Soapy-but-supersmart new American import Nashville sets itself up, on the surface, as a duel of sorts between two women who stand for different eras. There’s country legend Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton, MRS COACH), very much from the rhinestones-and-hats end of the tradition, whose career is starting to founder; her albums aren’t selling as well, her concerts aren’t shifting tickets, and younger audiences want something else. Such as Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, Heroes): young, perky, and someone whose voice can be AutoTuned if need be. They meet-bitchy, then Rayna’s record label tell her that they want her to tour as Juliette’s support act, while Juliette is conspiring to steal Rayna’s lead guitarist Deacon away. Juliette has a Secret – at least one – and is plainly prepared to put out if the situation requires it; Rayna also has a Secret – at least one – and has, perhaps, a more complicated past than her outwardly perfect marriage to failed businessman Teddy (Eric Close, from Without A Trace) would suggest.
Rayna’s father Lamar (Powers Boothe, scenery-chewing) is, in ways which aren’t quite specified, a rich and wealthy powerbroker. His business interests require a weak and malleable Mayor, and he decides to promote Teddy as a candidate in the forthcoming mayoral election; somewhat improbably, within a matter of minutes Teddy is running. This causes domestic disharmony between Rayna and Teddy – we’re led to believe that this is fairly common – as Rayna had already agreed to back a rival candidate, and doesn’t like the suggestion that she should not only switch allegiance to Teddy, but should, perhaps, give up her career for a while to support his run for office. As she’s already been told that her star is in decline, this really isn’t a suggestion to which she takes kindly.
There are a few subplots, such as the clearly forthcoming romance between waitress Scarlett, Deacon’s niece, and aspiring songwriter Gunnar, which will get more or less time as we go on depending on how they test with focus groups, I should imagine. But there’s more than enough here already to suggest that Nashville’s a keeper: the storytelling is taut, the writing is clever, it’s plainly suitable for grown-ups, and there’s a feeling that the show’s going places. As for the acting: Hayden Panettiere isn’t quite up to what the show needs, yet, but might get there. Connie Britton is, of course, fantastic; she’s a genuine and major acting talent, and looks both wonderful and like a woman in her 40s should. For the avoidance of doubt I mean that very much as a compliment; as I’ve said more than once before, it’s great to see proper roles for women of a certain age. It’s presumably no coincidence that show creator and exec producer, Callie Khouri, has a track record of putting strong women on screen.
And Khouri is married to T-Bone Burnett, who is behind most of the music. If you don’t like country, and I must admit that I generally don’t, the music is no better than pleasant filler without in any way being a dealbreaker. With one exception, of course: the writers wisely keep their showstopper ‘If I Didn’t Know Better’ (a remarkable song by The Civil Wars in real life) until the end of the episode, and allow its yearning, brooding melody and lyrics to bleed all over the last few scenes, rounding off a terrific opening episode on a high note. I’ll be back for more next week.