Review: ABC’s ‘Nashville’ finds its voice early

Rayna James, whose first name points to her position as the long-time queen of country music, sits with the new head of her record label. Her new album hasn’t sold well, and her tour is set to play to a bunch of half-empty venues, and the label wants Rayna to mortify herself as the “co-headliner” – a polite term for “opening act” – of a tour with rising young star Juliette Barnes, or else they’ll pull all support for her record.
Rayna brings up all the money she’s made for the label over the years, and all the loyalty she’s shown it, and asks for a little loyalty in return. The executive shrugs and tells her, “Unfortunately, the older business models are irrelevant.” Now it’s go along to get along.
It’s a scene that neatly establishes the stakes for “Nashville,” the promising new ABC drama (it premieres Wednesday night at 10). And, as written by Oscar-winner Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), it draws a neat line from a music superstar like Rayna to every other professional in the new economy who’s finding out that their skills, experience and loyalty amount are considered as irrelevant as the older business models. Like the less-famous, Rayna’s not in a position to turn down work – her husband Teddy has made a lot of bad real estate investments, making them rich on the surface but cash-poor in reality – and if that means she may have to kneel before this diminutive, untalented challenger to her throne, she may not have a choice in the matter.
“Nashville” is the latest musical drama attempting to draft off of the initial success of “Glee.” Like NBC’s “Smash,” it’s aimed more at adults than tweens – it’s not hard to read the show as a blistering attack on the career of Taylor Swift (Juliette’s voice also doesn’t sound so hot when the Auto-Tune isn’t turned on) – and takes place in a showbiz community with a long and complicated history. Unlike “Smash,” though, the show the creative team thinks it’s making and the one I’m watching don’t feel like two different things.
In real life, Kat McPhee can surely sing rings around Connie Britton, who plays Rayna. But Britton sounds good enough (possibly with some of the same help Juliette Barnes needs) singing one of several catchy original songs found by the show’s legendary music producer T-Bone Burnett, and both on-stage and off, I believe that people think of puppies and rainbows when she’s around. It’s a much better follow-up to “Friday Night Lights” for her than “American Horror Story” was.
What “Nashville” tells us about Rayna matches up with what it shows us. Ditto for Powers Boothe as her wicked political power broker father Lamar Wyatt (imagine Boothe’s “Deadwood” character Cy Tolliver sent forward in time 135 years); Charles Esten as Rayna’s loyal, heartbroken bandleader Deacon; Robert Wisdom from “The Wire” as mayoral candidate Coleman Carlisle; Eric Close as the overshadowed Teddy; and newcomer Clare Bowen as poet-turned-songwriter Scarlett, among others. Even Hayden Panettiere is well-used as Juliette, who knows how to twist the knife to get what she wants – “My mama was one of your biggest fans,” she tells Rayna, smiling as she emphasizes the generation gap – but isn’t an entirely two-dimensional villain.
The “Nashville” pilot was written by Khouri and directed by documentary filmmaker R.J. Cutler (“The War Room”), and it’s a smart mix of soap opera, music and political intrigue. Khouri’s new to television and Cutler’s fairly new to scripted entertainment, and there’s been some behind-the-scenes shuffling, with Dee Johnson (“The Good Wife,” “Boss”) taking over as showrunner after another producer, James Parriott, left. ABC didn’t make additional episodes of “Nashville” beyond the pilot available for review, so I don’t know if this team will be able to keep the series both sharp and sudsy, whether Burnett will be able to find enough new songs each week that sound like plausible country hits, nor whether the show will continue to humanize Juliette just enough that she’s not a cartoon vixen. But this is a very good start. When you put Mrs. Coach onstage at the Grand Ole Opry, it would be hard for it not to be.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at