Nashville Series Premiere Review: Grand Ole Soap Opry

Nashville S01E01: "Pilot"

If you've been keeping up with all the new shows premiering this season, then you, sir or madam, are the modern day equivalent of a gold prospector, just knee-deep in mud trying to find the occasional glittery nugget. Fortunately this season has yielded at least a few gold nuggets, but too often they're qualified with the faint-praise that's every critics' lament: "It has possibility." So it's refreshing, then, to strike gold (keeping this metaphor going) with a show so fully formed and winning right off the bat that no such qualifier is needed: Nashville is fantastic.

I once jokingly described Nashville to a friend as, "It's like Country Strong meets The Wire," before realizing that I actually believed it. Obviously comparing a primetime soap to The Wire is an outrage, but hear me out: Much like everybody's favorite Baltimore-set crime tapestry, Nashville is the story of a city as told from many different angles: A superstar, an up-and-comer, a robber-baron, a struggling musician, an aspiring politician, and all their various string-pullers and behind-the-scenes svengalis. But as broad as the show's scope is, it has Friday Night Lights' sense of observed subtlety (the presence of Connie Britton and handheld cameras helps too) and Dynasty's sense of pleasure-center plotting. But with all these points of reference, Nashville still feels new and different. Between this and Last Resort, it's clear that ABC is the network with clearest intention of learning from HBO's successes. Credit where credit's due!

Oscar winning screenwriter Callie Khouri's pilot script contained some of the best and most efficient character introductions I've seen in a while. When we first met our primary heroine Rayna James (Britton), we knew everything about her we needed to in about three seconds flat: Playing with her kids in a mansion, her handsome stay-at-home husband mentioning that they're "cash poor." Similarly, we immediately knew Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) as, in the span of 20 seconds, she dumbly examined perfume bottle prototypes, behaved bitchily toward her backstage entourage, and then hung up on her own mother before throwing the cell phone in the trash. Efficient! But also: Compelling. It was hard not to be invested in these women immediately. The pilot mostly tells their stories: Rayna's at the tail-end of a long career as a country superstar (think Trisha Yearwood) and her record label wants her to, humiliatingly enough, be the opening act for young upstart Juliette (think Taylor Swift but without the constant, fake "shocked" face). For Rayna it's as much a blow to her ego as it is a crossroads: Should she continue doing what she'd been doing and keep sliding down the other side of fame's bell-curve, or should she regroup and figure out a new path? Part of the thrill of Nashville is watching these larger than life decisions get made in relatably emotional ways.

From the much-advertised diva showdown between Rayna and Juliette (which isn't as significant a part of Nashville as the ads suggest), we learned more about each of the women's inner circles. Rayna's husband Teddy (Eric Close) operated with a certain amount of guilt for not being the family breadwinner PLUS he was aware that Rayna probably never wanted to marry him in the first place. No, she'd had bit of a history with her band leader and primary collaborator Deacon (Charles Esten), whom Juliette proceeded to poach by the end of the episode. Meanwhile Deacon's niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen) waits tables at local landmark the Bluebird Cafe where she met a talented dreamboat named Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and the two proceeded to blow the roof off the joint's open-mic night just when a local music legend was in attendance. But one of the biggest driving forces of Nashville's narrative was Rayna's father Lamar (Powers Boothe) a baron of Tennessee industry with sights on gaining control of the town by installing Teddy as a dummy mayor. This political bent may have people scratching their heads over how exactly it relates to the country music scene, but I liked how the power of politics nicely dwarfed the music industry in a way that made the latter seem more like a dysfunctional family than a billion-million dollar industry.

But as far-reaching and high stakes as the story often felt, the magic of Nashville derived from its intimacy. Just when we'd decided that Juliette was a shameless vixen we saw her at a low point: Sobbing in a broom closet talking on the phone with her meth-addicted mother. And in one of the loveliest scenes in this or ANY TV show, Rayna walked across a bridge with Deacon as they lamented their pasts, presents, and futures, their dialogue (and in particular Britton's performance) verging on poetry. Seriously, it's a testament to how fully formed and wonderful this show is right off the bat that I'd feel so deeply for a character I'd only known for 20 minutes. Admittedly it's downright impossible to watch Rayna James and not be haunted by the ghost of Tami Taylor, so perhaps just seeing Britton's unsentimental emoting might be activating a sense memory of Friday Night Lights' symphonic sadness, but I think it could also be that Nashville is just plain good at this. Rayna's a powerful and successful character whom we still want to root for, and that's saying something.

No description of Nashville is complete without a discussion of its music. It should come as no surprise that there were close to a half-dozen performances throughout the episode (featuring the actors' own, yet heavily processed, vocals), but what shocked me was how good the music was. Celebrated musician T. Bone Burnett is the man credited with supervising the music, and I can say as a decided non-fan of country music, he killed it. One song in particular—the duet between Scarlett and Gunnar—was a haunting, incredible track that not only worked perfectly as an underscore to the montage it accompanied, it was just a plain good song on its own merits. The other performances were generally limited to about a minute apiece, so even if you're not big into the country scene, the music is definitely not a dealbreaker. Somehow Callie Khouri has managed to make a show about country music that nonetheless feels universal.

This would usually be the place where I'd cross my fingers that a show could get better, or speculate the ways in which the story might play out. But for once I simply don't care about those things. Based on the pilot alone I feel I'm in safe hands and eagerly await next week's episode. I truly wouldn't have believed that a show about country music would've been one of my favorites of the fall season, but in retrospect, almost none of my favorite shows were, on paper, things I thought I would like. Political sci-fi? High school football? Domestic terrorism? Teenage monsters? At this point it's clear that it doesn't matter what a premise is so long as the people involved know what they're doing. The people behind Nashville are already nailing it.


What did YOU think of the Nashville series premiere? Will you be watching Episode 2?

Comments (31)
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LOVED it! I've watched both eps & am so crazy about the characters & the music, it's not even funny!
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I have to say that i really liked this series!!! The songs were cool ....!!
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For once I agree with Price completely. This show is great drama! And the music isn't nearly as bad as I thought, and I can say I even enjoyed it. Looking forward to the next episode.
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This was the best pilot of the season! It gave goosebumps finally a new show I can watch :)
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Nashville, thumbs down. Watching women being catty doesn't work for me. To be honest I only watched the first few minutes. Oh well!
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It was really good, for me between this and Last Resort I'd choose the latter but they were both really good for sure, will continue to watch, and also that last song was amazing, seriously great
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I liked the pilot but wasn't blown away. I expected more from it. Especially after watching the perfect Arrow pilot, it dragged on quite a bit. I prefer pilots where things actually happen instead of pure set-up.
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I am a Nashville native, born & raised and I won't lie I wasn't interested in watching it at first, and decided I would watch it last night. I think they did a GREAT job so far, and its funny because they really brought in alot of REAL things about Nashville example the part where Reyna's dad is standing in a field talking about a ballpark..that is something that really happened here and the mayor was against it. They did a great job showing how beautiful our city is and I can't wait to see it next week!
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I love "Country Strong" and I liked the first episode of Nashville. I'm certainly going to watch the next one. The duet of Scarlet and Gunnar was great but I also enjoyed singing Hayden Panettiere. I think this is going to be a good show.
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I'm not a specialist of country music, but the last song between Scarlett and Gunnar doesn't sound at all like a country song.

I love Connie and I loved the pilot!
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Yeah, it wasn't bad. I'm just not sure about Scarlet. Isn't it enough with Rayna and Juliette?
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I don't think they are setting up a rivalry, but maybe using her song, re-inventing Rayna as an intimate singer in clubs rather than huge venues?
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It wasn't bad. I'm not too much of a fan of country music, so that did not help, but what they played was OK. I also did not care for the political aspect of it. Powers Booth seems set to become a stereotypical character. The relationships Panettiere is creating with Britton's guy friends and associates may become typically cliche. However, there was a bit of good to like and work with plus I believe the performances really helped it, as the actors did a fine job, but I'm not sure I'll continue with it.
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Connie Britton had me at 'Ya'll'
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All of her words make me melt.
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All of her words make me melt.
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Outlaw Country was so, so much better. I was disappointed with Nashville, wanted to like it... but couldnt.
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I thought this pilot was pretty excellent. For a second I was thinking "where is this show going, I can't see a direction for it". But then I realized it's a good thing! Many shows ride on only one specific premise which makes it hard to imagine how they could last for several seasons. Revolution, for example, is about electricity disappearing, and people trying to get it back. The assumption being of course that as soon as electricity is back, the world is restored to its former glory. End of story.

Well, how long can the show go on if the electricity comes back during the first season? How much room is there for a one-premise show like that to continue? On the other hand, if they don't give us the answer soon to where the electricity went, then how long can they keep stringing us along like that? Do I want to watch six seasons of a show without getting an answer to the mystery?

OK, back to Nashville. In other words, what I like out about the pilot is that it immediately introduced a whole network of conflicts and damaged relationships, without any clear clues as to where the show is about to take us. The case is wide open! That makes it exciting to watch! I want to see which road(s) it's about to take to move forward. I admit that it's still a little soapy for me, but I can live with that for now. I'll definitely give the show at least the four episode test.
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Great pilot !! way better than I thought!! a keeper for sure!!
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Its a good start .. keep'em comin!

Just not too much ABC type soap drama, please!
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I can't stand country music, but I am so glad I just decided to watch it. It was so good. I don't know why ABC didn't pair it with Revenge. Bitchy female leads with hidden agendas, they seem kinda similar. Though I would be stunned and pleased if Nashville could touch the amazingness that is Revenge.

I am mostly impressed with how the introduced the characters. My friend and I were like, there is a crap load of people in this about half way through the episode. And while I don't remember all their names, I think I got down their importance to the series which matters right now.
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The duet between Scarlett and Gunnar was actually written by The Civil Wars, the song is called If I Didn't Know Better. Though I loved those actors version of it as well
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Staff
Ooh! Thank you.
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Staff
Good to know! Thank you!
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Well, I thought it was a good start for a new network show. Finally one show knows that it relies more on great characters and NOT so much on the plot that makes a show great.

My favorite scenes were for starters the one where Deacon and Rayna stood on the bridge, reminiscing about the past. If the show brings more of these, it definitely got me hooked. And the other one was the last one where Scarlett and Gunnar sung that beautiful song in the Caf. It was also great that the writers gave Juliette more complexity by making her mother a drug-addict.

But what I loved the most was that this show isn't really just about country music, but it's exactly what the title says. It's about Nashville. A very charismatic city, represented through politics, music, and those great city skylines in this episode.

If the show doesn't push me away with being too soapy like Revenge did, this could be a start of something really good.
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I really loved the pilot and can't wait for more. So excited you're the one writing about it Price!
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I totally agree!
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Haha well I'll just come in and say that I am in fact a huge fan of country music, and i also loved the pilot! Great review as well! Just as Dudekotka said, I would be much more likely to compare Juliette to Miley Cyrus, because from what I've heard, Taylor Swift is a very sweet, not annoying individual, just in general. Maybe I heard wrong, but that just seems to be the general consensus.



Also one last thing, I really did enjoy the music, but the last song between Scarlet and Gunnar is actually a song that has already been done before (like by The Civil Wars). Either way, amazing song. I'm not sure who wrote it originally, but it's not new to Nashville. Can't wait for next week!
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I started ignoring the music as hard as possible when Hayden sang "Men are like tractors" or whatever.. Just.. Bad country.

Other than that, I was pleasantly surprised at how decent the actual show is, I kind of expected another Smash but it was more enjoyable.

One thing though, at no point did I consider Hayden Panettiere similar to Taylor Swift. I always thought Miley Cyrus, and in some occasions, I even forgot that she wasn't played by her.
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Staff
It was kind of a dumb song, even for country music. Men are way more like pickup trucks.
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I definitely agree with your assessment of the music. I am also quite a devoted "non-fan" of country, as you put it. But the songs were very well done, and not overly long, which will pay dividends in the long run. And that last duet that closed out the episode was absolutely fantastic.
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