Years ago, a friend of mine argued that Dolly Parton’s iconic “Jolene” is a gay anthem. He laid out the evidence, citing the female narrator’s fixation on Jolene’s sumptuous looks, Parton’s pleading, yearning tone as she chants the other woman’s name and the erotic subtext of the narrator projecting her sapphic desires for this alluring redhead on her own husband. Frankly, I thought this was a whole load of horse phooey: “It’s obvious what the song’s about. It’s right there in the words — she doesn’t want this hobag stealing her husband!”
Except as I watched Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings, my attention zoned in on the connection between charismatic Jolene (Julianne Hough) and the simmering wife of the song (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), and I fully expected these women to passionately kiss. In fact, I was pretty disappointed when they didn’t.
And herein lies the foremost problem with Netflix’s sensitive but sloggy eight-part anthology series inspired by Parton’s music and produced by the glittering Tennessean bard herself: There are no twists or surprises that aren’t already laid out in her lyrics.
Once upon a time, this series might have been wholesome, sentimental content scripted for Lifetime or another woman-targeted channel. It certainly looks and feels like a slick but tightly budgeted show from a bygone age, akin to a Hallmark Christmas movie with maybe a few more neurons. It’s bright and femme. The episodes, however, are practically (and painfully) twice as long as any from a network drama — a telltale sign of streaming bloat. In the two episodes available to critics, the first clocks in at 67 minutes and the second lasts an interminable 87. All from a couple of two-to-five-minute ditties.
Parton hosts each episode, introducing the song or biographical story that inspired the forthcoming vignette. Filmed at Dollywood, it’s a classic move intended to arouse nostalgia for a long-ago era of television when pop demigods like Walt Disney and Alfred Hitchcock lured you into their fantastical worlds. Parton, too, is an American institution, and her cult of personality here infuses nurturing and flirtatious southern charm into an otherwise tepid interpretation of her oeuvre.
In “Jolene,” Hough plays the magnetic title character of Parton’s influential hit song, here fleshed out and rendered three-dimensional. Her Jolene is a flinty-voiced country singer with flowing Kool-Aid-red locks, a diverse collection of bralette crop tops and a full-blooded streak of “I choose my choice!” third wave feminism that justifies any morally ambiguous action. (Twenty bucks says the descriptor “feisty” was used either in the script or the casting call.)
Big-hearted Jolene takes an instant shining to a sexually frustrated hausfrau (Williams-Paisley) and their meet-cute at a local honky-tonk blossoms into a friendship tinged with something a little more. (Jolene’s sensuality inspires her friend to partake in some sexualized Andrea Zuckerman role play, which, uh, yeah.) But then the narrative fizzles, veering straight back to the song’s storyline about tempted husbands, and nothing truly surprises you except the absolute face-value reading of the song.
Still, with its attention to women’s desire and the pain of marital deathbed, “Jolene” fares better than semi-magical realist “These Old Bones,” starring Ginnifer Goodwin and Kathleen Turner. The tedious mini-movie takes places in the Smoky Mountains region of 1944, where a craggy and grizzled woods witch (Turner) is put on trial for influencing a land deal that could have ultimately impoverished an entire rural mountain community. Goodwin plays the stony-faced opposing lawyer plagued with the same clairvoyant gifts as the old woman, and if you’re at all familiar with the song on which this story is based, you won’t even blink at the final twist that takes over an hour and 20 minutes to arrive.
Heartstrings is a great conceit tangled up in a cheap execution. By stretching Parton’s songs beyond their breaking point and stuffing the minutes with tangential fluff, the producers end up softening the impact of her heartbreaking stories. With tighter editing and a looser translation of Parton’s works, Heartstrings could have serenaded.
Cast: Julianne Hough, Kimberly Williams-Paisley, Dallas Roberts, Kathleen Turner, Ginnifer Goodwin, Kyle Bornheimer, Gerald McRaney, Delta Burke, Melissa Leo, Bellamy Young, Camryn Manheim, Patricia Wettig, Timothy Busfield
Executive producers: Dolly Parton, Sam Haskell, Patrick Sean Smith
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)