Nashville debuts tonight at 10 p.m. Eastern on ABC.
Todd VanDerWerff: Nashville pulls off the curious task of mashing Revenge together with Treme, and mostly makes that bizarre concoction work. At first blush, there would seem to be few TV shows that go less together than those two, but Nashville finds a sweet spot between lengthy performances of country music (of all types and genres) and dirty double-crossing. It’s a Venn diagram intersection that shouldn’t exist, but thanks to the terrific work of seasoned veterans both behind and in front of the camera, Nashville ends up being one of the best drama pilots of the fall, if not the very best. There are problematic elements here and at least one genuinely bad performance, but there’s also a deeply ambitious series that aims to tell a story about the rise and fall of human lives against the backdrop of a great American city. It will take time to see if all involved can make this work week to week, but for the pilot, Nashville has its heart largely in the right place.
Like CBS’ Vegas, Nashville feels like an attempt to take many of the lessons learned from cable dramas, scale them back just a bit, and filter them through a genre format that ABC finds more palatable—in this case, the primetime soap. There are many intriguing fillips and oddities around the pilot’s edges, but at its center, it’s a story replete with young sexpots seducing everything that moves, hidden pasts that threaten to destroy glamorous presents, and barely restrained catfights. There’s also a fair amount of double-dealing, a shady powerbroker pulling strings behind the scenes, and several elaborate plots hatched by desperate people with no other recourse. It is, in other words, just like any other ABC show where the focus on shifting relationships and statuses is played to the hilt and filtered through a finely appreciated layer of camp. Except it’s also not.
At its heart, Nashville is a story of two women, Connie Britton’s Rayna Jaymes and Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes. Rayna was the female face of country music for 20 years, with the huge album sales, sold-out concert tours, and Grammys to prove it. But her latest album has failed to produce a hit single, and her upcoming tour has yet to sell out a single date. The record label can’t seem to move tickets, which is why it proposes that Rayna shares the bill on the tour with the up-and-coming Juliette, who’s the new face of country music, thanks to an inescapable hit single whose words are essentially unintelligible. (In one humiliating moment, Rayna’s two daughters sing along when they hear it on the radio; both girls, as well as Juliette, seem to be saying completely different things.) Rayna’s hoping Juliette is a flash in the pan, but she’s starting to fear she’s not. That means she’s going to have to find a way to navigate the treacherous waters ahead.
If this show were just about these two women—and ABC seems to be selling it as if it is—it’d still be an entertaining enough little trifle, thanks mainly to Britton’s performance and the genuine quality of the songs (many of which are originals, written by T. Bone Burnett). But there’s more going on in Nashville than just that. Rayna’s father, Lamar Wyatt, played by Powers Boothe in a way that makes every line of dialogue he has sound as if it were handed to him by God, has designs on advancing a major construction project in the middle of Nashville, one that he’ll need considerable leverage to get through the city’s political machine. To that end, he begins casting about for a mayoral candidate he might be able to control. At the same time, Rayna’s husband, Teddy (Eric Close), is seething about setting aside his ambitions in order to support his wife’s career, while her guitarist, Deacon (Charles Esten), is lamenting over decisions made long ago that led to his present sadness. Juliette’s sleeping with several of the male cast members, one of Rayna’s friends is running for mayor, and two crazy kids who work together in a little bar are learning that they could make beautiful music together.
In some ways, the soap opera trappings help the show rather than holding it back in the way the case-of-the-week elements kept Vegas from being a truly great pilot. Because Nashville has so much going on—and the above descriptions are still leaving stuff out—it feels free to lean on soap opera tropes to speed things along. The show trusts the audience to assume that the bare-bones conflicts it presents—like the war between Rayna and Juliette, which could feel tired—will be filled out as the series goes along. But it also makes them soapy confections, which can be a lot of fun in the moment. There’s a war of backhanded compliments between the two early in the episode that’s deliciously hilarious, and the way that Rayna attempts to take control of her life, even as it’s slipping away from her, is similarly constructed. Viewers will know where all of this is going, but they’ll still enjoy themselves.
What’s also fascinating is the way this is very much a story about people getting older in a business, city, and country that values youth over experience, all too often. The series is created by Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for her screenplay for Thelma & Louise, and it’s rare that it’s not just created by a woman, but also created by someone over 50. Neither of those things is terribly likely on network TV, and Khouri’s script is especially cutting when it comes to Rayna’s lonely war to remain relevant, even as everybody around her is all too eager to see her step back into an elder stateswoman role. (That her husband chooses this particular moment to suggest maybe she could step back from working for a while is even more galling to her.) Though not particularly subtle on this point, Khouri’s script is based around the undeniable truth that in the entertainment world, there’s a certain ceiling for women “of a certain age,” and once they hit that ceiling, they’re tossed aside in a way men never would be. The show doesn’t mince words when it comes to this topic, but it’s also smart about not having Rayna take this lying down. She’s going to find the way to keep Juliette from stealing her superstar crown one way or another.
The sprawling cast also makes the soap opera clichés go down more easily. It’s one thing to understand Rayna’s arc on paper; it’s quite another to have Britton performing it, lacing all of the necessary invective with an undercurrent of acid sweetness that burns just when it needs to. (A particular favorite comes when she’s describing her father: “He’s always there when he needs you.”) The other actors are similarly perfect, from Esten’s world-weary demeanor to Close’s vacillation between support and ambition to newcomer Clare Bowen’s baby-faced would-be songwriter, who somehow offers a new take on the innocent naïf tossed into the messy world of show business. From top to bottom, this is the best ensemble cast of the new season, and they clearly relish having fun with Khouri’s script. (Also making all of this work is director and producer R.J. Cutler, who has given the show a faux-documentary ethos that doesn’t call attention to itself, but instead lends even the soapier scenes a tossed-off intimacy that makes them easier to swallow.)
Or, rather, it’s the best ensemble cast save one player. Panettiere simply isn’t cut out for the role of Juliette, and that’s the single biggest question mark over the show going forward. For the series to work, Juliette will need to be more than a shallow sexpot. She’ll need to be someone who’s hungry for something more to escape a past she’d rather not talk about. Khouri has laid out the beats of this in the pilot, but Panettiere doesn’t seem especially adept at playing them. Every moment of her Juliette features the most obvious portrayal of the scene, without any nuance or shading of the character. Obviously, the writers could start writing to Panettierre’s strengths (whatever they may be) in the future, but the scenes featuring only Juliette are the ones in the pilot where it really does feel like the shallow, countrified soap ABC is selling the show as.
Even with Panettiere so close to the series’ center, though, Nashville is a confident, smart take on a host of topics, and it boasts smart writing, a great ensemble, and intelligent direction. By the time the episode ends with a long-time confidante having the conversation with Rayna she’s been waiting for, even as she’s forced to make a huge decision, the series is acting as if it’s a show that’s at least a half-season into its run, not airing its pilot. In almost every way, Nashville moves like a show that knows what it wants to be, and even if not everything’s in place just yet, that has to inspire confidence.
Noel Murray: Nashville is at once a city and an idea, and what’s most impressive about the pilot for the TV Nashville is that it’s willing to consider both. The episode opens with picture-postcard shots of Nashville—the General Jackson, the “Batman Building,” Printer’s Alley—and throughout, scenes are set in some of Nashville’s most picturesque and iconic locations, including the Grand Ole Opry stage and the Bluebird Café. (Or, more accurately, it’s set in a meticulous replica of the latter.) But the pilot also literally goes backstage, into dressing rooms, boardrooms, and living rooms, where political and business decisions are being made that could affect the future of Nashville and its biggest stars.
The pilot isn’t perfect. Yes, Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes is problematic, much like Megan Hilty’s Ivy Lynn on Smash, who was such a comically oversized villainess in the early episodes that later attempts to humanize her (by giving her serious mother issues, just as Nashville does with its Juliette) came across as contrived. But it’s clear by the end of this episode that this story needs a Juliette to set up the contrast between the traditionalist country star that is Connie Britton’s Rayna Jaymes and the teenpop-with-a-twang alternative that Juliette represents. In some ways, this is requisite for any Nashville-set story, since the city’s country music industry has suffered that factionalism of “radio acts” and “hat acts” since the ’60s “countrypolitan” days (if not earlier). If Nashville is really smart, at some point it’ll acknowledge that Rayna herself would be seen as a pop usurper in some quarters. Judging by the presence of some of the younger alt-country types hanging out in the Bluebird—and based on the pilot’s big finish, in which Rayna’s showbiz mentor discovers a more “authentic” new song—that may be in the cards for future episodes.
But even if Nashville keeps positioning Rayna as the city’s soul and Juliette as its shiny new body, and doesn’t consider the contradictions of either, it should still be entertaining to watch, if only for its honesty about how the seemingly super-wealthy and super-famous can be “a different kind of rich called ‘cash-poor’” (and can price themselves out of the business of being a celebrity), and for its understanding of how being a young star today involves choosing the right bottle for a signature perfume along with stealing the best songs and producers. And as iffy as Panettiere may be, it’s hard to deny that she’s exactly the right person to be delivering lines like “my mama was one of your biggest fans” to Britton, if only to be on the receiving end of one of her withering half-smiles.