ABC has made the pilot episode of its new country music soap Nashville (premiering next Wednesday) available online and boy howdy, it's a daggum blast! Well, that might be a little overly effusive, but it is a mostly entertaining, well-acted hour full of fading glory and rising bitchery. Callie Khouri, the Thelma & Louise writer who won an Oscar and hasn't done much of note since (Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood? Mad Money?), has written a nice setup for a series all about backstage tensions and intrigue and onstage big hair and smiles. Based on the one episode, we're near-about sold, except there's one unfortunate aspect that threatens to sink the whole enterprise.
Let's start with the good stuff first. Playing reigning but slipping queen of country Rayna Jaymes (good name), Connie Britton puts her Friday Night Lights Southern twang back into the mix, but gives it a sharper, wearier edge. While Rayna is the nicer of the two warring singers at the center of the story, she clearly had to kick a few butts and take a few names to get to the top, so Britton doesn't make her too angelic, the way, let's be honest, Tami Taylor sometimes verged on. Rayna's got a big comfy mansion with her husband and two daughters, but they're a little "cash poor," according to hubby (Eric Close), so Rayna has to leave home and go on tour to promote an only mildly selling album. But she's getting to be old news, and crossover country pop is all the rage, so her record label tries to set her up with an up-and-comer named Juliette Barnes (not a great country name), played with perky seduction by the increasingly likable (she was great in Scream 4, seriously) Hayden Panettiere. Most press coverage of the show positions Juliette as a Taylor Swift type, but her music doesn't seem to have the same earnest, confessional spirit to it, nor does all her sultry/sexy devious behavior at all mirror Swift's "golly gosh" guffawing. Juliette's sly temptress stuff is a little bit of a hoary TV cliche — naughty, but network tame — but Panettiere mostly sells it.
Rayna balks when the label tells her she has to co-headline her tour with Juliette or they'll stop promoting her album, partly because of ego and partly because she and Juliette awkwardly clash upon first meeting. Sneaky Juliette then goes about trying to poach Rayna's band leader and former boyfriend Deacon (Charlie Esten) while also sleeping with Rayna's producer, Randy (Burgess Jenkins). Meanwhile Deacon's got a niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen), who's a songwriter but doesn't know it (she thinks she's a poet) and is dating an obvious lout named Avery (Jonathan Jackson! He's back!). But the real guy for her is the sensitive, serious-artist songwriter Gunnar (a dreamy Sam Palladio), and by the end of the episode they make beautiful music together. Actual music, not sex. The show features a few corny, heavily autotuned songs by Rayna and Juliette, but Scarlett and Gunnar's number is actually a real song, pretty and mournful in a beery, alt-country, way. It'll be fun to hear more from them, and of course watch them fall in loooove.
So those are the good parts, a rambling ensemble of music-makers who, if not quite as down-home elegant as the characters in Robert Altman's same-titled film, do have a certain grace and dignity and spark to them. (Even Juliette becomes sympathetic when we meet her meth-addict mom.) The bad part comes in when Powers Booth enters. Powers Booth isn't the bad thing, Powers Booth is a great actor. What's bad is that he's playing Rayna's father, a wealthy captain of industry (or something) who plays Nashville like a fiddle and is looking to install a mayor who will do his bidding. Who does he choose? Broke businessman Teddy, who just happens to be Rayna's husband. So, in the show's unpleasant attempt to be like The Wire, it seems we're going to have to suffer through a mayoral campaign and city hall drama. Have they learned nothing from The Killing? Nobody cares about mayoral campaigns! It was good on The Wire, and the election stuff pretty much works on The Good Wife, but when it comes to dramatic stakes, who becomes the mayor of Nashville doesn't really cut it. Obviously the show wants to tell a city story that's bigger than just the music industry, but this feels a bit strained. There's nothing wrong with focusing on one industry in a one-industry town. Leave the politics stuff to another show, one that merits being taken a bit more seriously.
Nashville isn't that show. It's a juicy, if a bit toothless, soap about young vs. old cat-fights and wide-eyed dreamers falling in love and following their dreams. And that's plenty. Please, we've got enough politics as is. Just give us the Ole Opry and some barbed insults said through smiles and scruffy men strumming guitars and we're happy. That's it. We don't need much, we're just simple country folk, after all.