go to Nashville and get to know people and really try to understand how the set worked and how the actors worked and how they looked at their characters. I was there to really make this a happier experience for them, and I think once I got that message across, I think they trusted me and then it became much easier.

Then, the other part is, of course, story, and I think that's what we've talked about, is to try and analyze what's been done, what's left to be done, where can we find openings for real drama and tell it the way we tell it. So that was also a very big challenge. We had to learn all the episodes and become really familiar with all the storylines and there had been many, many storylines. You know sometimes you have to make decisions: Were we going to ignore certain storylines that had taken place in the past, or were we going to play them up? So it was a group endeavor, and I give a lot of credit to the wonderful staff that I have. Almost all of them are people I've worked with before and who were willing to come into this venture with Ed and me and that part's been a lot of fun.

You're also coming on the show right as it's making the move to a new home at CMT. What hesitations did you have about that move? What has it been like working with CMT thus far?

Well, first of all, working with CMT's been fantastic. I actually prefer being at CMT, and I don't mean in any way to disparage ABC; we had a long relationship with ABC, but, look — ABC canceled it. (Laughs.)  We were on board before they canceled it, we were there when they canceled it. I wasn't real happy about that. (Laughs.) They didn't believe in the show anymore. So if they didn’t believe in the show anymore, I don't want to be where I'm not wanted. Our plans were the same, and I think ABC would have been supportive of what we were doing, if they were supportive of the show, but they weren't. So if it didn’t fit in with their strategy, then so be it. I'd rather be where I'm wanted. CMT has been an incredible partner for us.

First of all, Ed and I came up at a moment in time in television when writer-producers were really allowed to run their own shows. We did not have network interference. We never got notes from ABC on thirtysomething, we just did our thing. And there was never an attempt to control what goes on the way you experience in network television today, where they have meetings about the production design and meetings about the cinematography and meetings about the music. That was unheard of for us when we started, and we made it clear coming in that we can only work the way we've worked in the past. And CMT has been incredible about that. They trust us and they let us do what we do best and they've been incredibly supportive. I think their promotion has been incredible. They're very committed to the show. It's been a great partnership. I think often in these moments in life when something disappointing happens, it creates an opportunity, and I think what's happened here.

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CMT will air a sneak peek of the first hour of Nashville's two-hour season five premiere Thursday at 9 p.m. ET/PT. The two-hour premiere airs Thursday, Jan. 5, at 9 p.m.

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