Rarely does a pilot present a world as completely as Nashville does in its first hour. The series was created by the Oscar-winning writer of Thelma & Louise, Callie Khouri, who knows a thing or two about the way men unite women, pit women against one another, exploit women, and (on a good revenge day) are exploited by women. And Khouri also seems to have insight into what makes the music industry in the title city distinct from the ones in Los Angeles and New York.
Nashville has the trappings of a soap. Connie Britton stars as Rayna Jaymes, facing down the scariest thing for a woman in showbiz: middle age. She’s in her 40s, and can see the competition coming up to bite her on her tight-jeaned butt. The little monster nipping at her career is Juliette Barnes, a bubbly young country-pop singer with a razor for a mouth, as played by Hayden Panettiere.
The series plunges us into the middle of their career arcs. Rayna just released an album that’s bombing; Juliette is recording catchy hits that Rayna’s two young daughters find cool enough to sing along to on the radio. Juliette considers Rayna over-the-hill and barely worth stepping on as she ascends to Grand Ole Opry triumph; Rayna thinks of Juliette’s music as ”adolescent crap.”
Country music carries a subtext for its audience. It says implicitly that we’re all one big happy family — artists and fans alike — even when one of our brooding uncles strays off the righteous path (see: early Johnny Cash or any-period George Jones). That this pact is an inevitable sham only increases the rich texture of the real Nashville, and it does the same for Nashville.
The best measure of how thoroughly Khouri understands her subject is in a brief exchange between Rayna and old music pro Watty White, portrayed by real-life songwriter JD Souther. Watty, who has Rayna as a guest on his radio show, plays ”Rose Colored Glasses,” a 1978 hit by John Conlee. She expresses deep knowledge about the song, a gorgeous statement of romantic pessimism. The choice by Nashville’s executive music producer, T Bone Burnett, is perfect: a tad obscure to outsiders, and also redolent of wisdom about the way life can twist you up.
The wobbly aspect of Nashville is a political theme involving Rayna’s big daddy, a local power player portrayed with corn-oil charm by Powers Boothe. He wants Rayna’s husband, a rather bland nice guy embodied by Eric Close, to run for mayor. With all of the show’s other subplots — including a good one featuring young singer-songwriters played by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio — I’m not sure it needs this election story line. I hope it wasn’t added because the producers feared Nashville needed something besides its music-industry politicking to succeed. Because on that score, Nashville is probably the best drama anyone’s made about the town and its songbirds, and I’m lookin’ at you, Robert Altman. A-