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Nashville Recap: Grand Ole (Soap) Opry

Are we living in the Golden Age of TV musicals? I’m being serious here. Don’t forget that Glee was actually good for a few minutes there. (And maybe getting better again this season? Fingers crossed!) Smash was never quite as good as we wanted it to be, but just promising enough to keep us watching. And now we have what will almost surely end up being the best of the bunch: Nashville. Somewhere, Stephen Bochco is kicking himself. (Yes, that was a Cop Rock joke.)

In a way, it’s surprising that it has taken so long for TV execs to wise up to the fact that people kinda like this country music thing. But at least ABC has chosen to create Nashville at a pivotal time in the country music industry — old-school country (hell, music in general) is an endangered species, replaced by Auto-Tuned darlings, free downloads, and opportunistic crossover acts.

Into this mix we have Rayna James (Connie Britton), a fortysomething country legend (nine Grammys and four CMAs under her belt), with an album that’s a “stiff” and dwindling tour sales.

The studio has a solution: have Rayna “co-headline” a tour with teenybopper crossover sensation Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere). (Any resemblance to Taylor Swift is strictly intentional, if a bit unfair. Swift actually has talent.) “Who goes on [stage] first?” Rayna archly asks her advisors, already knowing the answer.

It’s instructional to compare Nashville to Smash, because in a way, they’re almost fame stories in reverse. On Smash, we’re encouraged to root for the doe-eyed ingenue (Katharine McPhee) against the more grizzled Broadway veteran (Megan Hilty). This causes all sorts of cognitive dissonance — not the least of which is the fact that McPhee isn’t as talented as Hilty, no matter how many times they tell us she is. But more important, it’s so much more fun to cheer for the old-timer against the entitled brat. Score one for Nashville. It helps that Connie Britton is one of the warmest, most naturally appealing presences on TV. (It’s still going to take me a while to not see her as Mrs. Taylor, though. I half expected Tim Riggins to walk through the set shirtless. Or maybe that was just wishful thinking.)

When we first meet Rayna, she’s at home with her somewhat rudderless husband Teddy (Eric Close) and her two adorable daughters (who also happen to be Juliette Barnes fans — a nice touch). Conversely, when we first meet Juliette, in the dressing room of a country event, she’s being primped — lip gloss being applied by a minion! — before going onstage.

The label tells Juliette to go introduce herself to Rayna, who has just performed at the same event. “Kiss the ring and play nice,” they tell her. But Juliette has other ideas. “My mama was your biggest fan,” Juliette says unctuously. “She said she used to listen to you when I was still in her belly.”

Oh, it is ON.

A few preliminary thoughts on Hayden Panettiere as Juliette: I never watched Heroes, so I didn't have a strong opinion of her one way or another. All I knew is that she used to date a giant (actually, THIS guy) and has a last name that sounds like a French lap dog. But she's good in this, as a hellcat southern Mean Girl who gives off just the tiniest whiff of desperation. (We find out why, soon enough: Her mom is a meth head — straight out of central casting, with straggly hair and sunken eyes. Somehow, whenever TV shows, even really good ones like this and Breaking Bad, show us meth heads, they look like extras in a low-rent anti-drug PSA.)

The natural animosity between the two divas goes into overdrive when Rayna visits her producer at his home, asking for a new song to record. (She’s fishing for a hit.) He tells her he’s too busy working on Juliette’s new album to help her. “Why do people like that adolescent crap?” Rayna groans. “It sounds like feral cats to me.”

Cut to Juliette, curled up in the producer’s bed, glowering from beneath his satin sheets.

This is the first of two “whoa, Juliette is a total skank!" reveals in the ep. Yep, she’ll sleep with anything that moves (her career forward). But to be honest, if you’re easily offended by creaky gender stereotypes, you’re probably watching the wrong show.

Still smarting from the “feral cat” comment, Juliette approaches Rayna’s guitar player Deacon (Charles Eston) at the Bluebird Café — a bar that will no doubt come to represent country music in its purist form, untainted by corporate pussies — and asks him to be her bandleader on her tour. This is partly because she genuinely thinks he’s talented and partly just to piss Rayna off.  Turns out, Rayna used to have a thing with Deacon, but chose to build a life with Teddy instead.

“I’ll pay you twice what she pays,” says Juliette. Then she leans in and coos: “I bet you and I can a have a lot of fun on the road.” (She doesn’t actually say “nudge nudge, wink wink,” but it’s implied.) Tempted by Juliette’s offer, Deacon tries to convince Rayna that she can skip her tour without falling off the radar.

“You’re not some overnight sensation,” Deacon says, adding: “You are sensational overnight to the best of my recollection.” (He doesn’t actually make the finger through the hole hand gesture, but it’s implied.)

It was at the Bluebird Café that we also found out about the B-plot love triangle, between Deacon’s poetry-writing niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen); her alt-country-punk boyfriend (Jonathan Jackson — hi, Lucky from GH!); and Gunnar (Sam Palladio), the sensitive singer-songwriter who loves her. For what it’s worth, the dreamy song that Scarlett and Gunnar sing at the end of the show was my favorite of the night. (Producer-songwriter T Bone Burnett, who did such a great job with Jeff Bridges’s Crazy Heart, is the show’s musical director.)

The final, most eighties-prime-time-soap-opera-ish aspect of Nashville deals with Rayna’s father, Lamar Wyatt, a smug captain of industry played by — who else? — Powers Boothe. (When people say that Mitt Romney looks presidential, what they really mean is that he looks like Powers Boothe.) Rayna and her father are estranged, but she’s close to her sister, who works for him. The upcoming Nashville mayoral race has potential to have a negative impact on Lamar’s business, so he decides to buy his own candidate. Who better than his listless son-in-law, who’s just itching for a chance to step out of his wife’s shadow?

There’s a tiny intimation that maybe one of Rayna’s kids is actually Deacon’s (anyone else pick up on that?), and there’s all sorts of promise of juicy catfights, betrayals, and further love triangles. (The show does have one problem that I like to call “the casting director has very specific taste in faces” syndrome. The blonde, wide-eyed Scarlett looks a bit like Juliette, and square-jawed Deacon looks just a wee bit like Teddy. I’m sure it’ll sort itself out, but cowboy hats sure don’t help.)

I’m relieved, frankly, that Nashville gleefully embraces its inner soap. A show this good could begin to take itself too seriously, but it seems that Nashville is smart enough to know that when it’s good, it’s very good but when it’s bad, it’s better.

Max Weiss is a movie critic at Baltimore Magazine and can also be found at maxthegirl.com.

Photo: Katherine Bomboy-Thornton/ABC