Anyone who doesn’t think Dolly Parton is a national treasure should click away now. I know this looks like a review of Dolly Parton Heartstrings suitable for all audiences. In truth, though, it’s a memorandum aimed only at those Netflix viewers (granted, there are millions) who were delighted to hear that Dolly Parton was returning to series TV. We’re all overwhelmed by our watch lists, and we can’t watch everything. And I’m sure that even longtime fans of Dolly are a little worried that this new thing of hers might, you know, suck.
Through her amazing 55-year career, Parton has bobbed and weaved through the shifting terrain of the entertainment industry with a pluck and versatility that befits her dirt-poor Tennessee roots. Starting out as Porter Wagoner’s try-hard protege, it took years for her to carve out a solo career as a singer and (more importantly) songwriter. From there she rode country’s crossover wave into global pop stardom, the movies, roots music, her personal answer to Branson, and a seemingly endless list of collaborations that have kept her remarkably relevant.
But even calculated risks fail, especially in this business. There was that Sylvester Stallone film, the Broadway musical based on 9 to 5 and, notably, three different attempts at serial television in the 1970s and ’80s, each titled either Dolly or Dolly! and each lasting just one season. Of course, Parton has been a television fixture for decades, most recently as co-host of the CMAs. But what I see in Dolly Parton Heartstrings is that tenacious side of her, the one that’s asking why she can’t seem to hold a TV audience’s attention.
The idea behind Heartstrings is that country music tells memorable stories about people, and some of the most memorable people are the ones performing the songs. It’s an idea so bankable that Ken Burns just built a PBS megafilm around it. In Heartstrings, each episode is a scripted re-imagining of the stories behind eight Dolly Parton country classics, which are themselves retellings of memories from Parton’s life.
The first episode is about one of her most enduring songs, “Jolene,” presented here as a modern-day suburban love triangle. Jolene (Julianne Hough) is a talented singer-songwriter who can’t quite work up the nerve to move to Nashville, so she contents herself to tend bar at a honky-tonk run by the motherly Babe (Dolly) and sleep with unavailable men. One day Jolene bonds with an unhappily married lady (Kimberly Williams-Paisley at her Kimberly Williams-est) and they become a two-person support group. All seems to be going well until the husband (Dallas Roberts) gets involved …
The song-into-movie genre is a crowd-pleaser going back to the Harper Valley PTA film. In the early 1980s, when Parton’s duet partner Kenny Rogers was riding the pop wave, he made telefilms out of “Coward of the County” and “The Gambler,” the latter being so successful that CBS made four sequels. And Parton has already done a pilot of sorts for Heartstrings with her 2015 TV film Coat of Many Colors, based on her autobiographical hit song.
But Parton’s Madea-like role in the “Jolene” episode is a big part of its appeal, which is why I found “These Old Bones,” the only other episode Netflix previewed for critics, such a letdown. In this adaptation of her 2002 song about a clairvoyant old woman from her childhood, Parton is nowhere to be seen, except when introducing the episode. Set in the 1940s and starring Kathleen Turner and Ginnifer Goodwin, the episode is well-told in a generic Hallmark Hall of Fame sort of way. It needed more Dolly. (Netflix says that some, but not all, episodes of Heartstrings have roles for Parton.)
Also, I was disappointed Parton didn’t make an episode out of “I Will Always Love You.” Maybe in Season 2, because as Nashville stories go, it doesn’t get much better than this. She wrote “I Will Always Love You” as a heartfelt goodbye to Porter Wagoner after they parted ways professionally, and was a modest hit when she recorded it. Then Elvis Presley wanted to record it. That would’ve been a huge boost to Parton’s career at the time. But Elvis’ manager Colonel Tom Parker demanded part ownership of the song. Reluctantly, Parton put the kibosh on the deal. “I cried all night,” she said later. Years later, when Whitney Houston was finally old enough to record the song, “I made enough money to buy Graceland.”
Back then Parton knew the difference between ambition and desperation. But I wonder if she’s being a little too cautious with Heartstrings. There comes a point when every veteran performer needs to leave the stage. I was reminded of that at a George Jones concert in western Kansas a few years back. He seemed lost up there with his traveling troupe of up-and-comers as they covered his hits (and performed a few of their own).
Dolly Parton has done an excellent job of choosing young performers to carry her legacy forward — it helps that she’s godmother to Miley Cyrus — but it’s way too soon for her to be eyeing the exits. She still lights up a screen and, despite being worth half a billion, exudes old-fashioned hard work and simple values. Even her take on cosmetic surgery, of which I’m not a fan, is admirable for its honesty. “If I see something sagging, bagging or dragging,” she said, “I’ll get it nipped, tucked or sucked.”
Well, good news Parton Nation, Heartstrings does not suck. Know what would make it suck even less? More Dolly.
Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.