ABC’s new drama, Nashville, has an extraordinarily large—and largely talented—ensemble cast, seemingly dozens of intertwining subplots, characters at every level of urban life, from drug addicts on the street to sneaky devils in the mayor’s office, and a preoccupation with the death of the old guard and the messy birth of the new. Like The Wire, Nashville aims to be a multi-perspectival portrait of an American city seen through the filter of one of its central occupations. For the HBO series, that was the drug war; for Nashville, it’s country music. So, rather than a serial drama filled with ambiguity, violence, and frustration, we’ve got one bedazzled in rhinestones and betrayal.
Despite the show’s epic scope and glitzy musical numbers, it’s clear from the first frame that Nashville’s greatest asset is the once peripheral, now practically indispensible, Connie Britton. After years as a busily working actress in TV and film, Britton finally “arrived” on Friday Night Lights as half of one of the most charming, realistic, and lovingly crafted marriages ever seen on the small screen. Last year, on Ryan Murphy’s American Horror Story, she delivered a devastatingly visceral performance that accomplished the valuable work of tethering an audience to a frankly batshit series that otherwise might have hemorrhaged viewers. And now she’s doing it again: She’s reliably soulful as Rayna James, an aging country star being pushed out by a younger Taylor Swift lookalike (Hayden Panetierre) and emotionally manipulated by her corrupt and powerful father (the dastardly Powers Boothe).
And if the clunky machinery of Nashville is going to survive through the season, it’s going to need all the heart Britton can provide. Say what you will about NBC’s Smash, the most loathsomely viewable hour on TV, but before it built out melodramatic subplot after subplot that strained the audience’s patience and credulity, it started simple, with a clear central rivalry and a bunch of musical numbers. Perhaps Nashville should have followed that model. Keeping track of all the myriad intrigues, hidden relationships, budding romances, and roiling conflicts laid out in the pilot isn’t hard. That’s largely because every one of these elements—an unfinished love affair between Rayna and her bandleader (Charles Esten), an aspiring poet-songwriter’s (Clara Bowen) burgeoning love affair with a local guitarist (Sam Palladio), the ongoing love affair between Powers Boothe’s character and money, and so on—is articulated in full with mechanical efficiency by the parties involved. If there are any mysteries to be found, the pilot pretty much sorts them all out.
Thus, it’s never hard to follow Nashville, but it’s sometimes hard to like. The series was clearly crafted with a great affection—and seemingly genuine knowledge—of the country-music business, but everything else seems assembled with a kind of mercenary calculation. In the same way that it’s hard, nowadays, to get anything that’s not a sequel greenlit in Hollywood, network TV can be pretty risk-averse. For every off-the-wall premise that sneaks into primetime, there’s a series that looks a whole lot like another more successful show. Hence, last year’s glut of series, from Pan-Am to The Playboy Club to Magic City, trying to replicate the success of Mad Men by simply copying its period setting. Nashville is in no way that naked in its indebtedness to successful forebears (though Smash’s herky-jerky arrival to the zeitgeist probably didn’t hurt), but it’s very much a show almost over-engineered for success. It’s a musical, it’s a political thriller, it’s a love story, it’s a family drama, it’s a corporate parable, it’s King Lear, it’s A Star Is Born, it’s Country Strong, it’s Altman’s Nashville, and did I mention that it’s got Connie Britton? “Clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose!”
While plenty of Nashville is compelling, detailed, and beautifully acted, plenty of it feels boilerplate. And with all of this dramatic material dumped on audiences in the first hour, it’s hard to imagine that every little piece will get the attention it needs to become a vibrant part of the picture. Just like certain other entities branded “too big to fail,” there’s a constant threat that Nashville will collapse under the weight of its poor investments.