It’s a show filled with power struggles within the town’s signature industry, political battles, complete with string-pulling and a charismatic yet polarizing figure pulling the strings, characters with Daddy issues, characters with Momma issues, and plenty of intertwining love triangles, complete with just the right amount of bed-hopping.
If I didn’t know better – i.e., if I didn’t know the name of the show – I’d swear I were watching “Dallas.”
Instead, it’s another southern city that takes center stage in “Nashville,” ABC’s showcase of the country music industry and the struggle for success therein. And it’s a doozy of a melodrama, one where a flow chart would help sorting out relationships and alliances and past and present bedfellows.
Connie Britton (“Friday Night Lights”) stars as Rayna Jaymes, a veteran superstar of the country music stage who is feeling the future of the industry nipping at her heels. With a new record and tour that aren’t selling well, her label wants her to open for its rising star, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, “Heroes”), a newcomer who’s all flash and sparkle with questionable talent (a producer in the recording studio gives thanks for Auto-Tune).
Juliette is what’s hot, an ingénue with a perfume line and a cadre of handlers to whom she’s brusque and condescending. Rayna is what’s real, an artist who cares about the music who surrounds herself with talent and substance. And from the start, our sympathy should lie with Rayna, who’s clearly the better person, even if she gives in to a diva moment now and then. Britton gives Rayna depth and integrity, playing her with grace even when she’s being belittled by her label and her rival. Meanwhile, Juliette is the villain whose poppy music is just ear candy that has all the kids singing along, even Rayna’s two daughters. Panettiere is the perfect player here, the bitchy blonde you love to hate, with an uber-confidence and bravado that comes with being told you are awesome.
And then you learn more: Juliette has a dark secret, a junkie mom who hounds her for money, and would be a rather large embarrassment to her burgeoning career. And Rayna’s relationship with her father, Wyatt (Powers Boothe), a powerful and manipulative J.R. Ewing type, is strained at best; she refuses his money even though her family could use it. Wyatt decides to push Rayna’s husband, Teddy (Eric Close), a victim of the economic downturn, into a run for mayor, against the candidate Rayna was supporting – until she caught wind of her father’s plan, that is, and decided to stand by her man.
This rivalry is at the center of the show, which was created by Callie Khouri, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Thelma and Louise,” who should know something about female relationships. But there’s more than just the two of them. Rayna’s lead guitarist and confidante, Deacon (Charles Esten), is the one who got away, sort of – theirs is a relationship of mutual love and respect, though why they aren’t together romantically now will, no doubt, unspool itself in the coming episodes. For now, Deacon is being targeted for poaching by Juliette, whose methods are less than honorable.
Meanwhile, Deacon has a niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen), who works as a waitress at The Bluebird Café, a local stage for stars on the rise (Taylor Swift, among others, played there), but she writes poetry, not songs; her boyfriend is the songwriter (his genre is “alt-country punk, but more cerebral”). Only when one of the club’s musicians puts her poetry to music, then prods her up on stage to sing the resulting song – unknowingly in the presence of a respected industry vet -- well, Juliette better watch her back.
And that development opens up another series of relationship entanglements and musical power struggles. I’d expect no less.
After one episode, “Nashville” has me hooked. I’m not a huge country music fan, but I recognize when music is good, and with T Bone Burnett on board as executive music producer, the original music should be stellar. (The song from the pilot, “If I Didn’t Know Better,” is a winner; check it out at abc.go.com/music-lounge.)
There’s a glow about the show, and it’s not just from Juliette’s sparkly costumes or Rayna’s lustrous auburn tresses. The whole city of Nashville seems to crackle with life, the glint of the sun shines off the steel of high-rise towers, the golden light imbues green pastures and rolling hills with a warmth from within the very ground. It’s a magical place, the cameras seem to say; sit back and be enchanted.