TV Review: Nashville (***)

ABC’s Nashville is a watermill of genres all working together for the same goal: creating yet another high-concept hit for the network that consistently dominates this field over its competitors. Part Dallas in its soapy southern sass, and equal parts Grand Ole Opry with a sprinkle of The West Wing, Nashville might look very familiar at first glance, but you’ll be blindsided by the amount of depth it contains upon deeper examination. Gender clashing, business rivalry, political corruption, and a deeper exploration of the country music scene in its glorified home base of Nashville, Tennessee are many of the themes and narrative threads that encompass this intriguing new show from Academy Award winner, Callie Khouri (Best Original Screenplay for Thelma and Louise). Connie Britton comes on board as both producer and lead actress (or should I say, “co-lead”?) of the series, and I actually think she’s the best part of the whole show, bias for her greatness in Friday Night Lights and American Horror Story completely aside.  If you can get through the horrible first fifteen minutes of the series premiere (an annoyingly ingratiating affair), Nashville demonstrates considerable promise for a show that could play very well at next year’s Emmys.

In the series, Connie Britton plays legendary country megastar, Rayna James. Rayna has pretty much been the bread, butter, and Rolex provider for her family all these years, something she’s taken considerable pride in while her ne’er-do-well husband (Eric Close) stays at home and takes care of their two adorable daughters. Lately, however, she’s found herself in a bit of a country slump since her upcoming tour hasn’t sold well, and now her record label is refusing to help promote her new album in lieu of its potential to utterly bomb when released. Things aren’t looking good at all for Rayna, and her age is, in fact, starting to become more than just a number. Rayna is given an Angels vs. Demons scenario when presented an opportunity that would keep her career alive yet in the shadows of someone young, new and incredibly bitchy: country crossover sensation, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Basically, her agent and the head of the label give her a life-changing ultimatum: if she doesn’t agree to open for Juliette Barnes in her tour – essentially co-headline – she’ll lose complete support for any new or future albums she makes from that time forward. The label’s highbrow jargon translates to: you better start applying to Dennys as a waitress if you don’t do as we command.

Don’t mess with Connie Britton. Ever.

On top of being upstaged at work, Connie finds herself constantly challenged by her father, Lamar Wyatt, who’s portrayed by the fearsomely impressionable Powers Boothe. Lamar is the political Don Corleone of Nashvillle, always knowing where to place his chess pawns and whom to sacrifice in order for the position to be vacated. Powers Boothe’s menacing persona is at times a bit obvious and contrived. I would even go out on a limb and say he’s one of the more underdeveloped characters of the show so far. There’s bound to be some incredible back story in future episodes that sheds light on why he’s such a horrific father and sleazy politician, but for now Boothe is nothing more than typecast in a role he’s played countless times over in his esteemed career.

The supporting players of Nashville are actually quite amazing, especially Eric Close who plays Rayna’s husband. He delivers his lines with the perfect amount of affirmation and confidence. Although the path he’ll soon travel on will ultimately fracture Rayna’s career and their marriage, it’s hard not to feel sympathy for a guy who’s put aside his dreams and aspirations for his highly-rich wife. But then again, isn’t that what women do all the time for their own husbands? Nashville has a great way of reversing the gender perspective, so that the audience places themselves in the position of women who begin with power, and then slowly lose it because of the realization that their so-called power was never their own to wield. From the beginning till now, the men still hold all the cards. The irony of Nashville is that its premise is all about pitting the young up-and-coming country artist against the old has-been legend who still wants to cement herself in the spotlight. On paper, Nashville is the polar opposite of the sisterhood love found in Khouri’s Thelma and Louise, but something tells me that rivals Juliette and Rayna will eventually team up against their money-hungry, male-dominated label company. Until we get there, Nashville will be a notch in quality above the most salaciously wonderful soap operas.

Connie Britton proves once again that there is no role unsuitable for her talents. As Rayna, Britton’s not afraid to project a diva superiority complex, but somehow still convinces the audience that she’s the most genuinely sympathetic character in Nashville. Attacked from all angles, it’s amazing how Rayna doesn’t crumble under the assault, but it’s through Britton’s steel resolve and womanly strength that we know Rayna will somehow work her way through Nashville’s minefield of backstabbers and users. Is it just me, or is Connie Britton always at the top of her game in the kitchen? Between American Horror Story, Friday Night Lights and now Nashville, Connie’s emotional outbursts next to a stainless steel range make you feel as though you’re living through the raid on Omaha Beach. She grips you in tightly with her panicky voice and piercing eyes, and doesn’t let go for even a second until the scene is finished. Without question, Connie Britton is the most reliable actress on television.

The beautiful Hayden Panettiere is right for the role of Juliette Barnes, but just needs to avoid being a CW princess.

Finally, Hayden Panettiere, who many remember as Claire/The Cheerleader from Heroes, is at times genius in her role as Juliette Barnes, but is inconsistent in her overall delivery. Those first fifteen minutes of Nashville’s premiere are so awful because Panettiere oversells the “mean girl” stereotype attached to Barnes. I get that the character has a lot more going on beneath the surface, and uses sexuality and arrogance as a way to cope with her past traumas, but the manner in which Panettiere goes about maintaining a façade is all kinds of wrong. There’s a way to be sensual and catty, and make it work for a character without cheapening her appeal, but Panettiere went the way of the CW: spoiled brat who thrives on pretentious zingers and over-the-top dramatics. Whether it was R.J. Cutler’s direction or Callie Khouri’s story supervision, I have no idea. I can only judge the acting I witnessed, and I know Panettiere can do better. She delivered stronger work as the pilot went along, but a cliché side story about Juliette’s drug-using mom who wants a slice of her daughter’s fortune isn’t going to cut it for me. With more variation, less caricature and more character, Panettiere might be very special on Nashville. Right now, I just need her to dig deeper into the high-profile role.

Callie Khouri’s Nashville is flawed in areas, but grows stronger in its acting, writing and overall narrative focus with each passing minute. The original songs showcased were fairly memorable, especially when Clare Bowen (who was the amazing star in the Los Angeles Film Festival’s Dead Man’s Burdern) duets “If I Didn’t Know Better” with co-star Sam Palladio. I didn’t understand why Bowen’s Scarlett and Palladio’s Gunnar were particular important to the story, but after singing that original song, I understood: they are the future of country music, the perfect pop-country-soul cohesion that could end the deep divide amongst the various music genres. Nashville works best in its tense small moments of storytelling, and is musically exhilarating when it espouses original pieces that haunt immensely. Country fans will undoubtedly love Nashville within seconds. For those, like me, who don’t know “country” beyond the Carrie Underwood’s and Taylor Swift’s of the music world, Nashville is an insightful look into the politically tumultuous landscape of country music’s most infamous realm, one that is dark, sexy and so worth the exploration.