'Nashville' Revives the Vanishing Art of the Ensemble Drama

Lesley Smith

In Nashville, country star Rayna faces her vulnerability and finds resolve.


Airtime: Wednesdays, 10pm ET
Cast: Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Charles Esten, Eric Close, Powers Boothe, Robert Wisdom, Clare Bowen, Sam Palladio, Jonathan Jackson
Subtitle: Series Premiere
Network: ABC
Director: R. J. Cutler
Air date: 2012-10-10

Ever since Glee exploded onto TV in 2009, the music drama has shimmered like the Holy Grail before network and cable execs. Just so, it remains elusive. Even as Smash staggers on to a second season, no such show has come even near to Glee's success. Nashville may be the exception, with its clever, even cynical, mix of middle-aged crises and youthful ambitions set in country music's Mecca.

Scripted and produced by Callie Khouri (best known for Thelma and Louise), the premiere episode juggles the woes of an asymmetrical marriage between a mega-star and a failed businessman, amid broader themes of lost love and new infatuation. Coolly directed by R. J. Cutler, the show revives the vanishing art of the ensemble primetime drama by way of a topical battle between traditional country and crossover-alt-pop.

Nashville revolves around country diva Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton). Her record company is about to ditch her unless she opens for teen phenom Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), while her estranged father, Lamar (a taut Powers Boothe), taps her stay-at-home husband Teddy (Eric Close) as candidate for Nashville's mayor. As the show opens, each faces life-changing choices.

For much of this first episode, Rayna exudes the complacency of long-term success, as she swoops from stage to kitchen, accepting loyalty and adoration as her due. In the second half, however, with a minor slump to her shoulders and a fleeting dip to her smile, Britton indicates Rayna has gone on the defensive. When the new head of her label asks for a final decision on her opening for Juliette, she retorts, "You can kiss my answer on its way out the door." But the sheer nerve of that performance is revealed an instant later as the camera lingers on Rayna's realization that the decision is potentially the beginning of the end.

Rayna is not alone in her vulnerability. The men around her, in particular, are at once attracted to Rayna's power and fearful of it. Her lead guitarist, Deacon (Charles Esten) plays second-fiddle in the arena shows, but is the star at the tiny Bluebird Café, where his cachet buys him center stage as singer-songwriter, and fuels his resentment that Rayna has recorded so few of his songs.

A similar dilemma over who takes the spotlight troubles Teddy, a dilemma that grows exponentially when his father-in-law offers the possibility of his own fame and influence as a politician. Armed with his old-Hollywood good looks and leonine sang-froid, Boothe invests Lamar's gentlest word with unmistakable menace. "Fate," he explains to Teddy, "is what befalls a man who fails to act. Destiny is for men who refuse to accept their failures as their fate." As Teddy appears uncertain over how and why he is being played, Lamar moves in for the kill. "We've all had failures, Teddy. Don't let them define you. Let them refine you." For a moment, Teddy's consciousness of his own weaknesses flickers across Close's face, and then vanity kicks in. Teddy's small, modest smile mirrors Lamar's own triumph: both have gained a weapon against Rayna, the one woman who won't buckle down to what they want.

Just so, each of Nashville's scenes builds not one story but multiple story arcs, as open-ended as the viewer's imagination. This even as it harks back to the days of Dallas and Dynasty, premised on a single throughline, namely, the spectacle of rich folks screwing up their lives. The premiere episode is full of clichés to this effect, melding All About Eve and the Grand Ole Opry in Rayna and Juliette's ongoing catfight and treacherous mutual seduction.

These narrative sensations are set against a backdrop that promises complications, not all of them good. Nashville is yet another contemporary TV show that chooses its location and its theme to rationalize an almost wholly white cast, and also to pathologize poverty -- unless it's the struggling artist as temping waitress kind. In Nashville, greed is good, even if it is cloaked in an obeisance to art. By the same token, power is white, sex is a weapon, and the chance of two strong and talented women making common cause seems as unlikely as the sighting of a unicorn.

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