Of fall's series with high hopes but red flags, ABC's Nashville is right near the top. With an impeccable cast and tons of talent behind the camera, Nashville could be one of those huge grown-up soaps that hook viewers for years. Or it could get derailed -- a la Friday Night Lights -- by viewers who can't get on board with one of the major elements.
In FNL, the element was high school football (and the perception that it was a show for teenagers). But its writing and acting quickly supplanted any worries that the emphasis would be on something viewers might not be interested in. Similarly, country music is at the heart of Nashville, but it's not the driving force or an overwhelming aspect of the show.
For some people, it might be essential to know that up front.
The gambit in the pilot is beautifully clear and, for anyone who knows anything about the music industry, completely apt. Rayna James (Connie Britton, wonderful in everything she does) is a country music legend. She's been the industry's top female vocalist for 20 years, virtually launching a label in the process and spawning a career that has sent her star into the stratosphere. But as with all things in every genre of music, who you are and what you did suddenly don't matter when the Next Big Thing comes along.
Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) is young, sexy and a lot more pop-oriented than Rayna. Her songs are charting. Rayna's kids are singing Juliette's songs in the car. And Juliette is on the same label as Rayna.
The conceit is familiar -- the young pushing out the old -- but it's refreshing here because the execution is so compelling. Britton completely grounds Rayna, who comes across as real and seasoned as a long-term hitmaker who's also vulnerable. Panettiere has no problem playing the bad girl -- cocky and confident beyond her talent but fueled by fame to a level of entitlement that makes her balk at having to kiss the ring of Rayna. She's also just devious enough to make her newfound power work wonders.
Of course, if Nashville was just a catfight between a fading superstar and the Next Big Thing, it wouldn't have much staying power. The producers -- Dee Johnson (Boss, The Good Wife), R.J. Cutler (The September Issue, The War Room), Callie Khouri (Thelma & Louise) and Steve Buchanan -- thankfully have enough ideas to broaden the scope.
It turns out that Rayna comes from a wealthy family, and her domineering father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), is one of the most powerful men in Nashville. Lamar entices Rayna's husband, Teddy (Eric Close), to drop the house-husband role and run for office (against the candidate Rayna has sworn to endorse). Rayna soon begins to get a little too close to her guitar player and confidante, Deacon (Charles Esten), whose unrequited love for her starts getting stoked just as Juliette moves in to steal him from Rayna's band. There are plenty more storylines, too, and the pilot -- in which Khouri's strong writing and sense of character prove the show is no mere soap -- does an excellent job of identifying them without spending too much time on them.
Nashville is shot on location, so it has the look and feel of a real, thriving city. It also probably helps to have that Music City essence soaking into the production each week because the musical performances are solid and not faked, and there's an industry savvy behind scenes of the recording (for example, when Juliette's Auto-Tuned vocals cause eye rolls from the producers).
As with nearly everything she's in, Britton is the magnet on Nashville. She's an incredibly gifted actress who pulls off the wife dynamic with ease (a no-brainer after her stellar turn on FNL) and is best in moments that show the pressure of age and doubts creeping in about her career, marriage, etc. Clearly, Britton was a casting coup, but she's also called on to do a lot of singing and has admitted that she's the weakest of the cast (though more than fine to carry the role). Britton has been working with T-Bone Burnett to get her voice up to par and better understand what the challenges might be for an aging singer.
All in all, it's an entertaining hour of fine acting, writing and ambition. Even if you're not a country music fan, the rest of Nashville is singing a different, intriguing tune.
Airdate: 10 p.m. Wednesday, Oct. 10 (ABC)