“Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” is a magical breath of monoculture, exhaled gently into the frenzied streaming universe at our time of greatest need. It’s simple, colorful Americana, like Hallmark with the Parton touch, an antidote to the dizzying swirl of content now spinning faster than ever.
Parton mercifully dropped “Heartstrings” onto Netflix amid our nationwide adjustment to phase one of the great streaming splinter, just as Apple and Disney added their own platforms to the ever-growing list of options, shortly before HBOMax and Peacock make their debuts this spring.
“Heartstrings” is not the stuff of Golden Age glory. That’s actually what stands out. It’s soapy ephemera, but soapy ephemera done in the best way. Parton’s touch blesses the show with her signature depth—each of the eight episodes is based on a song from her rich catalog of narratives, which means each of the eight episodes is grounded in sharp wit and time-tested emotional resonance.
Parton has a way of exploring the challenges of life with a cleverness that makes her music sound more accessible than equally complicated works. In reality, she’s a poet, and one of America’s best. “Heartstrings” is often overacted and overwritten, with the soft lighting, familiar faces, and happy endings of a made-for-television movie—but a good one, mostly thanks to the unique imprint of its famous namesake.
That’s what makes it the perfect break from this Peak Golden Age, which layers an unmanageable surplus of high-quality streaming content atop the mass of perfectly watchable options already available on the networks and basic cable. Apple and Disney nudged us further off the cliff this month, but there’s more to come. That unmanageability means viewers are increasingly clustered in niches, and television will be increasingly produced to send them there. (Although bundling might just eventually swing the pendulum back.) “Heartstrings,” like Dolly Parton, is for everyone.
Well, not everyone. The usual suspects will be too cool for it. But Parton herself is one of the last great traces of monoculture, someone who knows the art of mass appeal and proves emphatically it can be done well. There was something shockingly therapeutic about eschewing the catch-up game for “Heartstrings.”
Parton, of course, has an unparalleled ability to transcend the daily fray. (A point made compellingly by WNYC’s new “Dolly Parton’s America” podcast.) “Heartstrings” reflects that, dipping in and out of history, delivering its cliched, but resonant fables in a graceful package that packs a punch too.
It’s not the kind of thing our fractured pop culture conditions us to watch anymore. It’s certainly not the kind of thing I would ever watch by choice, not with the backlog of buzzy shows growing more overwhelming with each passing day. But it felt good to let “Heartstrings” do its worst, soothing me with the reliable beats and stylings of retrograde television, enhanced by Parton’s magic touch.
“Heartstrings” isn’t trying to break any ground, or challenge any notions of what television should be. It’s just fine. It’s fun. It’s cheesy and ridiculous and wholesome, an unlikely dose of relief from the chaos of the streaming wars, and a reminder that our increasingly anemic monoculture has benefits too.