NASHVILLE: Thursday 9PM on CMT (returns January 5)
It’s not clear how much of a signpost tonight’s “sneak peek” hour of NASHVILLE Season 5 will turn out to be. It was the initial hour to air on new post-ABC home CMT (it will re-air as part of the official 2-hour season premiere next month), and also the first under new showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick. For one thing, the episode strongly featured original star Connie Britton, and we already know she will have a reduced presence in the story going forward. The hour suggested, however, that this will be a lower key and more introspective–and probably less expensive–version of the series.
B-level series regulars Will Chase and Aubrey Peeples have also exited Nashville, and tonight’s hour, written by Herskovitz from a story he wrote with Zwick, and directed by series creator Callie Khouri, was focused on the emotional and even spiritual crises of Rayna Jaymes (Britton) and Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). We learned that as last season’s finale had foretold, series bad girl Juliette’s plane had crashed, and she was miraculously the sole survivor of the flight, currently (but perhaps only temporarily) paralyzed from the waist down. She appeared to have a re-awakening when brought by erstwhile husband Avery (Jonathan Jackson) to the church where the “angel” who had rescued her was singing a hymn. Rayna, for her part, was gripped by a fear of flying after Juliette’s crash, and that became a more existential crisis about her place in the world that had her taking off alone in her car and finding solace in a blind roadside singer’s rendition of “Wayfaring Stranger” (which gave the episode its title). Herskovitz and Zwick also threw in a C story in which Rayna’s squabbling daughters Maddie (Lennon Stella) and Daphne (Maisy Stella) reconciled and worked together on a song, but Rayna’s husband Deacon (Charles Esten) was merely supportive, and on-again-off-again lovers Scarlett (Claire Bowen) and Gunnar (Sam Palladio) remained on but well in the background.
There was a minimum of glitz, and the only performance sequence was Rayna’s ill-fated show in front of a Silicon Valley corporate audience with little interest in country music. No new romances were begun, and none of the existing couples were blown apart. All of this was markedly different from the show as we’d seen it under Dee Johnson’s reign, and it remains to be seen whether the new showrunners really do have something else in mind, or if this opening hour was just a throat-clearing before the heavy-duty soap action begins again. The more character-based background of Herskovitz and Zwick, though, which includes shows like thirtysomething and Once and Again that were “prestige TV” before that term was coined, suggests their comfort zone is in a less aggressive form of drama.
CMT has given Nashville a broadcast level 22-episode order, enormous by cable standards, so the show will have plenty of time to work itself out, and although it seems evident that part of the deal was a reduced budget, reflected in the smaller cast and decreased scale of musical performance, the ratings pressure will also be much lighter. Herskovitz and Zwick have a track record of excellence, but they’ve never stepped into someone else’s show before, so this will be a new experience for all concerned. Perhaps a less glamorous Nashville will bring a depth to the series, or perhaps it will expose flaws that may prove difficult to fix. It appears, though, that this will be not just a relaunch but a reboot, not just a new stanza but a different song.