October 18, 2012

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “Nashville”

A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and the production of episodes for the regular season: a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover) give plenty of notes, helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads. The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting, and even story. Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular season episodes as well.’

NASHVILLE:  Wednesday 10PM on ABC

Previously… on NASHVILLE:  Rayna James (Connie Britton) is revered as a queen of country music, but her songs are no longer at the top of the charts.  That place now belongs to Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), an ambitious country/pop crossover star.  Their mutual record label wants Rayna to open for Juliette on the younger woman’s tour, an insult Rayna rejects out of hand, guaranteeing the label won’t support Rayna’s new release.  Juliette adds insult to insult when she tries to hire–and seduce–Rayna’s accompanist, songwriting partner and former lover Deacon (Charles Esten) away for her tour.  In case Rayna doesn’t have enough problems, her scheming tycoon father Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe) for political reasons of his own, has convinced her husband Teddy (Eric Close), who’s recently gone bankrupt after some bad investments, to run for Mayor of Nashville against an old family friend.  Meanwhile, the generation behind Juliette is represented by Scarlett (Claire Bowen), an ethereal waitress who writes poetry that mixes with pal Gunnar’s (Sam Palladio) music like fried chicken with waffles; Scarlett seems to be completely unaware that Gunnar is also head-over-heels for her, involved as she is with narcissistic asshole Avery (Jonathan Jackson).

Episode 2:  More of the same.  Venerable music producer Watty White (J.D. Souther), who discovered Rayna, proposes to her and Deacon that they undertake a smaller tour, like the ones they did when they were starting up (and in love), rather than trying to fill up stadiums; he also discovers Scarlett and Gunnar as a potential Next Big Thing.  Meanwhile, Juliette continues her unsubtle attempts to bring Deacon to the dark side, this time adding a $50K classic guitar to the seduction, and Rayna is forced to endure an interrogation by her father’s investigators to make sure she’s not hiding anything that could hurt Teddy’s campaign.  And although Scarlett initially turns down the offer to record a demo (produced by Watty) with Gunnar, lest it make Avery feel bad, at the end of the episode she’s decided to go ahead.

The second episode of NASHVILLE, written by series creator Callie Khouri and directed by pilot director R.J. Cutler, reveals a promising show still trying to find its balance.  Not in the usual way:  if anything, the show feels scrupulously even-handed with its allotment of time, with plenty of space for Rayna, Juliette and Scarlett to hold the screen.  It feels lop-sided because Rayna is so much fuller and more interesting than the other two protagonists.  Some of this, inevitably, is because Connie Britton is such a remarkable actress, but it’s also due to the fact that Rayna is just a more complicated, fully-rounded character than the others.  (Britton is also a producer of the series, and one wonders how much input she has in the scripts.)   Rayna has justifiably ambivalent feelings about almost everyone in her life:  love and loyalty but also resentment toward her husband, longings that can’t be fulfilled for Deacon, anger, fear and reluctant respect for her father.  Those shifting, contradictory emotions make her tremendously compelling.

Juliette and Scarlett, by comparison, are one-dimensional.  Although the pilot gave Juliette a drug-addicted mother that earned her a bit of sympathy, in this episode she’s only seen running over everyone in her way, with even her advances to Deacon seemingly calculated only to get him on her tour.  The show doesn’t want to make her an out-and-out villainess, which might give her more vitality but also may not be what Panettiere signed on for, and so she just comes off like a spiteful brat.  Scarlett, on the other hand, is mired in cliche, yet another good girl who doesn’t recognize the nice guy standing in front of her because of her devotion to a bad boy.  (It’s like the country music version of the Maggie/Jim/Don triangle on The Newsroom.)  With the exception of Esten, who does a good job at being torn between the two women, the men are strictly cardboard, with Teddy a loser just waiting for disaster, and Lamar a JR Ewing clone.

And yet there’s a tremendous amount to admire and enjoy about Nashville.  The show uses music better than anything on television this side of Treme; this episode had a long scene with Juliette in the studio singing a song she’d co-written with Deacon while Rayna answered the investigators’s questions about their own former and present relationship, and the last act was largely devoted to a gorgeous duet between Rayna and Deacon, one that believably complicated both their relationship and Rayna’s with her husband.  The acting, even if not all up to Britton’s standard (what could be?), is first-rate, and there’s a largely convincing local atmosphere unusual in network TV.

Nashville won its hour in its debut last week, albeit not with the kind of knockout ratings that ABC was doubtless hoping for after a summer of heavy promotion.  If the show can stay at that level, it will certainly get an early back order for the full season.  (Even if it slides, it’s hard to imagine the show not beating Chicago Fire in the hour.)  The show’s creators are proving with the Rayna character that they’re capable of a high level of soap artistry–now they just need to elevate their game for everybody else.


PILOT + 1:  Still the Class of the Season’s New Dramas


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."