After four seasons of escalating melodrama, “Nashville” is preparing for a key change.
Picked up by CMT last year after its cancellation by ABC, the series set in country music’s capital begins its fifth season Thursday night. And along with a new network has come a fresh creative team promising a move away from the soapy theatrics that slowly came to define the show.
In the fourth season alone, those included a plane crash, an attempted suicide and a guy falling in slow motion from a high-rise rooftop — each hard to imagine when “Nashville” debuted in 2012 as a surprisingly credible backstage drama with serious ties to the country music establishment.
Yet such contrivances have no place in the upcoming season, according to Marshall Herskovitz, the veteran show runner who’s taken over “Nashville” with his longtime producing partner, Ed Zwick. Known for critically acclaimed shows like “Thirtysomething” and “My So-Called Life,” the two view “Nashville” — which stars Connie Britton and Hayden Panettiere — as more “people-centered” than it became as ABC tried to reverse flagging ratings with Twitter-ready spectacle.
“We’re betting that a deep, emotional connection to the characters will be a stronger pull for the audience than the OMG effect,” Herskovitz said.
To foster that connection, they’re also renewing the emphasis on music in a show originally inspired by the lives and careers — and, OK, the tortured romances — of Nashville’s creative class: the singers, songwriters, producers and executives responsible for the city’s highest-profile export.
Indeed, within the first five minutes of the two-part season premiere airing Thursday, we see Britton’s character, Rayna Jaymes, discuss the folk standard “Wayfaring Stranger” with a grizzled old man clutching a mandolin.
“Nashville” started out depicting the country scene convincingly. Early seasons featured cameos by respected roots-music figures like Pam Tillis and Del McCoury, and some scenes are shot inside a painstaking re-creation of a real-life venue, the Bluebird Cafe. The show’s creator, Callie Khouri, recruited her husband, producer T Bone Burnett, to oversee “Nashville’s” original music, which led to a series of successful soundtrack albums.
But eventually, the songs performed by Rayna, Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes and others began to feel like an afterthought, lost in an ever more complicated shuffle of betrayals and overdoses and criminal conspiracies.
“To make things happen at such a fast metabolic rate was to deny the music the chance to do what music can do best,” said Zwick, “which is to grow and to linger — to provide a kind of emotional foundation.”
Added Herskovitz: “I can say that we’ll play more music and for longer this year than ever before in the show.”
That focus was evident on a recent afternoon at the suburban Los Angeles home of “Nashville’s” music supervisor, Frankie Pine, who’d gathered a dozen or so songwriters — old hands and youthful up-and-comers — to spend the day crafting potential tunes for the show’s characters.
The atmosphere was relaxed, with musicians grouped in twos and threes around the spacious backyard, working from story notes they’d been given by Zwick and Herskovitz. As the songwriters strummed guitars and punched lyrics into their phones, Pine’s children splashed in a swimming pool and a chef prepared brick-oven pizzas. (Hey, even “Nashville” can go L.A.)
Around dusk, though, a ripple of nervous energy went through the place when Pine called the musicians to a makeshift stage on the patio: Here was where they’d pitch their material to the show runners, who sat together at a picnic table waiting to hear if anyone had successfully channeled the voices of the fictional stars they’re trying to make more believable.
It turned out a few had, including Garrison Starr and Jake Etheridge, whose song “Burn to Dark” was later selected as a tune to be sung in the upcoming season by country hunk Will Lexington (played by Chris Carmack). The “Nashville” brain trust picked out another cut — “All of Me,” written by Tim Lauer, Lindy Robbins and Phillip LaRue — for Scarlett O’Connor (Clare Bowen) and Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio), two young stars in an on-again/off-again romantic relationship.
After the afternoon’s performances, Herskovitz said he’d been “knocked out” by the talent on display.
“I can’t believe all these people could just sit down — some of them with people they’d never worked with before — and start writing songs,” he said. “If you threw me in a room with a scriptwriter, I’d panic.”
Starr, whose music has been featured in other TV shows including “Pretty Little Liars” and “The Fosters,” said Zwick took more of a role in the process than she’d anticipated; the show runner even sat down with her and Etheridge as they worked.
“And at first it was kind of annoying,” she said. “In my head I got a little sensitive: ‘Dude, more power to you as a writer, but you’re not a songwriter.’ As we went along, though, he was so on point with the things he was saying. He gave us a different perspective on the bridge of the song and helped us bring it home.”
Herskovitz said he and Zwick want to bring that kind of artistic collaboration to the screen as part of the new “Nashville.”
“We’re very interested in the nuts and bolts of creativity,” he said, recalling scenes in “Thirtysomething” that showed two primary characters, both advertising execs, spitballing ideas for new campaigns.
He continued: “We have an entire episode [of ‘Nashville’] where we play out a relationship between two people in the writing of songs. That’s not something you usually see on television.”
But is there an appetite among viewers for the drama of process as opposed to that of a plane crash? The audience for ABC’s “Nashville” may have shrunk as the series got soapier, but so have ratings for music-factory talent shows like “The Voice” and the now dormant “American Idol.”
That doesn’t scare Herskovitz.
“Americans want to see themselves as creative,” he said. As proof, he pointed to the huge popularity of Pinterest, Etsy and Instagram — online platforms that allow access to creative tools “that used to be reserved for the elite.”
The way he and Zwick see it, the trick is in balancing the nuts and bolts with relatable emotional stories. And the increased use of music, they say, will only help them do that on a show built around musicians.
“Look, we wouldn’t try to do this with ‘NCIS,’ ” Herskovitz said with a laugh, referring to the popular CBS procedural.
“But we’re not on the air yet. We’ll see if we’re right.”
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)