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MAY
21
10 MOS

'Nashville': In Defense of Hayden Panettiere's Juliette Barnes

Rayna who? The ABC drama's best character is also its bitchiest.

Nashville Hayden Panettiere Episodic - P 2013
ABC
Hayden Panettiere

This bit of information would doubtless send Juliette Barnes into another one of her infamous diva fits, and rightly so: see, Hayden Panettiere -- shockingly enough -- was not the first choice to play the deliciously bratty and cunning Nashville villainess.

After an addictively soapy first season that revealed Panettiere to be a compelling and multi-layered actress who can belt a country song with the best of them (and probably out-sing Taylor Swift, too), it’s difficult to imagine anyone else in the role.

But the ABC series’ producers wondered whether she had the right amount of vulnerability required for Juliette, who is simultaneously egomaniacal and insecure, hell-bent on establishing credibility among Nashville’s status quo and rewriting history to erase all memory of her troubled and cash-strapped childhood. (Her mother was an addict who had neglected the rising country star; their tumultuous relationship has unlocked Juliette’s capacity for empathy – it’s there, sometimes, not often! – but also tested her ability to trust and forgive.)

“They obviously had these doubts about me, and you feel kind of like, ‘Are they gonna be happy that they chose me?’” Panettiere told New York magazine, addressing the worrisome waiting period after her audition.

VIDEO: 'Nashville': Will Juliette's Sex Tape Go Public?

Whatever misgivings creator Callie Khouri had before are most certainly eradicated now.  Panettiere earned a 2013 Golden Globe nomination for best supporting actress and silenced Nashville fans who love to hate -- or love to love -- Juliette and once dismissed the 23-year-old star as another interchangeable pretty face.

But Panettiere, a showbiz vet and former child actor whose credits include steely cheerleader Claire Bennet on the former NBC drama Heroes, achieves the best work yet in the juiciest part of her career. As self-involved, off-the-rails Juliette, she: snarls at and spars with aging country queen Rayna James (the earthy and marvelous Connie Britton), who considers her rival to be young, immature and unworthy of attention; marries a Tim Tebow-esque NFL quarterback only to divorce him shortly afterward; fires her manager and the lead guitarist on her tour in a fiery rage; and hooks up with her mom’s sober companion, like a Maury Povich guest might do.

Given those unflattering (but surely fun to act) plotlines, Panettiere also wins the Michael Emerson prize for “Humanizing Terrible Characters on Network TV”: not only does she make such ridiculous antics seem completely authentic and natural to her character, she also renders Juliette … likable.

The girls of Girls cannot accomplish this dynamic, nor do they seemingly care to in Lena Dunham’s award-winning quest for unvarnished realism. But what Juliette, who is roughly the same age as aspiring famous writer Hannah (Dunham), has that the polarizing HBO anti-heroine lacks is purpose, drive, grit and backbone. That’s something an ambitious woman might learn growing up poor in a trailer park rather than coddled by loving parents in the suburbs. That's something which commands (begrudging) respect, even at Juliette’s bitchiest.

STORY: 'Nashville' Enlists Brad Paisley for Season Finale

A terrific example of Panettiere’s nuanced portrayal of Juliette is a scene in which she – SPOILER ALERT – comes home to find her mom dead of an apparent suicide-drug overdose after shooting the aforementioned sober companion Dante (Jay Hernandez); he was blackmailing the Swift-esque singer with the threat of exposing a sex tape ahead of the Country Music Association Awards, for which she received a much-coveted nod for vocalist of the year (along with Rayna). When Juliette discovers the body, it’s like a punch to the gut as her tough exterior dissolves into wails of grief; she is later shown sitting alone in the dark and watching a TV news report of the incident, channeling anger and despair with a clenched jaw, red-rimmed eyes and hardened gaze.

Juliette Barnes isn’t going down without a fight; Hayden Panettiere should not leave this show without an Emmy.

Questions, Nashville watchers: are you a fan of Juliette? Why or why not? Who do you hope wins the CMA on Wednesday’s season finale? Unrelated: is Rayna Juliette-level evil for not telling Deacon the truth about Maddie?

Twitter: @ErinLCarlson

Email: erin.carlson@thr.com