Critic's Notebook: 'Nashville' With Less Connie Britton? Why Would Anybody Want That?

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When ABC canceled Nashville back in May, I was happy for two people: I was pleased for me, because Nashville has long held a place as one of the most frustrating shows I can't quit watching, and I was pleased for Connie Britton, because while I want Mrs. Coach to enjoy a steady paycheck, I also have no doubt that Nashville is the only thing standing in the way of Britton joining Sarah Paulson as Ryan Murphy's co-muse. Nashville may have earned Britton an Emmy nomination for its first season, but I'm reasonably sure it's now preventing her from actually winning an Emmy for something else.

But then CMT decided to revive Nashville and that became a curse only on me, because as I mentioned, I'm not going to begrudge Britton what I'm sure is regular and comfortable compensation.

Today comes word that while Nashville was renewed for a full 22 episodes, Britton's deal is currently only for 10 episodes and this feels like a circumstance that's almost a worst-case scenario for all involved. It takes Britton out of commission for a half-dozen Murphy shows and anthologies likely to film this fall — maybe only four, but that still sounds like a lot of Murphy — it leaves me almost certain to be stuck watching a Britton-free Nashville for more than half a season and, probably most damagingly, it leaves CMT with a Britton-free Nashville for possibly more than half a season and then, if this reduced load is part of a total exit strategy, for any seasons beyond.

To my mind, there are three reasons that I'll be continuing to watch Nashville, a show that has routinely had the worst B and C storylines on television. Make that four, if you include "inertia," which is why I watch perhaps 20 percent of what I watch on TV on a regular basis.

They are:

Hayden Panettiere. The poster girl for absence making the heart grow fonder, I didn't realize how much I liked Panettiere's Juliette Barnes until she was absent for parts of the past two seasons and it became clear that even if Juliette has been written with epic inconsistency, the energy the Heroes veteran was bringing to the show was essential. Jonathan Jackson's Avery had an unbearable introduction on the show when it premiered and, as is my wont, it took me a long time to get over that intro — I never forgave Logan on Veronica Mars for what he does in the opening episodes and never accepted him as a viable romantic lead — but paired with Juliette, the character became one of the show's main sources of compassion.

Connie Britton. The thing that I most appreciate about Britton's work on Nashville is how many awful subplots she's been forced to legitimize. Other than the rivalry with Juliette and parts of the romance with Deacon, nothing Rayna has been given to do on the show has really evolved effectively. The more the show did with her marriage to Teddy, the more ludicrous it became. The more the show did with her evil father Lamar, the more ludicrous it became. Daughters Maddie and Daphne, so endearing in the smallest of doses, became almost unbearable as Nashville decided to force greater prominence on them. And then when Deacon suddenly became an uncontrollable nightmare in the second half of this last season, he went from a worthwhile character to another disaster. And yet Rayna's dignity has never wavered. All credit to Britton.

New showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick. With My So-Called Life and thirtysomething and Once and Again on their résumés, Herskovitz and Zwick command instant respect and bring a lengthy track record of delivering mature adult drama with heart and humor to the small screen. Having those two in to pinch-hit at this point in a show's run is a risky move, one that verges on unprecedented, and they piqued my curiosity, especially for how they would have handled and developed storylines for Rayna. But if Rayna is leaving, what are Herskowitz and Zwick left with? Are they going to be forced to front a show that's likely to bring in younger, fresher, cheaper faces just to keep going? I remember Quarterlife, so this fills me with caution and concern.

Without Rayna, what is Nashville, anyway? Is it just Juliette's mercurial behavior and Oscar thirst, endless romantic back-and-forth with Gunnar and Scarlett and Daphne constantly narcing on Maddie for misbehavior? Will they bring back Mykelti Williamson's Terry to provide homeless wisdom to all of the white characters? Or figure out where they left Zoey? And then is it the writers trying to introduce new characters? Because Nashville has been just horrible at introducing new characters over the years. The frequency with which new romantic foils or professional rivals have appeared and been cast aside or forgotten is criminal, at least insofar as anything bad that a TV show does can be considered criminal. I have slightly more faith in Herskovitz and Zwick than the previous administration, but only slightly.

I can imagine Nashville's best value to CMT would be introducing one young country star after another for launching-pad appearances before being sent off on tour, but is that actually Nashville? If Rayna is getting eased out the door and Juliette is being pushed into a role of increased seniority as the new Rayna and an interchangeable group of singers are going to be whisked in and out after engaging in predictable and generic soapiness, whose Nashville is that? Not mine.

Britton's reduced deal isn't finalized, and I don't know if I should be rooting for her freedom at this point or not. Without her, CMT might as well rebrand the show, because the minute I have to reprogram my DVR for a new title is the minute I can liberate those 42 weekly minutes of viewership.

Nashville, I'm probably stuck with. The Britton-free AfterNASH I can do without.