For the record: my appreciation of country music doesn’t extend much beyond Johnny Cash. Combined with my hazy memories of the 1975 Robert Altman film “Nashville,” which I remembered as being muddled (though I’m told it requires repeated viewings), I wasn’t hugely excited about the ABC series “Nashville.” Like the film, there would be politics (always a crapshoot in television dramas), singing (country singing, natch), a huge cast of characters and lots of soap. But anything with Connie Britton and Powers Boothe (and written by “Thelma & Louise” scribe Callie Khouri) was worth a shot I supposed, albeit reluctantly.
The good news is that “Nashville” is worth more than a shot. Hands down, this show is the new fall series I’m most excited to see. Yes, there is country music and plenty of suds, but handled with expert care. And, of course, exceptional casting.
Connie Britton is Rayna, a harried working mom who just happens to be one of the biggest names in country music. She has more to juggle than most, however — a shaky marriage to her second choice, Teddy (Eric Close), a fractious relationship with her powerful dad Lamar (Powers Boothe) and crappy sales of her latest album. Ripping a page from “All About Eve,” the story tosses in a young, vile competitor for Rayna’s country crown. Juliette (Hayden Panettiere) is like Taylor Swift’s evil twin. She sings pop-influenced country, churns out sexy videos, and has almost no appreciation for country’s roots. I say almost, because she’d like nothing better than to steal away guitarist Deacon (Charles Esten) from Rayna for her own band.
While Britton is her usual marvelous self as Rayna, so real you’d expect to bump into her at Costco, Panettiere is a revelation. I’d always liked her as the cheerleader on “Heroes” (for as long as I watched the series, at least), but she’d seemed a lightweight talent; pretty to look at but not much more. Given a sexy, malevolent character like Juliette, Panettiere digs in and goes toe-to-toe with Britton — and she gives as good as she gets. The story is old as the hills (Queen of the Hill, meet your replacement), but it still works, in this case hitting every chord. The seasoned pro versus the pretty young marketing creation who needs Autotune to hold a note; art versus commerce, country versus pop. Initially, it’s a battle Rayna seems destined to lose; an old-school artist in mid-life whose best days (and sales) might be behind her. When she ultimately makes a tough decision, it’s tempting to stand up and cheer. You won’t, though, because Juliette is too adept at evildoing to be put down easily.
Other storylines (and there are many) show promise, though it’s too soon to commit to them at this point. Rayna, who seems unable to catch a break, loves Deacon but is stuck with Teddy, who seems to be chafing at his house husband status. When Lamar suggests a run for mayor, it’s a disaster for Rayna but Teddy comes alive, finally finding a way out from under his wife’s prodigious shadow. Close is the perfect man for the job of Rayna’s increasingly miserable husband. Just like the character he plays, Close is one of those actors who works constantly but seems to get lost in the shuffle. He’s not the type to make rugged country hearts like Rayna’s beat faster. Teddy doesn’t see what being Lamar’s puppet might really mean for himself and his family, and I can already imagine Boothe, whose chewing of the scenery as cult leader Jim Jones still stands out as a TV landmark, twisting Teddy into submission so smoothly he doesn’t even notice it’s happening.
If it all sounds a little sour, there is one drop of sweetness in the form of Australian Clare Bowen, whose songwriter Scarlett is too naive and pure to be sullied (at least at this point) by the power plays taking place all around her. When she sings a song based in her own lyrics, it’s riveting — riveting enough that I forgot it was a “country” song. And that’s the other testament to “Nashville” — when there’s singing to be done, it’s a seamless part of the storyline, often a reflection of character, and sometimes (as in Scarlett’s case) propels the plot. I was reminded that, while I don’t cotton to country on the whole, the word covers a wide-ranging spectrum of music that can encompass everyone from Loretta Lynn to (sort of) Lucinda Williams to, yes, Taylor Swift and far, far beyond. More importantly, the music of “Nashville” isn’t half bad by any standard — and it’s original (take that, “Glee”).
While clearly this is seen as a companion piece to ABC’s other hit, “Revenge,” I’d say it’s markedly better written, more realistic and better acted (sorry, Emily VanCamp, but sometimes the truth hurts). To paraphrase “Eve”‘s Margo Channing, fasten your seat belts and set your DVRs. It’s going to be a bumpy night.