Netflix is making a TV show based on Dolly Parton songs

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And it’s going to be the best worst series you’ve ever seen, says Caroline O’Donoghue

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By Caroline O'Donoghue on

The best thing about a good Dolly Parton movie is that it is usually accompanied by a great Dolly Parton song. Much as I love Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin, there’s no doubting that everyone’s favourite bit of 9 To 5 is the bit where you hear the song 9 To 5. The criminally underappreciated Best Little Whorehouse In Texas ends with a heart-wrenching performance of Dolly Parton singing I Will Always Love You to Burt Reynolds where actual real Dolly tears slide out of Dolly’s real face. Straight Talk, a technically terrible movie that stars James Woods (blegh) as Dolly’s love interest (blegh, blegh) is still a magnificent vehicle for pop-era Dolly Parton songs, even if one of those songs is just Dolly singing “Straight talk, straight talk! Just like on Oprah’s show!”

(Steel Magnolias doesn’t have any Dolly songs, I don’t think, but it does have Sally Field and a young Julia Roberts saying, “It’s not pink, it’s BASHful and BLUSH”, so I am willing to forgive it.)

For a long time, filmmakers created films that simply had opportunities for Dolly to sing in them, but now Netflix has gone one further: starting with the Dolly song, and then just building the entire story around that. Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings is an eight-episode mini-series based around eight of her biggest hits, and, yes, of course, the first one is Jolene.

It will star Julianne Hough (Grease Live and Footloose, apparently?) as Jolene, “a flirtatious free spirit who wants to escape her hometown of Coventry, Georgia, and become a singer-songwriter”. Kimberly Williams-Paisley (Nashville) plays Emily, the wife who is beggin’ of her, please don’t take her man. Dolly will feature in a guest role as “Babe”, an owner of a honky-tonk bar “known for its scantily clad servers and eclectic crowd” that employs Jolene. The show will come out all at once in 2019, and will be watched in its entirety by you, on a Sunday morning, while hungover.

Netflix is going to wilfully combine songs so they can truly milk Dolly’s legacy for all it’s worth. I have no doubt that a charming old man called AppleJack will run a magic Bargain Store, maybe on an island, maybe in a stream

It’s a weird concept, and even as a huge Dolly Parton fan, I have no doubt that it will be… quite bad. The reason we love Jolene is because it’s so heartbreakingly simple, so nuanced, and even though it came out in 1973, still so completely original. The image of a desperate wife breaking the psychological cold war of a suspected affair (is he? Is she? Are they…?) and pleading with the other woman – a woman she knows she will never measure up to – with the full understanding that her begging might be useless. The speaker is not angry with Jolene, not vengeful: she’s simply a peasant pleading with a queen, asking her to spare her life. You can listen to Jolene and fill in all the gaps yourself, and that’s what makes it a perfect song, and Dolly Parton such an unbelievable songwriter. She gives you enough information to hook you in, but leaves your imagination to do the rest.

But all the same, if you’re going to base a scripted TV series on one artist’s greatest hits, Dolly is probably the best choice you can make. The beauty of Dolly Parton’s songwriting is that she takes what a person is supposed to do and feel, and flips it. A person is supposed to despise the Other Woman, not plead with her. A person is supposed to beg their lover to stay, not list out reasons why their lover will be better off without them: “If I should stay, I would only be in your way…” A person is supposed to be glad they left their impoverished life, but in Coat Of Many Colours, Dolly reminds us that actually, “one is only poor only when they choose to be”.

Do I think this TV show will be bad? Yes. Will I watch it? Also yes. I will make fun of one scene before bawling my eyes out at another; I will browse every actor’s IMDb page, half paying attention, and then suddenly be transfixed by a performance and telling everyone in the room to shut up while Dolly talks. I also expect the following:

  • There will be many, many unsubstantiated rumours that Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin make an appearance on an episode of Heartstrings, and they never will.

  • There will be a scene where Dolly, as “Babe”, listens intently to the plight of Jolene and Emily, and then absentmindedly hums “Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Joleeeeeene” while cleaning tables after closing time.

  • There will be many, many scenes where Dolly almost sings but then doesn’t, and then one really good scene where she does.

  • Netflix is going to wilfully combine songs so they can truly milk Dolly’s legacy for all it’s worth. I have no doubt that a charming old man called AppleJack will run a magic bargain store, maybe on an island, maybe in a stream.

  • Google searches for “what’s the deal with Dolly Parton’s invisible husband?” will triple. I have googled this a lot already. The deal is: he’s a very private, decent man and they very probably have an open marriage.


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