Saturday, October 13, 2012

Nashville 1.01: "Pilot"

“Well, son, you be careful. She’s got the family curse. We always pick the one who will break your heart.”

“Nashville” is a strong pilot, mostly because of the stellar performance by the great Connie Britton (Tami Taylor of “Friday Night Lights”). I had a writing professor in college, though, whose favorite trick was to look at a student’s short story, point to one sentence or paragraph, and say “That’s where the story is.” The idea being that you cut the rest and focus on the real kernel of story. I think the development execs at ABC needed to do that with showrunner Callie Khouri, even if she is the Oscar-winning writer of “Thelma and Louise.” There is quite a lot of plot set up in this first hour. There’s the Nashville music scene, with plots covering both the old guard of country musicians and the new, and there’s a political intrigue plot, too. I think the political machinations could have been cut really, the lives of the musicians are dramatic and complicated enough as is without stepping too far out of the music scene. I’m not really a country music fan, but I can respect and identify with the core idea of a city devoted to a craft and the joy of seeing people excel at that craft.

We’re introduced to quite the cast of characters in the pilot. Leading the bill is waning country music star Rayna Jaymes, played by the incomparable Connie Brittion (who knew she could sing?) and young ingénue Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). Rayna is asked to play nice with Juliette and be her de facto opening act for her next big tour, but Juliette doesn’t make it easy for Rayna to comply with the request from her label. Juliette is rude to Rayna, and she keeps trying to steal (and sleep with) everyone on Rayna’s creative team. First there’s Rayna’s producer, Randy, then Rayna’s band leader and former lover, Deacon Claybourne. We’re introduced to the second string (young up-and-comers who are trying to make a name on the Nashville club circuit) primarily through Deacon’s niece, Scarlett O’Connor, who works at premiere country music club The Bluebird Cafe. Are the names of these characters fabulous or what? Scarlet’s boyfriend Avery is an aspiring country musician, desperately seeking his girlfriend’s Uncle Deacon’s approval. Deacon, however, has taken a liking (musically) to Bluebird Café soundboard operator Gunnar, who has an interest in Scarlet himself. On the political side of things, there’s Rayna’s evil father Lamar, who is pissed off that family friend and top mayoral candidate Coleman Carlyle (“The Wire’s” Robert Wisdom) doesn’t like the idea of Lamar building a baseball stadium in Nashville. Lamar wants a puppet mayor, so he recruits Rayna’s down on his luck husband Teddy to run against Coleman.

The axis around which all the characters seem to revolve is Rayna. She turns down her label’s mandate to open for Juliette, so the second half of the pilot has her kind of falling into a tailspin. It doesn’t help that, as I mentioned, Juliette keeps trying to steal her entire creative team. As far as Juliette goes, I can see that the writers were trying to make her somewhat sympathetic. She has a drug addicted mother who is constantly asking her for money and making her feel like a terrible daughter. I get that she’s supposed to be on some quest for validation, but she’s just so mean and nasty that it’s hard to feel any sympathy. Making things worse for Rayna are all the political machinations. She wants to support her friend Coleman in the mayoral race, but now that Teddy has gotten it into his head that he could be a good mayor, she feels she needs to stand by him. It’s plain to see the cracks in Rayna and Teddy’s marriage. There’s clearly some bitterness on Rayna’s part that Teddy both won’t do his part to help the family financially and also wants her to work less. There’s also bitterness on Teddy’s part that he’s never in the spotlight and he’s just “Mr. Rayna James.” Rayna pretty much despises her father, so he has to dig deep to get her to be complicit in this mess. He reminds her that Teddy didn’t have to be so good to one of her two daughters, which leads me to believe that the father of that daughter must be Deacon.

While the Rayna/Juliette plot is definitely strong and compelling in a way the political plot isn’t (that plot feels extraneous), I think I like the scenes that take place at the Bluebird Café the best. The Avery/Scarlett/Gunnar triangle is a little simple (Avery’s a douchey hipster while Gunnar is the strong guy who shows Scarlett how talented she is), I love the vibe of people striving to be the very best at their craft and excelling at it. For a country musician, Nashville must be quite an inspiring place to be. Being at a place like the Bluebird Café probably feels like how I felt when I heard people having high level economics debates on the Metro during the year I lived just outside (literally…across the street) from Washington, DC. Gunnar convinces Scarlett to let him put some of her poetry to music, and when they perform at the Bluebird Café, the result is gorgeous. Nashville royalty and friend to Rayna Watty White hears this performance and tells Rayna he thinks he has an idea to keep her career alive without touring with Juliette.

I saw a whole lot of potential in the “Nashville” pilot, even if it was trying to fit twenty pounds of plot in a five pound bag. I’ve seen both Connie Britton and Robert Wisdom deliver outstanding performances in the past, and I have no doubt they can do so again. The show has a definite sense of place, especially when immersed in the country music scene, and I think that’s always a positive thing. When a show has a real sense of place, it takes on that immersive quality that all the best TV has. I think focusing in on the struggle between the old guard musicians and the new and the struggle in general just to break into the Nashville music scene can provide plenty of compelling television. There’s really no need for political drama on top of that, especially political drama that makes the main character’s life so unbearably horrible (she’s being blackmailed by her father, people!). I’m looking forward to watching more episodes and hopefully watching the show find its way.

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