Last season, rising star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) made the stupid mistake of having sex with repellent label head Jeff Fordham (Oliver Hudson) after finding out her boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson) still had some feelings for his ex-girlfriend Scarlett (Clare Bowen). Even stupider, the sex turned out to be unprotected.
A pregnancy story line would not have been surprising, given how fast Nashville burns through story lines anyway. And Panettiere is pregnant in real life, which both gave the show an opportunity and meant that “Nashville” could not take the convenient television way out by giving her a miscarriage. Instead, the program took an equally common route and gave Juliette a change of heart about the abortion she initially intended to have.
The choice was not striking. The way “Nashville” led Juliette to it was, though. Convinced that the fetus was Fordham’s, Juliette charged ahead and scheduled an appointment for a termination. Once she had changed into her gown at the doctor’s office, a technician informed her that Tennessee law requires patients to be notified of how far along they are.
This is not actually true. Tenneessee requires parental consent for minors who want to obtain abortions and has limitations on telemedicine, public funding for abortions and insurance coverage for abortion under the Affordable Care Act, but it does not require that women view ultrasounds or receive counseling before they can have abortion procedures. And explaining to a woman how advanced her pregnancy is seems like something her obstetrician ought to be doing anyway, legal requirements or not.
But while the law may have been dubious, the plot mechanics were ingenious. Upon learning that her pregnancy was further advanced than she assumed, Juliette figured out that the baby was Avery’s, not Jeff’s. Instead of being a testament to one of the worst decisions she’s ever made, Juliette’s pregnancy suddenly becomes an opportunity for a do-over on one of her best, her relationship with Avery.
After her visit to the doctor she is just as wealthy and capable of hiring help as she was before. She certainly has the same emotional issues stemming from her turbulent childhood. Rather than hand waving these issues away so Juliette will keep the baby for the sake of future plot and character development rather than anything true to her nature, “Nashville” managed to have her get new information that would genuinely complicate her decision-making.
Most change-of-heart story lines are rooted in rather old-fashioned anti-abortion pitches about motherhood. Female characters like Amber (Mae Whitman) on “Parenthood” decide to have babies out of a sense of emotional connection to the pregnancy, however impractical. Sometimes, young women like Bev, one of the two main characters in Emily Gould’s “Friendship,” decide that a pregnancy will force them to right their faltering lives. Pregnancy, in these depictions, is a condition that softens the female characters we have come to know, altering their brains in subtle ways.
If “Nashville’ is smart, they will not do this to Juliette, who is one of the more compelling female characters to come along in network drama in the last several years, an appealing synthesis of flint and raw vulnerability. This kickoff to her pregnancy story line, in which the information changes rather than Juliette’s essential character, seems like a promising indication.
Pro-choice advocates, frustrated (as I often am) by television’s coyness about and creative avoidance of abortion, would not be wrong to be annoyed at “Nashville” for muddying the state of abortion law or for coming up with yet another way to drive a female character into pregnancy. But both they and people who oppose abortion should think about this episode seriously.
“Nashville” is unlikely to reframe the entire abortion debate, nor is anyone else. But it was still striking to see a show focus on a specific woman and her circumstances, rather than trying to sell her on what kind of woman she ought to be.