When an Oscar-winning screenwriter makes a show for network television, people take notice.
When she decides to situate it in the world of country music and enlists the aid of a legendary (and Oscar-winning) country songwriter, musician and producer T Bone Burnett (who also happens to be her husband), well, now pretty much everyone’s looking. So by the time she up and casts one of television’s most currently beloved stars, a woman of apparently boundless heart and versatility, Full Critical Attention has been achieved.
For months now, the assumption has been that the title of best new drama of the season is “Nashville’s” to lose, and if the pilot is any indication, the show is not in a losing state of mind.
Created by Callie Khouri (“Thelma & Louise”), “Nashville” stars Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes, a country superstar faced with a fading demographic, a conniving plutocrat father, a flawed marriage and a Taylor Swift-ian young nemesis.
As the story opens, she is confronted by an increasingly familiar pit and pendulum: Her artistically fine but commercially challenged new album and tour are not hitting their projected sales quotas, prompting her record company — the label she built, for heaven’s sake! — to demand she pair up with Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), the auto-tuned hot young thang who rules the airwaves.
“Unfortunately, the older business models have become irrelevant,” says the maddeningly arrogant new CEO when Rayna asks for a little payback for her years of service.
It’s a brilliant line, and one that makes Rayna’s battle our own — who among us does not feel that our own personal business model has become irrelevant? (ABC certainly does, as it has already made the pilot available on Hulu, iTunes and its website.) Not that with Britton in charge we needed too much convincing.
A woman who can go from “Friday Night Lights” to “American Horror Story” without missing a beat or losing her luminous humanity is a force to be reckoned with, and “Nashville” would be worth watching if for no other reason than to see Britton shine. (Watch how she says the simple word “no” when the combined tour is first suggested to her.)
Fortunately for us, there are plenty of other reasons as well, including the music, which is woven into the fabric of the narrative in a manner more evocative of “Treme” than “Glee.” Burnett has enlisted A-listers like John Paul White and Elvis Costello to write for the show, but most songs are not sung in their entirety, and when they are, the action still works around them. (Singles, beginning with one co-written by White, will be released weekly through Swift’s label on iTunes,)
The setting too is worth noting. Hollywood in general and television in particular have trouble with the South, which is too often portrayed in desultory broad strokes as one big backwater where, rich or poor, folks are rendered incomprehensible and culturally unconscious by cracker accents and small-mindedness. (The failed “GCB” comes to mind.) Khouri, who has roots in Nashville, is clearly trying to remedy that — this being a pilot, there are broad strokes aplenty but even with a few familiar figures, the colors they wield are shaded and complex.
In addition to being a superstar, Rayna is the still-rebellious daughter of Nashville’s former mayor, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), a man determined to control all he sees, and if that control requires the use of Rayna’s down-on-his-luck husband Teddy (Eric Close), then so be it. Never the family breadwinner, Teddy is no longer pulling his weight, meaning that Rayna’s career crisis is as much financial as it is emotional — they have the big house to maintain and two young daughters.
It’s also more fraught than perhaps even Rayna realizes. Young Juliette, plagued by demons of her own, isn’t just young and ambitious, she’s vindictive. Using her feminine wiles, as well as her bottomless bank account, she makes a play not only for Rayna’s producer but also Deacon (Charles Esten), Rayna’s bandleader, best friend and general man who got away.
Mirroring the Rayna-Teddy-Deacon triangle is a trio of young folks working their way up through Nashville’s famed Bluebird Cafe: Deacon’s niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen), a songwriter-waitress; her current beau, the country hipster Avery (Jonathan Jackson); and the man and musician she should be with, Gunnar (Sam Palladio)
“Nashville” is big, bold, wildly ambitious and great fun, with top notes of Robert Altman’s “Nashville,” “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” and “All About Eve.” More important, for all the plaintive twangs and knowing references to the Bluebird Cafe, there are moments of bare-naked and universal truths.
Art, no matter how folksy, is power, demanding a single-mindedness that easily slides into cruelty, and when we chose to live among the people who know where the old breaks and soft spots are, even unintentional cruelty can prove lethal.
But if the music lasts and the show is this good, what does that matter?
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-PG-L (may be unsuitable for young children with an advisory for coarse language)