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Nashville, Ep. 3.01, “That’s Me Without You” is a solid season premiere

Nashville, Ep. 3.01, “That’s Me Without You” is a solid season premiere

Nashville 0301

Nashville, Season 3, Episode 1: “That’s Me Without You”
Directed by Callie Khouri
Written by Callie Khouri
Airs Wednesdays at 10pm EST on ABC

Nashville comes back for its third season with almost no noise. What, after a magnificent pilot two years ago, was once supposed to be a ratings savior for ABC has become an afterthought for the network, who barely publicized its premiere. They have buzzy new shows to talk about: (How to Get Away With Murder, Black-ish), and returning ratings hits to protect: (Scandal, uh… Scandal). And yet Nashville persists on network television representing a category that doesn’t even exist, the musical soap opera. Those two genres have never been more unfashionable. Musicals must cloak themselves in faux-edgy irony like Glee or die spectacular deaths (RIP Smash.) There are other soaps, especially on ABC, but they have to be structured like procedurals and contain a healthy dose of violence to appease the Criminal Minds crowd. Nashville, in all its goofy earnestness, is nothing if not itself.

Its occasional stabs at trendiness are charming in their ineptitude, like a grandmother tweeting her grocery list. Last night’s premiere was framed in medias res, which to some ABC executive must be shorthand for cutting edge storytelling. Rayna (Connie Britton) is seen deliberating over two engagement rings, given to her by the charmless, safe Luke Wheeler (Will Chase) and the obvious love of her life Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten). Then the chyron appears: “Twelve Hours Earlier,” and we are whisked away to the past, retracing the characters steps over the next few acts and arriving back at the beginning. Though this time jumping technique has been around since Homer, it has gained popularity over the last few years (thanks Breaking Bad!) it is now seems to be used whenever a plot is not suspenseful enough to be told linearly.

The other, weirder attempt at cultural relevancy was Nashville’s decision to broadcast its musical numbers live during the airing of the episode. Now here on the west coast I assume these performances were tape delayed, but the whole thing seemed pointless and jarring. I can only guess someone at ABC saw the ratings for Carrie Underwood’s The Sound of Music Live! and wanted in. The whole reason, however, for the latter’s success was its high level of difficulty and potential for disaster. Much like the bloodthirsty Romans at the Coliseum, we want to see an American Idol get devoured by lions. Here, you have two talented actor-musicians (Charles Esten and Chris Carmack) singing one song each. And they did fine. But instead of exciting viewers, the stunt pulls them out of the story, downgrading produced television to a subpar recorded concert.

One aspect of Nashville that makes it great, that will keep me tuning in every week until it inevitably gets cancelled this spring (I’m preparing for the worst), are the genuinely amazing songs performed week after week. Now Nashville could have gone the easy route of having its actors sing watered down covers of country hits and sold millions of digital downloads. And occasionally they will trot out an old chestnut (a so-so rendition of Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” this week.) But more often than not the songs on Nashville are original compositions by great country songwriters. And since many more songs are written in Nashville (the city) than can be recorded by the small handful of A-list stars, there is a whole lot of stellar material floating around and waiting for Nashville (the show) to dust it off. The new songs from this episode were middling, but occasionally they strike gold, as they did with “If I Didn’t Know Better” (a Civil Wars song but not a huge hit) and “Don’t Put Dirt On My Grave Just Yet” (an original composition by songwriters Trent Dabbs and Caitlyn Smith.)

The other secret weapon, the sun around which all other parts of Nashville orbit like dim, inconsequential planets, is Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes. Panettiere’s is a major performance, one that would have netted her Emmys only 15 or 20 years ago. Barnes, a pop-country superstar (more Carrie Underwood than Taylor Swift), is a classic soap opera bad girl in the tradition of Alexis Carrington and Amanda Woodward. Panettiere is able to portray this selfish, impulsive striver with such sympathy, and hit her heightened emotions with such truth, that the audience roots for her over the supposedly ‘nicer’ Rayna James and Scarlett O’Connor. Connie Britton is an extremely honest actress, but she’s not especially electric in her role. Britton’s poise and Panettiere’s charisma work together to keep the show balanced.

Nashville gets off to a fine start this week without shuffling the deck or lobbing out any big surprises. It’s not a groundbreaking series, but an extremely pleasant one centered around a first rate performance, and I hope there can still be room on network TV for shows like it.

Other thoughts:

Though Panettiere doesn’t have the voice to compete with Patsy Cline, she nailed the emotional beats of that audition scene.

Oh boy, that Rayna/Deacon/Luke flashback scene looked like a Forensic Files reenactment.

What was going on with Scarlett’s stupid pink parasol?

The redneck mechanic’s name was Cletus!

That producer doesn’t know what she’s talking about. Any reality show would kill to have a gay cowboy storyline.

“Dad, she thinks you hate music!”

“I know I put you on the spot by proposing like that…” You think?!?

I won’t be reviewing Nashville every week, but will check in periodically throughout the season to offer my thoughts. Let me know what you think in the comments!