Rayna James, the middle-aged country superstar at the heart of ABC’s Nashville, is told by one of her managers in the pilot episode that she “needs to find her place in a new market.”
Nashville creator/writer Callie Khouri would do well to follow her own advice.
Nashville’s premise is tantalizingly rich – Glee or Smash for the Dallas set – but it lacks the satirical wit and ruthless evil that gives those shows their much-needed edge. Instead, Nashville presents us with good ol’ country boys and rich country women whose first-world problems are laughably mundane in the high-stakes world of, well, nearly everything else on television.
Rayna (Connie Britton) used to be the It Girl of country music, but in the pilot, directed by R.J. Cutler, we find her star falling rapidly just as mean-girl newcomer Juliette Barnes’ (Hayden Panetierre) is on a steep climb to the top. Ticket sales low, Rayna’s managers propose she co-headline with Juliette, while Rayna also struggles against her politician father Lamar Hampton (Powers Boothe) and husband Teddy (Eric Close), who both want Teddy to run for mayor of Nashville.
The cast also includes a group of sugary-sweet, ridiculously attractive and impossible talented twentysomething country singers and musicians who, by the end of the episode, have already begun engaging in G-rated romantic exploits.
On paper, Nashville appears to be pulling all the right ingredients. Romance! Showbiz! Political intrigue! The musical numbers, featuring original country music sung by the actors, burst with energy and make the show feel refreshingly current.
But Nashville falters every time it tries to introduce real drama. Rayna’s horror at being asked to co-headline a tour with Juliette is understandable – who’d want to tour with a chick who passive-aggressively purrs that her mother listened to your music while said chick was in utero, anyway? – but it’s hardly nail-biting. Hampton is supposed to be the main villain, but the pilot is so vague about the extent of his political malevolence that it’s difficult to really be afraid of him.
Nashville is also troublingly simplistic about its own subject, the country music industry. Rayna and Juliette’s careers are presented at a level so basic you wonder if the industry really is that simple or the writers just think we’re too stupid to understand it any more complexly. Country fans hoping to get a behind-the-scenes pass a lá Smash will learn nothing and come away disappointed.
Nashville’s showrunners didn’t get the memo that beautiful people and bouncy musical numbers aren’t enough to make a show enticing in today’s crowded market; it’s snappy writing, life-and-death stakes, acerbic wit, or a combination of all three, and Nashville doesn’t have any of the above. Its characters are so wholesome and their troubles so benign that it’s tough to really care what happens to them. The TNT Dallas reboot shares Nashville’s red-state vibe, but its formidable villain, J.R. Ewing, make Hampton and Juliette look like Disney cartoon baddies in comparison. And Glee at least has sly pop culture references and Sue Sylvester’s insults to keep everybody on their toes, but Nashville has no counterpoint to all the down-home, upper-middle class goodness, and it comes off disingenuous and completely unmemorable.
Many will find Nashville a perfectly amiable way to spend an hour. The cast is capable, the music lively, the setting crisp and all-American. Families could watch together – there is nothing in the pilot to suggest any explicit sex or violence is on the horizon. But those hoping for a grown-up take on the music industry, one that requires them to think and leaves them on the edge of their seats, will not find much here. Like Rayna, Nashville is sweet, old-fashioned entertainment – but liable to get run over by the shiny, modern Juliettes that are its competition.