One of the best network television innovations over the last couple of years has involved the repurposing of traditionally soapy storytelling into arguably respectable serialized dramas, blurring the lines between 'legit TV' and 'night-time melodrama'. ABC has been particularly deft at this, Nashville being their latest serial to feature standard soap opera tropes translated through an intricate wall of real-world drama. Set against the surprisingly-absorbing back-drop of country music, the narrative unspools between Dallas-style power intrigue straight through to All About Eve sniping, all anchored by an authentically sassy performance from Connie Britton. This is something special.
Like so many of this season's freshman series, you come to Nashville with a worrying preconceived sense of what it could be, namely a sudsy knock-off of the unintentionally hilarious Country Strong, that Gwynnie Paltrow caterwaulin'-fest from 2010. While there are definitely areas that are similar, Nashville moves beyond its narrative shortcomings soon enough, thanks to its salt-of-the-earth ensemble cast and the ambitious corners the pilot eventually steps in to.
Connie Britton plays one-time white-hot country star Rayna Jaymes, who is encouraged by her management to open up for the Taylor Swift-ish crossover artist Juliette Barnes in an attempt to curb her failing sales. Rayna's naturally appalled, considering her reputation within the industry. She's swimming in denial as she decries Juliette as a flash in the pan, snarling at what is, honestly, an entirely valid and fun live performance. Sure, we get fun references to Juliette's need for Autotune, but Rayna's anguish is deeper rooted in her own awareness that her time is running out, as well as her dissatisfaction with other areas of her life -- from her regret over an unconsummated love with Charles Esten's brooding songwriter, to her fear of aging.
But all of that is just one key part of a vast tapestry of stories here, ranging from Powers Boothe's Machiavellian industry magnate, father to Rayna and eager to step into the political arena, to the dreamy young poet who may be Rayna's ticket to further success. The pilot ends with a nervous step into Good Wife territory as Rayna gets second thoughts standing by her man as he runs for mayor, but the other stuff on display is strong enough to off-set apprehension elsewhere.
What truly works, though, is the twosome heading the show. Britton is always wonderful, but she really impresses while assuming the various personas somebody in Rayna's position needs to adopt depending on the circumstances. She's warm yet vulnerable within the privacy of her own home, confident and ballsy when she's surrounded by the suits, and always there with a steely, charming smile whenever she has to 'become' Rayna James: Country Superstar. Hayden Panettiere pulls a similar balancing act, never allowing her bitchy, diva-like behavior in the dressing room, nor her 'tawdry teen temptress' cover, to entirely consume the character. So when she breaks down in private as her junkie mom pesters her for cash over the phone, you not only believe her emotions, but you actually feel for her. Panettiere has been on an acting resurgence of late, particularly after her surprisingly charming supporting gig in Scream 4, and it goes without saying that she nails her part here.
Even more impressive, the two characters only share the screen once throughout this pilot, the show quickly avoiding catfight-ish contrivance by allowing both women to exist in their own separate bubbles, while intently aware of the career rival orbiting their personal space. It helps open the show up a lot, at least in terms of storytelling potential.
Nashville is probably the strongest pilot this season so far, an hour with a keen focus and sense of story, while remaining somewhat loose and striking as a series premiere. There have been a lot of shows this season that almost work, or almost have something, and it's nice to finally get one in which everything is there from the get-go. B+
Writer Callie Khouri Director R.J. Cutler