Sometimes it pays to watch the credits. I wouldn’t have given ABC’s new musical drama “Nashville” much of a glance if I hadn’t paid attention to who’s behind the camera. The show is created by Callie Khouri, who won herself an Academy Award for a little movie called Thelma & Louise. It’s produced by R.J. Cutler, a documentary filmmaker who made a name for himself with “serious reality”—the films The War Room and The September Issue as well as the series “American High.” To top it all off, the show’s featured songs are written by musician and producer T Bone Burnett—who just happens to be married to Khouri. The result of their collaboration is a tune-filled attention-getter that rises above the soapy mess of typical nighttime dramas.
The series stars Connie Britton (much-loved after her run on “Friday Night Lights”) as Rayna James, a legendary country music superstar. “Nashville” is smart enough to realize the sea change going on in the country music industry these days. Most of today’s country hits are performed by girls who look like porn stars and sound like pop stars. Old-school legends like Rayna are fading fast. That’s the position our protagonist finds herself in when she’s asked to open for up-and-comer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere from “Heroes”). Juliette is the pouty, sexy, mini-skirted poster child of today’s country music scene. Needless to say, Rayna and Juliette do not get along. At all.
At first, the battle between young and old sounds mighty similar to Gwyneth Paltrow’s 2010 flick Country Strong. Ultimately, though, “Nashville” wants to embrace all of its titular location, adding a diverse cast of characters meant to represent the city as a whole. For starters, we’ve got Rayna’s dad, grumpy old Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe, who’s probably not as old and grumpy as he looks). Seems rich-and-powerful Lamar doesn’t approve of Rayna’s career path. When not insulting his daughter, he’s needling her husband (Eric Close, Without a Trace) into running for mayor. There’s also Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten, “Whose Line Is It Anyway?”), Rayna’s guitarist and “former” lover. Rounding out the important players so far is Scarlett O’Connor (Aussie singer/actress Clare Bowen), an aspiring author who may hold the key to Rayna’s future.
The acting is ace. Britton is fantastic, of course. And Panettiere is definitely well-cast as the former tween star pixie-bitch—sort of an evil Britney Spears in pink cowboy boots. Like any new show, though, it’s hard to judge how interesting the supporting players and subplots really are. So far, Rayna and Juliette’s polite cat fight dynamic gives the show a juicy center around which to grow. In time, other storylines (particularly the political ones) should get more developed.
Entertainment industry ambitions and political machinations aside, how much you’ll want to keep watching “Nashville” will probably depend on your taste / tolerance for modern country music. There’s a lot of it. To these untrained ears, though, it’s credible, well-integrated stuff. Like HBO’s “Treme” with a little more twang and lot more dirty, sexy promise, “Nashville” sounds like a major hit.