Fans of serialized drama – aka prime-time soaps – take note: A pilot worth your attention arrives at 10 p.m. today with the debut of ABC’s “Nashville.”
Created and written by Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Thelma & Louise,” ”Nashville” introduces a passel of plots in its premiere, including an “All About Eve” scenario, unrequited love, questionable paternity and family turmoil. And it all blends together in an entertaining, easily digestible hour of TV.
And yet, ABC executives are clearly nervous about how “Nashville” will be perceived.
At the Television Critics Association summer press tour in July, any mention of the new soapy drama was met with a quick, defensive, “It’s not just about country music” response.
It’s an understandable reaction. The show’s title alone conjures an image of honky-tonks. Sometimes image is everything.
“Nashville” stars actress Connie Britton, who previously led the cast of “Friday Night Lights,” which had a similar perception problem. “FNL” was a character-driven, quality drama with a football backdrop, but the football aspect of the show scared away viewers who usually watch quality dramas and football fans tuned out after it was clear the show was not about football.
ABC may be luckier with “Nashville” because it seems likely that the country-music audience and the audience for serialized drama have more crossover appeal. (Just to be clear, the “Nashville”-”FNL” comparison is about both shows’ form, not quality. “Nashville” is an entertaining show, but the pilot lacks the heart and humanity of “FNL.”)
Is “Nashville” too country? Not for me. Country music is not my genre of choice, but the music that exists in “Nashville” was not off-putting. That said, the pilot is at its best when it uses music – particularly in a montage near the end of the premiere – to advance the show’s plots rather than in straight-on performance sequences that could encourage the non-musically inclined to drift away from the TV.
Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes, country music’s reigning female vocalist, who finds her dominance of the charts eroding as a new generation of artists emerges, including Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, “Heroes”), an entitled up-and-comer with a deadbeat mom on her tail.
Rayna’s dislike of Juliette’s sound (“It sounds like feral cats to me”) grows when new managers at Rayna’s record label suggest she go on tour with Juliette and open for her, a slap to Rayna’s ego.
Rayna’s turmoil isn’t limited to her career woes. Her father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe, “Hatfields & McCoys”), schemes his way through business and politics, including a new plan that directly impacts Rayna and her husband, Teddy (Eric Close, “Without a Trace”), a down-on-his-luck businessman.
And then there’s Rayna’s bandleader, Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten), who has an unrequited love for the superstar. Other characters who come into play include Deacon’s niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen), and her potentially troublemaking boyfriend, Avery (Jonathan Jackson, “General Hospital”), and her Bluebird Cafe co-worker, Gunnar (Sam Palladio, “Episodes”), who has a crush on Scarlett.
Khouri wrote the “Nashville” pilot and executive producer R.J. Cutler (“The War Room”) directed it in a way that builds a believable universe. The show feels real.
It helps that the entire series is filmed on location in Nashville, but it’s the specificity of the writing and the blunt, brass-tacks portrayal of Rayna’s business dealings that give credibility to the characters and authenticity to the situations in “Nashville.”
Follow TV writer Rob Owen on Twitter or Facebook under RobOwenTV. Email him at [email protected]