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Why ABC’s New Musical Drama ‘Nashville’ is Smarter Than The Average Soap

Why ABC's New Musical Drama 'Nashville' is Smarter Than The Average Soap

Looking for an interesting hour-long drama on the big networks can be a frustrating endeavor. It’s a realm where procedurals still reign supreme in ratings and in spirit, with hours every night of the week dedicated to crimes being solved and legal cases playing out in court. Sometimes these shows have ambition, like the frequently surprising “The Good Wife,” but oftentimes the point is the opposite — they’re intended to be familiar and comforting, following the same structure every week. Series that break from this more episodic pattern, like the smart, sharper-edged new “Last Resort,” can be tougher sells.

Nashville” is not a procedural, though it’s not without precedent — like “Smash,” it follows in the music-centric footsteps of “Glee,” offering songs (T-Bone Burnett is the music producer) and backstage drama, and like the Broadway drama it aims for a more grown-up audience.

But it is, at least in its pilot episode — airing tonight, October 10th at 10pm — an intriguingly complex portrait of a showbiz ecosystem in flux, centered around a main character whose pride is coming into conflict with economic and business realities, as well as the simple fact that you can’t stay on top forever.

There is something piercingly American about the latter realization, as we as a country face a future in which we’re no longer guaranteed a place as the dominant superpower, a face we’d prefer to giddily ignore. Rayna James (Connie Britton), who as her name suggests is a country music queen, isn’t ignoring the fact that her album isn’t selling so much as she’s in denial — with more support from the label, with a more commercial single, maybe, maybe…

But the truth is that the world seems to be moving on, or at least is no longer shelling out for tour tickets, and she’s in the tough place of either taking a spot opening for young crossover star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) or walking away entirely, something she can’t afford to do — as her handsome, unemployed husband Teddy (Eric Close) puts it, their family is well-off but cash-poor.

“Nashville,” which is the creation of writer Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), sets up a rivalry between Rayna and Juliette, but allows the characters to be less clear cut than they first appear. Juliette makes aggressive use of her looks and sexuality, getting allies on her side by getting into bed with them (her voice, alas, needs a little help from Auto-Tune), and she snips at Rayna from the start (“My mama was one of your biggest fans, she said she’d listen to you while I was still in her belly”). But Rayna’s cherished image as a self-made woman isn’t as authentic as she’d like to believe either — as her wealthy, manipulative father Wyatt (Powers Boothe) tells her, he paid for her first album.

The pilot, which was directed by R.J. Cutler (“The September Issue”), is generous to its characters in other small ways, like the conversation between Rayna and Deacon (Charles Esten), her guitar player and former lover, in which they acknowledge their past together and, rather than being enraged with him when he mentions that Juliette made him a job offer, says she doesn’t want to hold him back.

And while Rayna hates her father, the fact that he offers Teddy a job is allowed to be more knotty a problem for her than simply not wanted to be under his thumb — she’d no longer have an excuse to have to work, and has to acknowledge that she wants to, that she loves the career she’s been complaining about.

“Nashville” has a great character in Rayna, whose high ground is always slipping away, and a great actress to play her in Britton, who was one of the anchors of “Friday Night Lights.” She’s very good at showing a flash of steel underneath the sugar-sweet exterior, and at offering up glimpses of vulnerability as well, prodding her face in the mirror after that encounter with Juliette, and sitting alone, gathering her thoughts and tamping down her emotions before showing up as her husband’s side as he announces he’ll be running for mayor. Juliette is not quite so complex yet, though a phone call in which we see her mother explains a lot about her past and her determination to make things happen for herself. It’s a exciting start for a series that’s offered up an array of characters who feel like vivid, flawed human beings — and none of them solve crimes.

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