TV Review: Nashville

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TV Review: Nashville

     I went on a terrible date last week. If you could harness our total lack
of connection into a turbine, you could have powered the whole bar. One of
the worst disappointments was when she told me, in quick succession, that
she had lived in Nashville and that she didn’t watch television. I was all
ready to start gushing about Nashville on ABC, but my words died on the
vine, and I suffered through a rocky series of abortive conversation and
awkward silence until we both scurried from the bar, relieved it was over.
Then, I went home and made cookies and you damn well better believe I
watched Nashville.

     One obvious bridge to Nashville is Friday Night Lights; while Nashville
doesn’t rise to that show’s level (nor is it meant to), they both share a
star, Connie Britton. On Nashville, Britton (who is thankfully no longer
being impregnated by ghosts on American Horror Story) plays Rayna James, a
Reba McIntire-level country icon who faces down a plateau in her career,
and a young up-and-coming country-pop sensation Juliette Barnes, played by
Heroes’ Hayden Panettiere, intent on unseating Rayna as the queen of
country. Britton is flat-out perfect as James, and she doesn’t miss a beat
bringing the sensibility and poise that made everyone want a hug from Tammy
Taylor to this new role while making Rayna her own creature -- loved and
respected by all, but willing to bite back when challenged. But the
conflict between Juliette and Rayna, who are both battling each other and
the record label for a greater share of the spotlight, is gleefully
underplayed. The show’s writers are clearly playing the long game, and with
the announcement of a full season pickup, and good on them.

     The b- and c-stories of the strong ensemble, which include Rayna’s unresolved feelings for Deacon, her erstwhile lover and longtime guitarist, and her husband’s
campaign for mayor run under the scheming purview of Rayna’s tycoon father
(played by Powers Boothe, enunciating every line like he’s licking his
chops), flesh out each episode but the focus is always drawn right back to
the two stars butting heads, and it’s a beautiful soap opera to watch
unfold. And a big reason for that is Hayden Panettiere, who plays Juliette
as a much more interesting woman than the Evil Taylor Swift villainess that
she initially seems to be. I’ll be honest, I wasn’t wild about Panettiere
on Heroes, so this was a surprise; Juliette’s unlikable, brash and
sinister, but Panettiere plays up the character’s youth and inexperience
just enough so that her pathos really lands, even when she’s acting the
role of seductress or diva. A parallel story follows Deacon’s niece
Scarlett, an aspiring songwriter and performer, and her
will-they-won’t-they flirtation with her songwriting partner. These two get
to sport some of the sweetest harmonies this side of The Civil Wars (natch,
considering they’ve been writing songs for the show), and that brings me to
the music, which is what the show’s about, really.

     Another bridge to Nashville is Treme, the finest underwatched show on television; both allow musical composition, rehearsal, and performance to share equal time with
the rest of the plot. (Treme’s Michiel Huisman even shows up as a ne’er do
well rocker who teams up with Rayna to inject some muscle and grit into her
sound.) The actors do their own singing and, with a little spitshined
overdubs and possibly some autotune, turn out a few highly satisfying
performances every week. For those who don’t already like country or
aren’t especially into musical performance, this is the show for you if
you’re willing to change your tune. The soap opera and the appealing leads
draw you in, but you’ll find yourself staying to watch Scarlett overcoming
her shyness to bloom onstage during her first ever performance, or Rayna
and Juliette begrudgingly performing a label-mandated live duet and absolutely
knocking it out of the park. And because this is a drama about musicians, the
drama bleeds into the music and gets reproduced as thrilling entertainment.
For music lovers, for television watchers (people, this cast is made of
alumni from Deadwood, The Wire, Friday Night Lights, and Whose Line Is It Anyway!), for anyone coming back from the most disappointing attempt at a
date since high school, give Nashville your ratings so it keeps coming back.

The Season 2 premiere of Nashville airs Sept. 25th on ABC.

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