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Hayden Panettiere Is the Best Part of Nashville

NASHVILLE - "Where He Leads Me" - Rayna needs to take a look at what's really important to her after hearing Teddy's side of the story about Peggy; Juliette feels a sense of belonging with Sean's family that she has never experienced before; Gunnar risks his partnership with Scarlett when he confesses his feelings; and music producer Dominic Wells invites Avery to Atlanta to work together while Deacon gets an amazing offer to tour -- but both opportunities come with a price -- on "Nashville"

Respect must be paid to Nashville's brave Hayden Panettiere. It takes post-Oz Cowardly Lion amounts of courage to play Connie Britton's mortal enemy on national television. Anyone who agrees to say rude things to Tami Taylor deserves our begrudging respect; it's a necessary but thankless job, and it comes with an instant set of venomous commenters. (Don't mess with Dillon, Texas, etc.) Add on Panettiere's striking resemblance, both physically and constitutionally, to the polarizing Taylor Swift, and you've got yourself the makings of a Most Hated Character. So it's to her immense credit that Juliette Barnes is not only not loathsome but, in total defiance of hate-watching principles, an actually enjoyable character. In fact (take a deep breath, FNL fans), she might be the best part of Nashville. Hear us out.

For one, Juliette gets the better — or at least juicier — material. While Britton's Rayna has been stuck mooning over two middle-aged dudes (and sleeping with neither of them) while negotiating boring contracts, Juliette has seduced Deacon, shoplifted, bullied her addict mother into a rehab center, and tricked Fake Tim Tebow into marrying her. If this all sounds a little Days of Our Lives for your taste, well, yes, that's the point. But Panettiere knows when to camp it up and when to pull inward, and she's the only actor on the show whose story lines aren't getting the best of her. You can tell she relishes storming off the set of Good Morning America. You can also feel her genuine pain over the drama with her druggie mom.

There's also the rather sensitive issue of the singing. Connie Britton's "No One Will Ever Love You" duet was beautiful, and as noted above, she will always have our undying respect, but truth time: There are some shaky notes here and there. As Scarlett, the aspiring songwriter, Clare Bowen has had a couple of star moments, but she's hesitant and breathy, almost like a baby bird. The Avery character is boring as sin; Charles Esten (Deacon) mostly just plays the guitar. That leaves Panettiere, whose songs are admittedly more accessible or radio-friendly, but she delivers them with reliable gusto. Even wannabe-Rayna numbers like "Undermine" are more vocally assured. And she looks natural on that arena stage (which is not a given, as Taylor Swift could tell you).

Sure, Juliette is supposed to be outwardly likable, and it's always fun to root for a glossy villain. We wouldn't side with her in the Deacon Wars, either. (Rayna, just do it already; Juliette, go bother Harry Styles.) But on a show that agonizes over the virtues of flash versus substance, to the detriment of most of its characters, it is surprising — and gratifying — to watch Hayden Panettiere manage both. Especially when she's singing "Telescope." Just trust us; it's a jam.

Photo: Jon LeMay/ABC