Nashville Series Premiere Review: Grand Ole Soap Opry

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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?

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