Singing actors are very much in vogue at the moment, with Glee‘s bubblegum pop approach looking a bit downmarket in the face of Treme‘s jazz, Smash‘s show tunes and now the country twang of ABC’s Nashville.
Like the latter two, the newcomer packs some serious headline names, from former Bob Dylan guitarist and producer T-Bone Burnett and original music by the likes of Elvis Costello (who, incidentally, also guest-starred in Treme), to its two stars: multiple Emmy nominee Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights‘ Tami Taylor) and former Heroes alumnus Hayden Panettiere. This adds a level of polish to a functional but entertaining romp of a pilot episode which tees up several promising plot-lines to explore further.
There’s little original in the basic premise. Rayna Jaymes (Britton) is a classic country star from the old school who finds herself becoming left behind, facing flagging record and tour sales. Record label stable-mate Juliette Barnes (Panettiere) is the upcoming star, appealing to a new generation of fans with her radio-friendly pop-country crossover stylings. From their initial encounter, Juliette’s disdain for her elder is clear:
My mama was one of your biggest fans. She said she’d listen to you while I was still in her belly.
Juliette’s mother, we later discover, is a trailer trash drug addict with a talent for discovering her daughter’s ever-changing mobile number. So, Juliette is Taylor Swift with a hint of Britney Spears, then?
Rayna, on the other hand, is initially presented as the perfect country music princess. She’s sensible, intelligent, a devoted wife and mother of two daughters. But as the stress builds over the course of the episode, the cracks being to show. She lost her mother aged 12 and is estranged from her Machiavellian father Lamar Wyatt (a seethingly, smarmily, sinister Powers Boothe), who persuades her husband Teddy Conrad (Eric Close) to run for mayor. Teddy has suffered a relatively recent business failure and has a chip on his shoulder that Rayna settled for him as her second-best option. She also has a history with her guitarist and ex-boyfriend Deacon Claybourne (Charles ‘Chip’ Esten, best known as a regular on the US version of Whose Line Is It Anyway?), and it doesn’t take a genius to work out that a dark secret involving her elder daughter Maddie will inevitably be linked to him.
Indeed, Deacon becomes the third corner of an awkward love triangle when Juliette, who isn’t afraid of sleeping her way to the top, sets her sights on (literally) seducing him away from Rayna to join her on tour – a tour which the older star steadfastly refuses to join despite pressure from her label executives. Meanwhile Rayna, desperate to unearth a hit song to reinvigorate her career, is offered possible salvation by producer and mentor Watty White (J D Souther), who discovers the germ of something special in the songs of Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen), who just happens to be Deacon’s niece.
And that, if you’ve managed to keep up with all that, is pretty much it. Not bad for an hour-long premiere.
As I said above, most of the premise and the initial characterisation treads well-worn ground and some of the signposting of long-term storylines is a little heavy-handed. Without any foreknowledge of spoilers, I think it’s probably safe to predict that Deacon will turn out to be Maddie’s father and that Teddy’s ‘business failure’ will turn out to be anything but innocent. But that doesn’t really matter. There is more than enough soapily dramatic content here to work as a standalone series, and it manages to interweave a huge amount of musical content without losing pace – at no point does it ever feel as if the plot is being put on hold just to squeeze in a big musical setpiece.
Of course, the series will live or die on its two female leads, but in Britton and Panettiere the show is in safe hands from both a dramatic and a musical perspective, with both performing their own songs. Panettiere, a former Grammy nominee, has the more thoroughbred background, while Britton is the daughter of a music teacher and a former musical theatre student who more than holds her own behind a mike. (Both were subsequently nominated at this year’s Golden Globes.) And the original songs produced for this opening episode – in particular Panettiere’s Boys and Buses – are gorgeous and the equal of anything written for Smash‘s musical-within-the-show. And I say this as someone who normally has an allergic reaction to country music.
Throw in the attraction and novelty of using Nashville as a location (as opposed to LA or New York or another traditional TV metropolis), some additional commentary on how the music industry has changed in recent years – declining record sales, changing audiences, the use of autotune to mask the flaws in Juliette’s voice – and some decent (if not spectacular) ratings, and I’d say this confident start has all the makings of a stayer. Don’t let the musical genre put you off – on the evidence of this deftly handled pilot Nashville is well worth a look.
Nashville continues on More4 on Thursdays at 10pm.