NASHVILLE – Wednesday 10PM on ABC: Potential DVR Alert
ABC has become the network of soaps, and its big play in the genre for fall is NASHVILLE, which is inheriting Revenge‘s slot as the latter show gets promoted to Sundays. The new drama is less instantly compelling than Revenge‘s pilot (there’s no mysterious shooting to kick things off), but it has a lot going for it.
To start, there’s Connie Britton. Britton gave–and this is less hyperbolic than it sounds–one of the best performances in all of television as Tami Taylor, Mrs. Coach on Friday Night Lights (Emmy voters will have to live with the ignominy of never having honored her), and she brought a touch of believable humanity to the crazy genre mash-up that is American Horror Story. Britton is funny, sexy and real in everything she does, and there’s no better leading lady to be had.
In Nashville, Britton plays Rayna James, whose first name is probably meant to suggest her reign over country music. Rayna has been at the top of the charts for 20 years, but now the business is changing, and her fans are aging and/or deserting her for crossover country-pop. The soullessness of that brand of music (as the show sees it) is illustrated by Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), the hottest singer in town and, at least in the pilot, Nashville‘s chief Bitch. Juliette is constantly scheming, trying to grab away (and generally grab) Rayna’s producer Randy (Burgess Jenkins) and her lead guitarist and former lover Deacon (Charles Estin). Things reach a crisis when Rayna’s label threatens to stop promoting her low-selling new album unless Rayna agrees to go on tour with Juliette and serve as her opening act. (Mild Spoiler Alert: although ABC’s promos create the impression that the show will be about that tour, actually the pilot suggests that the series is going in another direction.)
Rayna also has family issues. Her father Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe) is a power-hungry tycoon who’s never been able to bend Rayna to his will, and he finally figures out that he can use Rayna’s husband Teddy (Eric Close), whose bad investments lost most of the money Rayna had made over the years, to serve his interests.
At this point, Rayna is very much the center of Nashville, and the other characters, particularly the men, are underdeveloped. For some token depth, Juliette’s been given a drug-addicted mother who she tries not to acknowledge, but otherwise the girl is just bad news. The series ingenue is Scarlett (Claire Bowen), an angelic beauty who never ever thought of putting her sensitive poems to music until three-quarters of the way through the pilot, when it turns out–who knew?–they work perfectly as song lyrics, and she sings them like she’d been performing since she was in a stroller. Scarlett’s romantic triangle will involve bad-boy Avery (Jonathan Jackson) and good-guy Gunnar (Sam Palladio).
Originality isn’t Nashville‘s strong point–a lot of series creator Callie Khouri’s plotting seems to come straight from the movie Country Strong, where Gwyneth Paltrow was the (more dysfunctional) country star on the skids, and Leighton Meester was the (less bitchy) crossover singer. The pilot has vitality, though, and Britton and Panettiere strike dramatic sparks off one another nicely, as do Britton and Boothe. Khouri, best known as the writer of Thelma & Louise, certainly knows her way around strong female protagonists. Pilot director R.J. Cutler is new to scripted drama, and as a series Nashville could benefit from a less mundane look and feel–Britton, having come off years of the semi-improvised Friday Night Lights, is more than capable of making things more naturalistic, if the show will allow.
Nashville is less likely to be a buzz magnet than Revenge was (that show’s chatter sometimes exceeded its audience), but it’s infinitely superior to ABC’s last attempt to mine southern soap territory, the awful GCB. It’s got a great star and an original setting for TV drama, and airing against procedurals on the other networks (CSI on CBS and the new-but-already-feels-old Chicago Fire on NBC), it should have every opportunity to find and develop an audience.