Dolly Parton’s songs have a way to one’s heart. Over the course of three minutes, she manages to create a vibrant, lived in world and bring to life palpable feelings of love, jealousy, longing, heartache and nostalgia. On every revisit, her songs spring to life with renewed vigor. They aren’t just catchy melodies, they’re complete stories. This makes Netflix’s latest project, “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” such an interesting proposition. Her songs are already cinematic enough, why not bring a different one to life each episode? There’s a right way to do this. The end result of “Dolly Parton’s Heartstrings” is not the right way. Each episode reduces Parton’s classic songs into Hallmark movies of the week. Not without moments of charm, each episode makes one wish they had just listened to her greatest hits on Spotify instead.
One of the first songs to come to mind is “Jolene,” which gets particularly shoddy treatment. In the episode, the titular role is played by Julianne Hough as a brass woman who rubs conservative society the wrong way. On the other side of town, Emily (Kimberly Williams-Paisley), a subdued housewife, tries to spice up her marriage by going to a local honkey tonk. It’s here that she meets Jolene, who bar tends at the honky tonk and saves Emily from a local creep. The two women form a friendship that gets tested when Emily learns Jolene is having an affair with one of her friend’s husbands. This causes her to doubt her own husband around Jolene.
Making Jolene a friendly figure could put an interesting twist on the character from the song. Yet Hough never makes Jolene a full-fledged character. She talks tough and makes an impression. However, she delivers every line as if reading from cue cards. Williams-Paisley doubles down on her character’s meekness in uninspiring ways. Emily barely registers in any of her scenes. Both women feel more caricature than human. One could forgive the show of its broad strokes depictions if it were at least entertaining. Even that seems like too much to ask. Once Dolly appears as Jolene’s bar manager, one realizes the episode has missed a critical ingredient – charisma.
The other episode screened — “These Old Bones” — solves some, but not all of these problems. The 1944 period piece revolves around a timber company trying to take over a local community. However, many of the locals refuse to sell their land after seeking advice from Bones (Kathleen Turner), a clairvoyant mountain woman. Turner possesses a unique screen presence. Her gruff demeanor gets her labeled as a witch by many of the local kids. Yet, Turner finds the warmth, humor and softness behind her calloused, rough and tumble exterior.
The rest of the episode rarely rises above serviceable. Ginnifer Goodwin comes to town as a lawyer for the big corporation. A hometown girl, she hopes she can convince Bones to sell, helping her secure a promotion at her company. Her character gets underserved until a particularly melodramatic revelation that strains credibility. Kyle Bornheimer radiates “aw shucks” wholesomeness, which fits with the squeaky clean tone.
What the show occasionally gets right is Dolly’s blend of Southern charm with radical feminism. She highly regards her southern upbringing and manners, but chafes against the boxes that society places on her. Even as she was coming up in her career, she tirelessly fought for women’s rights, was an LGBTQ+ ally and devoted her time and money to adult literacy. Her passion, heart and humor bleed into her work as an artist and activist. While the show reflects her point of view, it tampers down her personality. Other TV specials of hers, such as “Coat of Many Colors,” have felt much more specific and interesting, even if they were similarly family friendly.
Dolly Parton has crafted one of the most indelible star personas. The only thing bigger than her hair is her personality, and the only thing bigger than her personality is her heart. It speaks to her charisma and skill at communicating that her introductions to each episode surpass the actual episodes themselves. That’s frankly because Dolly requires no additional dramatization or context. She gives you everything you need to know in her songs. Those looking for Dolly content on Netflix should revisit the movie “Dumplin” from last year. The Danielle McDonald/Jennifer Aniston comedy centers around a Dolly-loving teenage misfit who seeks to bring down the local beauty pageant from within. Why see “Jolene” or “These Old Bones” taken literally when you can go on an emotional journey with a girl who understands why Dolly is such an icon. Storytellers as grand as Dolly deserve better than “Heartstrings” can give.