I saw a story in The New York Times last week that declared there’s one thing we can all agree upon: Dolly Parton is a national treasure and must be protected at all costs. OK, the Times said we could all agree Dolly is amazing, but the other phrasing is all my own.
She’s already an East Tennessee legend and even beyond, especially among older folks. But, thanks to last year’s smash hit “Dumplin’,” a multi-episode podcast and now a Netflix series, Dolly’s reaching a whole new generation of fans.
“Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” is an eight-episode series of stories based on the songs and stories of Dolly with each episode bearing the name of one her songs. The episodes are self-contained stories and can be watched in any order.
One of the episodes is based on what is arguably one of Parton’s biggest hits, “Jolene.” The song is a woman’s plea to a red-headed temptress named Jolene. She’s got “eyes of emerald green” and the singer claims she can’t compete with her. In fact, she even says, “Please don’t take him just because you can.”
When I was a kid, I loved the song. As an adult, I recognize there’s a pretty big problem in the song. If your partner will only stay with you because someone else doesn’t want him you can do much better.
Julianne Hough stars as Jolene, a red-headed bartender who’s basically a real-life version of the song. She likes skimpy clothes, flirting and even sleeps with a married man.
Kimberly Williams is Emily, a wife whose husband skips date night as often as possible. Their scheduled “sex nights” don’t go any better. Emily becomes friends with Jolene after the latter saves her from a drunk groper when Emily ends up solo after her husband bails on her.
Their friendship is odd and never quite feels sincere. Granted, that could be because Jolene’s a bit over the top in her exuberance, and Emily is as boring as a rock. I’m not sure where her acting chops went, but they certainly aren’t present in this episode. The storyline is meant to be painful, but the acting makes it even more so.
‘These Old Bones’
I should have watched this episode first. The episode is set in 1944, and Kathleen Turner stars as a backwoods woman, Bones, who has the gift of sight. Her neighbors come to her for advice, and she reads her bones, which are a bunch of animal bones she carries in a small sack at her waist.
The neighbor kids think she’s a witch, and she’s definitely a colorful character. She’s also the biggest enemy of a timber company that’s trying to buy up land for development. Bones has no desire to sell, and she tells those who ask her opinion that her bones declare no good can come from selling.
The timber company hires a fancy law firm that sends one of the Smokies’ own, Genevieve (Ginnifer Goodwin), to deal with Bones. It’s her first big break, and it’s a case she can’t afford to lose.
When Bones refuses to sell, Genevieve takes her to court, and it becomes a battle of two strong-willed women, both of whom have everything to lose.
Turner is the perfect Bones, and Goodwin is a talented actress in her own right. Her Southern accent goes in and out a bit, but the episode is still a powerful story of heartbreak and determination.
Netflix describes “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” as “soapy, heartfelt and emotional.” It’s their words, not mine, but I’d be lying if I said they weren’t on the money. “Jolene” is pure melodrama that’s laid on with a heavy hand. “These Old Bones” has a bit of its own, but the story draws you in, and you want to hear more of Bones’ tale.
Other episodes include “J.J. Steed” about a female sharpshooter in the Wild West, and “If I Had Wings.” On that last one, I saw Gerald McRaney and a hospital bed in the trailer, so I’ll go ahead and say “proceed with caution.” Two of the episodes focus on love stories: “Sugar Hill” and “Down from Dover.” Another, “Cracker Jack,” is the story of four old friends who reunite and must come to terms with their past.
The last episode, “Two Doors Down,” apparently caused some folks to walk out of a screening in Dollywood due to its subject matter, which includes a gay couple and a gender non-binary teen. The episode also features Melissa Leo as a mother trying to come to terms with the changing world around her. Leo is brilliant, as always.
If the series does well, Dolly’s already said she’d like to do more episodes, including “I Will Always Love You.” Y’all, there won’t be enough tissues in the world for that one.
The episodes are definitely in the Hallmark-Lifetime family. They’re stories that are meant to make you feel. Their goal is to make you laugh, cry and relate. If that’s up your alley, then “Heartstrings” is for you. If not, your life still needs a heavy dose of Dolly, so I’d recommend streaming her music if you’re not interested in streaming her show.