September 26, 2013

THE SKED Season Premiere Review: “Nashville”


NASHVILLE:  Wednesday 10PM on ABC

NASHVILLE was last season’s biggest underachiever.  In the ratings, it hovered at a meager 1.6-1.8 despite beatable competition, and it would have been a bubble show if its songs (which are dynamite) hadn’t become hits on iTunes–and if ABC weren’t in such general disarray elsewhere.  Creatively, Callie Khouri’s series (showrun by Dee Johnson) sputtered between attempting an honest, incisive look at life in the country music world and being an old-time soap.  The show’s key character, veteran star Rayna Jaymes, was introduced in the pilot as being a victim of her middle age in a business that was looking for youth, but reportedly star Connie Britton didn’t want the character played that way, so Rayna changed midstream and the show focused more on her tangled love life.  The other pair of protagonists, unstable new star Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) and aspiring singer Scarlett O’Connor (Claire Bowen), spent chunks of the show having little to do with Rayna and almost no contact with each other.  Characters like Rayna’s father, shady financier Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe) and her cheating husband Teddy Conrad (Eric Close), who in the course of the season became Mayor of Nashville, lowered the show’s energy level whenever they appeared on screen.  When the show was good, it could be remarkable, but often the same episode would make a viewer despair that the series could ever really work.

There have been changes during the off-season.  Boothe and Robert Wisdom, as another Nashville politician, have been reduced to recurring guest stars, while Chris Carmack (as Will Lexington, a closeted gay singer) and Lennon and Maisie Stella (as Rayna’s daughters) are now regulars. Scarlett has been given a new best friend, Zoey (Chaley Rose).  T. Boone Burnett, the mastermind behind the show’s music (and Khouri’s real-life husband), has moved on to other commitments.  But in terms of the series tone, tonight’s season premiere, written by Johnson and directed by Michael Waxman, gives the impression that the forces of soap opera have won the battle for Nashville‘s soul.

The episode was obligated, of course, to deal with the plot turns of last spring’s finale.  That meant Rayna was in a medically induced coma for most of the hour (except for some brief flashbacks), after the car accident that ended the season.  Her on-again-off-again lover Deacon (Charles Esten) took the blame, even though he hadn’t actually been driving, because of his guilt that his going off the wagon (when he learned that he was the biological father of Rayna’s teenage daughter) was responsible for it all–until Rayna, now out of her coma, confessed that she’d been behind the wheel.  Meanwhile, Juliette capitalized on Rayna’s injury (while mourning her own mother’s recent death where no one could see her), and Scarlett dealt with the growing number of exes who still pine after her, Gunnar (Sam Palladio) and Avery (Jonathan Jackson).

In two developments that bode especially badly for the show’s future direction, Teddy’s mistress Peggy (Kimberly Williams-Paisley) lied to him and pretended that she was still carrying their child when in fact she’d miscarried, and the Feds suddenly discovered evidence that Lamar had killed his wife, Rayna and her sister Tandy’s (Judith Hoag) mother, some 20 years ago.  This stuff feels like Dopey Soap 101, and Nashville has shown little ability to redeem bad plotting with good writing.

This isn’t to say that it’s time to give up on Nashville.  The music is always wonderful, and the season will certainly improve now that Britton is out of her coma.  Panettiere has been enormous fun to watch both as a grand bitch and an insecure young woman (she’s even better when she gets to interact with Britton, but for some reason the show rations out those scenes), Estrin brings great conviction to his performance, and there was a quick mention of a change in management at Rayna’s record company, which may mean a return to the music industry storylines that enlivened Season 1.  But this episode didn’t feel like a harbinger of smart storytelling to come.  There’s nothing wrong, per se, with being a traditional soap–it’s just that Nashville so far hasn’t been very good at it.  If this is the road it’s choosing, it needs to get better at slumming.  Otherwise, the temptation will grow to hit the fast forward button between its songs.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."