ABC’s newest nighttime soap has a lot to recommend it. From the mind of Oscar-winning screenwriter Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) with the music supervision of T-Bone Burnett (Khouri’s husband and acclaimed record producer), Nashville is a soulful sudser with more sophistication than most would expect when they think country music.
But the music industry and Nashville’s gleaming skyline is just the backdrop to a juicy emotional drama that will live or die on the enviously well-coiffed head of one woman: Connie Britton. That’s right, y’all, Mrs. Coach is back and bigger than ever.
***SPOILERS FOR THE PILOT***
As Rayna James, an aging country chanteuse who’s a little bit Reba, a little bit Martina, Britton is right at home. Certainly these cowboy boots are a far better fit than the perversely weird American Horror Story (though even amidst that cray-cray the woman could do no wrong) was, and even in this first episode, Britton has an assurance and a comfort level with her character that just sets the tone for the whole show. Rayna’s facing the cruelties of the narrowing business model of the music industry, when the label she’s been with for decades tells her that her latest album and the subsequent tour isn’t selling and basically give her a honey-toned ultimatum: become the opening act for country-pop tart Juliette Barnes or hang up her boots.
It’s a bitter pill to swallow, made more so by the fact that the young whippersnapper (played with delicious snitty swagger by Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere) basically gives her the cut direct upon first meeting, then finally turns to Rayna and blithely swipes at her age: “My momma was one of your biggest fans. She said she’d listen to you when I was in her belly,” she says, all batting eyelashes. But Rayna can give as good as she gets, smiling and suggesting the little sexpot go find some pants and make sure her girls are strapped in tight before she hits the stage. There’s some barely retracted claws, but it’s not quite a catfight, and I’m hopeful the show will keep out of that gutter. It’s easy to even imagine a legit understanding and mentorship down the line between these two powerhouses with Khouri in charge.
And goodness knows they could both use a friend. In addition to deal with her sagging career, Rayna’s got trouble at home. Her husband (Without a Trace’s Eric Close), a failed entrepreneur and stay-at-home dad, is suddenly being thrust into the political rat race, being groomed to run for mayor by the manipulative mover-and-shaker bigwig father she wants nothing to do with. Rayna’s none too happy about that, seeing right through his power play, and little does she know but there’s another strategic move happening as Juliette tries to sway Rayna’s longtime band leader—and former lover! Deacon Claybourne (Big Love’s Charles Esten) makes it more than clear he’s still doing his best Lady Liberty impersonation, holding that torch for his boss, but for better or worse, she made her choice long ago… and the winsome Juliette is awfully seductive.
Just when you think the show wants you to completely hate the little pitch-challenged princess though, they give her a little hidden depth and backstory of her own. Juliette’s got some big mommy issues we see, as the woman calls hitting her up for money (not for the first time) to feed her meth habit. Panettiere proves she’s more than just sass and swinging hips, and I think viewers might be surprised by how well she holds her own against Britton as the series continues.
To add some extra spice to the mix, there’s another young up-and-comer on the scene, Deacon’s sweet niece Scarlett. She’s a waitress at the famed Bluebird café and too shy to perform the “poems” she writes, until her pining coworker Gunnar convinces her to duet with him. They make beautiful music together, but Scarlett already has a boyfriend, a slick hipster musician (General Hospital’s Jonathan Jackson). Love triangle ahoy!
Though the music isn’t the focal point of the series, it’s the heartfelt touchstone for each of the main characters. The songs are undeniably fun and catchy, good solid tunes in a variety of styles, from woman-power anthems for Rayna, pop-country confections for Juliette, winsome singer-songwritery ballads for Deacon, and the showstopper song, a haunting ballad by Scarlett and Gunnar, is penned by cult faves The Civil Wars. When Rayna’s manager gets an earful of it and gives her a call, entreating her to listen, her face lights up with hope and possibility. It’s nice to see that even the cruelties of the dog-eat-dog industry can’t stamp out that deeper, pure artistic love. Even Juliette has a legitimate admiration of Deacon’s songwriting prowess, and there’s a lot of interesting levels to explore with fame and idol worship here.
Overall, it’s a fun, well-crafted pilot that pretty expertly sets up a character-driven series that should be a solid hit for the network. There’s no great surprises in this first episode (save for one small hint that Rayna’s politician daddy has some seriously scandalous blackmail material on daughter dearest) and it delves a bit into stereotypes and cliches here and there, but there’s no real dischordant notes either. My hands-down favorite moment of the pilot is when Rayna, whose bosses at the label are pressuring her for an answer on the joint tour, turns to them and says with perfectly composed Southern grit, “You can kiss my decision as it's walking out the door.” Well, heck yeah! I’d follow Britton and her lustrous mane anywhere she chooses to go, and I’m willing to bet most of the folks who tuned in will too.
Tara Gelsomino is a reader, writer, pop culture junkie, and internet addict. You can tweet her at @taragel.