Yes, Nashville is about country music. Connie Britton — who became a small-screen MVP after playing both Friday Night Lights’ beloved Tami Taylor and American Horror Story’s haunted pregnant lady — stars as Rayna James, a middle-aged megastar who’s suddenly losing traction after 20 years in the business. For the first time in her career, she isn’t selling albums or concert tickets, and the suits want to introduce her to a younger audience in a “co-headlining” tour with sexy, young upstart Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). In fact, they’re so set on the idea that they’ve threatened to stop promoting her if she doesn’t go along with it. With even her oldest friends at the label begging her to fall in line and a family that’s entirely dependent on her income (“We’re just a different kind of rich called ‘cash-poor,'” her husband explains to their two daughters), Rayna has to decide what matters more: her success or her self-respect.
We’ve seen the aging star vs. nubile newcomer rivalry many times before, but what differentiates Nashville is the complexity of those two characters. Juliette comes on like a bratty sexpot, but she’s got layers. A true country fan despite her own bubblegum hits, she knows and cares about its history. If she’s quick to jump into bed with men who could help her career, that surely has something to do with a childhood she’s desperate to escape. Although Panettiere’s fussiness can be irritating, the slightly sour undertone to her all-American sweetness suits the role perfectly.
Just as Juliette isn’t quite the show’s villain, Britton’s Rayna isn’t a full-on heroine. Like Mrs. Coach with a dark past of her own, she can turn on the “hey, y’all” charm whenever she wants but is also prone to diva tantrums when things aren’t going her way. Raised in one of Nashville’s wealthiest, most powerful families, Rayna used her stardom to escape the control of her Machiavellian businessman father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), who doesn’t mind blackmailing his own family and grooming his own politicians to get what he wants.
The inclusion of Lamar allows Nashville to expand beyond the music scene, taking on local politics as a secondary focus. When he gets the idea to involve Rayna’s husband Teddy (Eric Close), who has no other professional prospects, in his affairs, the tension in her relationships with both men hits the roof. And considering the mutual lingering affection between her and an old lover who’s still very much in her life, the marriage already seems precarious.
What’s remarkable about tonight’s episode is how quickly it fleshes out not only Rayna and Juliette but a sizable supporting cast that also includes Scarlett (Clare Bowen), Avery (Jonathan Jackson), and Gunnar (Sam Palladio), a young and talented love triangle that’s sure to yield another country star or two before the season is out. Every few minutes, you can find the seed of yet another promising subplot. And similar to Treme (although its tone isn’t nearly as ponderous), the show’s use of music to illustrate its centrality to the life of the city is surprisingly deft — and the songs are decent, too. In its first hour, Nashville creates a dramatic yet believable world and populates it with characters we care about immediately. With any luck, we’ll get to visit them once a week for the foreseeable future.
Photo credits: Katherine Bomboy-Thornton/ABC