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I think TV would be a lesser place without Connie Britton. Yes, I’m going there with my admiration for the down-to-earth actress who brought such sympathetic moral and emotional fury to “Friday Night Lights.” She can effortlessly deliver dramatic material that might seem sanctimonious or coy in the hands of lesser actresses. In her years on “FNL,” and even in her single season on the willfully perverse “American Horror Story,” she never really had an inauthentic or overdone moment. Britton finds the truth and humanity in a scene like a compass finds direction.
So obviously I was hoping to like “Nashville,” her new country-music drama on ABC. Adding further hope: The show is created and written by Callie Khouri, who won an Oscar for the “Thelma and Louise” screenplay, and the music is overseen by Khouri’s husband, T-Bone Burnett, the producer behind “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” and albums by B.B. King, Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello, and Alison Krauss and Robert Plant. They bring a lot of talent to TV, to say the least. Plus, “Nashville” shares a title — and the same territory — with one of Robert Altman’s greatest movies, as it moves among the lives of country megastars, the wannabes who populate Nashville clubs, and a political campaign.
And my hopes are not in vain, at least based on the premiere of “Nashville,” Wednesday at 10 p.m. on Channel 5. It’s not the “quality” programming found on HBO or Showtime, or a sensitively written saga in the vein of “Friday Night Lights.” But then it’s not quite a trashy, scandal-driven, operatic soap on the order of “Revenge,” either. “Nashville” falls somewhere in between the two extremes, a story that thrives on heightened melodrama and big twists but gives its characters more depth than you generally find in network lather-fests. And with Britton as the lead, the show has a heroine who is sympathetic and easy to root for but who isn’t a goody-goody Krystle Carrington type. She brings an earthy quality to the somewhat plastic genre.
Britton plays Rayna James, a beloved country singer who can no longer fill arenas. By refusing to record radio-ready songs and clinging to old-school integrity, she has failed to cultivate new fans. Her record label is not happy. Enter Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), a bratty Auto-tuned pop-country singer who has captured the youth market with her sex appeal. Rayna’s label wants Rayna to tour as Juliette’s opening act, to introduce her to a new generation of fans. Rayna is appalled, especially after she hears the cat meow.
“My Momma was one of your biggest fans,” Juliette tells Rayna when they first meet, alluding to Rayna’s age. “She said she’d listen to you while I was still in her belly.”
The Rayna-Juliette battle is familiar “All About Eve” type material, and it’s in the sometimes tiresome soap tradition of setting women against each other. But Britton and Panettiere take the trope and run with it, and Panettiere’s commitment to being dislikable is thoroughly entertaining. She’s just right as a vixen. The script also gives Juliette a difficult past, with a troubled, exploitative mother, so that she becomes more than just a hollow vehicle for bad behavior. She has a self-made quality that Rayna, whose father, Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe), is a powerful Nashville businessman, doesn’t fully understand. “Nashville” relies on many pedestrian soap situations — the kinds that often make it into country songs about cheatin’ hearts — but the writers and actors manage to exceed them.
There is a man caught between Juliette and Rayna, of course, and it’s Rayna’s longtime bandleader, Deacon (Charles Esten). Deacon carries a torch for Rayna, but Rayna is married to Teddy (Eric Close). So when Juliette tries to lure Deacon into her band, he is vulnerable. Deacon, meanwhile, has a gifted niece who’s looking for fame, and “Nashville” follows her and her boyfriend as they try to make it at the Bluebird Cafe. It’s one of the show’s many subplots with potential — another is the mayoral campaign, which Lamar is trying to control. Rayna hates her father, but he continues to manipulate her and use her fame for his own purposes.
Inevitably, “Nashville” will be compared to “Smash” and “Glee,” other musical shows. Its song sequences, though, aren’t nearly as slick. Burnett, who worked on the music for the Jeff Bridges movie “Crazy Heart,” keeps the sound relatively casual and organic, and he marries the original songs to the characters and, as in “Treme,” to the environment. Britton and Panettiere are fine singers, but not extraordinary, and Burnett wisely leaves their flaws in place. The overproduced, over-perfected performances on “Glee” and “Smash” can make those shows and their characters artificial and less accessible. Here’s wishing that on “Nashville,” only the big hair will feel synthetic.