Nashville: Pilot Review: A Strong Start for this Southern Drama

You don’t have to love country music to love ABC’s compelling new show.  Nashville‘s first outing is engaging and exciting from start to finish.

The hour-long drama comes from Callie Khouri, the Academy Award winning writer of Thelma & Louise.  Set in the heart of the country music scene, Nashville tells the story of Rayna James (Friday Night Light‘s Connie Britton in terrific form, more on that later though), a country singer whose star is beginning to fade.  Her latest album isn’t doing as well as she’d hoped, and she isn’t selling out concert arenas like she used to.  In an effort not to lose money, her record label suggest she “co-headline” with a young Taylor Swift-esque artist named Juliette Barnes (Heroes‘ Hayden Panettiere, making a welcome return to primetime).  Rayna is revolted by the idea.  She knows full well that “co-headline” really means being the opening act.

From their awkward first meeting, it’s clear Rayna and Juliette won’t be getting along.  Rayna isn’t a fan of Juliette’s auto-tuned pop/country songs, even though they’re ruling the airwaves.  Juliette, on the other hand, desperately wants to steal away Rayna’s bandleader Deacon (Charles Eston), claiming he’s the best in the business.  Deacon doesn’t budge easily though.  He and Rayna have a romantic history that he just can’t let go of.

The opening shots of Tennessee’s capital city and Rayna’s performance in honor of her longtime producer Watty White (J.D. Souther), really give you a feel for what country music means to these people.  It’s not just entertainment, it’s a lifestyle.  But this show isn’t just about the music.  It’s also about family, and boy is Rayna’s a doozy.

Her husband Teddy (Eric Close) is loving, but troubled. He made some bad financial investments a ways back and is now basically a stay-at-home dad, itching to get back into the working world.  Together Rayna and Teddy also have two adorable daughters named Maddie and Daphne, played by real-life sisters and YouTube sensations Lennon and Maisy Stella.

Rayna comes from a powerful family in Nashville, led by her father Lamar Wyatt (Sin City‘s Powers Boothe, turning in a darkly vigorous performance with the perfect southern drawl).  Lamar and Rayna have a complicated history, and it’s clear she doesn’t like to associate with him.  Lamar comes up with the idea of having Teddy run for mayor, suggesting that it would be a good way for him to get back on his feet.  Teddy is all for it, but Rayna knows her father just wants to have a public official in his pocket.  When she fights him on it, Lamar brings up a painful secret about her daughter Maddie that Rayna has kept from her husband.  Obviously, these aren’t your typical father-daughter shenanigans.

Juliette has a troubled family life as well.  At first coming off as a bit of a b*tch, it’s revealed that she has a hard outer shell to protect herself from her junkie mother who constantly calls to ask for money.  It could very well be because of this, that Juliette feels she needs to sleep her way to the top.  She sleeps with one of Rayna’s producers so he records her album.  She sleeps with Deacon in an attempt to get him to be her bandleader.  Regardless of whether or not it’s a good idea, her methods seem to be working.

Finally, there’s Deacon’s niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen).  She works as a waitress in a small restaurant called The Blue Bird and likes to write poetry.  Her boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson) is an aspiring musician, but her coworker Gunnar (Sam Palladio) thinks she has the real talent.  Her poems read more like songs, and he thinks she could make it big.  The episode ends with the two of them performing one of her song-poems at The Blue Bird’s open mic night.  They’re actually singing a cover of The Civil Wars’ “If I Didn’t Know Better,” but it’s beautiful nonetheless.  Watty White seems to think so too.  He happens to be at the restaurant when they perform, and calls Rayna to tell her he has an idea.  Perhaps she won’t have to “co-headline” after all.

Based on the pilot, Nashville looks like it will be a thrilling new drama.  Khouri has created some very interesting and layered characters, and set up some exciting plot points for the rest of the season.  If nothing else, the show is worth checking out for Connie Britton’s standout performance.  The actress fills the role of Rayna James with such effortless strength and conviction, that you’ll likely look up her Wikipedia page to see if she didn’t try her hand at country music in real life.  If you’re hoping to find the next Glee, though, look elsewhere.  The songs are nice, but they are merely part of the backdrop.  Real family drama is what’s at this show’s heart.  Grade: A

One Response to Nashville: Pilot Review: A Strong Start for this Southern Drama

  1. Connie Britton says:

    Wow, so glad y’all love my new show! Please feel free to visit me in my home in Texas where I will bake you pie and give you life advice.

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