Hayden Panettiere's new show 'Nashville': Is it worth watching this fall?

Hayden Panettiere and Connie Britton star in 'Nashville' as two country music stars, one on the rise, one struggling to stay relevant.

Todd Williamson/Invision/AP
Hayden Panettiere (r.) and Connie Britton (l.) star in 'Nashville.'

NASHVILLE (ABC)
 (written by Callie Khouri; directed by R.J. Cutler; TRT: 42:16)

The network's description: "Chart-topping Rayna James (Connie Britton) is a country legend who's had a career any singer would envy, though lately her popularity is starting to wane. Fans still line up to get her autograph, but she's not packing the arenas like she used to. Rayna's record label thinks a concert tour, opening for up-and-comer Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), the young and sexy future of country music, is just what Rayna needs. But scheming Juliette can't wait to steal Rayna's spotlight. Sharing a stage with that disrespectful, untalented, little vixen is the last thing Rayna wants to do, which sets up a power struggle for popularity.

Could the undiscovered songwriting talent of Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen) be the key to helping Rayna resurrect her career? Complicating matters, Rayna's wealthy but estranged father, Lamar Hampton (Powers Boothe), is a powerful force in business, Tennessee politics, and the lives of his two grown daughters. His drive for power results in a scheme to back Rayna's handsome husband, Teddy, in a run for Mayor of Nashville, against Rayna's wishes."

What did they leave out? Yup, it is indeed filmed in Nashville.

The plot in a nutshell: Rayna James (Connie Britton) is the reigning queen of country music. But between her flailing ticket sales and continued refusal to sing more commercial songs, there's more than a few cracks in her professional facade. Said developments cause her label to suggest merging her upcoming tour with that of auto-tuned heart-breaker Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) or risk playing to half-empty venues. Rayna is not surprisingly horrified by the offer (not to mention Juliette in general), despite promises of opening her up to a new generation of fans. But that's just the beginning of her problems. Her husband Teddy (Eric Close) is perennially emasculated by Rayna's time in the spotlight and frustrated by her refusal to dip into the trust fund set up by her manipulative father/business magnate Lamar Wyatt (Powers Boothe).

Meanwhile, Juliette sets her sights on Rayna's bandleader/torchbearer Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten, in a star-making turn) while Lamar himself conspires to get Teddy to run for mayor of Nashville in order to protect his own business interests. But that's - as they say - not all: Deacon's talented niece Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen) and her boyfriend Avery Barkley (Jonathan Jackson) have their own dreams of stardom toiling away at the legendary Bluebird Cafe while another, Gunnar Scott (Sam Palladio), loves her from afar. Ultimately, all their destines appear to be intertwined. So goes another day in Nashville.

What works: There's a prevailing sense of authenticity you rarely see from these kinds of shows, one that gives "Nashville" an unexpected intimacy and thoughtfulness. It all of course begins with Britton's Rayna, who's every bit the shining beacon of talent as advertised, but also something of a short-sighted diva. It's a bittersweet flaw that applies to not only her career but also her choice in men. (Juliette: "Sometimes I wish I could just do everything all over again." Deacon: "What would you change?" Juliette: "Nothing... everything." Deacon: "That makes two of us.") The show likewise tasks Panettiere's Juliette as the destructive vixen - Juliette: "Rayna's not the only woman in the world, you know." Deacon: "You're a girl." Juliette: "That, too." - but not without giving her some redemptive qualities as well.

It helps that the show fuels its story engines with everything from political intrigue - Teddy will have to run against family friend Coleman Carlisle (Robert Wisdom); to familial discord - "Yeah it's a funny thing about dad," Rayna notes to her sister Tandy (Judith Hoag). "You know, he's always there when he needs you."; to romantic foibles - "You be careful," Deacon warns Gunnar. "She's got the family curse: we always pick the one that will break your heart." The end result is a compelling mix of soap and tragedy, not to mention a beautiful showcase of country music, whether it's the prerequisite needle drops - everyone from John Conlee to Will Hoge - or some truly inspiring original performances. The closing moments in particular are just plain revelatory, as Watty White (J.D. Souther), the town's oracle of sorts, stumbles across stardom in the making.

What doesn't: Nothing in particular worth mentioning as each potential pitfall - the triteness of the dual love triangles, the inherent aggrandizing of fame and fortune, characters being too perfect or too unlikable, etc. - is ultimately sidestepped when all is said and done.

The bottom line: A welcome surprise.

Brian Ford Sullivan blogs at The Futon Critic.

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