October 12, 2012

TV: Nashville (ABC, Wed 10)

There's a fine line between entertaining soap opera and cheesy mess, and the pilot of Nashville stays mostly on the right side of it.

A tip of the hat to Slate's Troy Patterson for finding the perfect summary of the show: Y'All About Eve. Connie Britton stars as country legend Rayna James, who is equal parts Faith Hill and Reba McEntire; she's reached the age where she's having trouble getting radio airplay for her new album, and ticket sales for her new tour aren't what they should be.

The record label has a solution in mind, though -- Rayna should join on as "co-headliner" of Juliette Barnes' tour. Juliette (played with delicious diva bitchiness by Hayden Panettiere) is the hot young thing of the country world, an Auto-Tuned country-pop star who makes Taylor Swift look like Loretta Lynn. Rayna is not amused at the thought of playing opening act to so tacky an ingenue.

She may not have a choice, though, because her husband Teddy (Eric Close, whose bland prettiness is perfect for the role) has gone through some unspecified financial hard times, so retirement isn't really an option. Teddy's frustration, in turn, makes him a perfect sockpuppet for Rayna's powerful businessman father (Powers Boothe, gloriously villainous, and one mustache twirl away from a full-on Snidely Whiplash impression), who wants Teddy to run for mayor. There are also an assortment of young singers and songwriters who aren't terribly well distinguished from one another in the pilot, but there's time for that.

The show's biggest challenge will be to keep the quality of the music up, and that'll be harder here than in TV's other quasi-musicals. Glee will never run out of cheery pop songs, and certain types of Broadway music lend themselves to the easy pastiche that Smash does so well. But country isn't easily faked. It's either good or it's crap, and country fans are very discerning, and don't have a lot of patience for crap. Lose them, and Nashville tanks in a hurry.

The music in the pilot is promising. Everyone's doing their own singing, and they're all either solid performers or being skillfully helped in the studio; the fact that I don't know who's getting helped is a sign that the help is being applied with taste and subtlety. The presence of T-Bone Burnett as music director is an encouraging sign.

I'm not quite as deliriously giddy about the show as most of the critics are, but if it can stay on the right side of the cheese line and keep the music quality high, it'll be a diverting amusement.

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