Let Judge Jason Panella know when the auditions for Pittsburgh begin.
Our review of Nashville (Blu-ray) Criterion Collection, published December 3rd, 2013, is also available.
"Music's all I got. It's the only part of my life that I ever seem to be able to do halfway good."—Deacon
Once in a while, network television does something right.
Facts of the Case
Country music legend Rayna Jaymes (Connie Britton, Friday Night Lights) seems to have it all: a loving family, a mountain of industry awards, and a successful career that reaches back 20 years. What she no longer has is the spotlight, which has been stolen by pop-country upstart Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, Heroes). Both Rayna and Juliette want more from their music, though—the veteran to try something edgy, the young diva to become more respectable. Their battle for the charts becomes more complex when Deacon Clayborne (Charles Esten, Whose Line Is It Anyway?)—Rayna's long-time guitarist and songwriting partner—somehow ends up getting caught in the middle.
It's easy to forget about network TV. I don't mean that in an elitist way; it's just that the number of quality shows that have aired on cable over the past decade has been astonishing. AMC, Showtime, and HBO have released so much good stuff that it often makes the offers from the Big Four pale a bit in comparison. But there is good stuff on the network side of things, and it's often worth checking out. Case in point: ABC's Nashville, a prime-time soap opera centered in the Mecca of the country music world. Even with its faults, the show is excellent—the writing, acting, and musical performances are all top-notch. Plus, Nashville treats country music culture of its namesake like a character, which adds a sense of authenticity to the show that's often lacking in other network programs.
Nashville, which was created by Thelma and Louise screenwriter Callie Khouri, tosses about a dozen narrative balls in the air and does its best to keep them there. Rayna and Juliette are central to Nashville, but each has their own little universe of stories that rarely interfere with the other. When Rayna's not trying to stage a comeback, she's butting heads with her father Lamar (Powers Boothe, Deadwood), an oily politico permanently stuck in mustache-twirling mode. It doesn't help that Rayna's dad has designs on Rayna's husband Teddy (Eric Close, Without a Trace) regarding the upcoming Nashville mayoral election. Over in Juliette's world, the young singer tries to shoo away the past (which mostly manifests in the form of her drug-addicted mom) and forge her own path. Despite her huge, Taylor Swift-like crossover success, Juliette wants legitimacy…something she hopes working with Deacon Clayborne will usher in. But Deacon is Rayna's bandleader. This is where the two worlds collide.
Then we have Scarlett O'Connor (Clare Bowen), Deacon's plucky niece. She and aspiring songwriter Gunnar (Sam Palladio, Episodes) team up and start writing some excellent tunes, much to the chagrin of Scarlett's jealous boyfriend Avery (Jonathan Jackson, Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Nashville is awash in soapy stuff, with multiple love triangles and backstabbing galore, but it's also really good. I guess it helps that the show blazes through a ton of plot in no time, so even if a story is stupid (and there are definitely stupid subplots), you can bet the show will move on to something else soon enough. While this doesn't always work in the show's favor, it at least keeps things moving, or at least makes it feel like a lot is happening. It helps that the cast sells the daylights out of the material, with fantastic performances across the board (even Panettiere, who is often the weakest link in the episodes). Connie Britton is consistently magnetic, but the real stand-out is Charles Esten. He lends an easygoing charm to his role, and I'm still shocked this is the same silly fourth-chair regular from the US version of the improv comedy show Whose Line Is It Anyway? The supporting cast is packed with talented folks, too: Robert Wisdom (The Wire), Michiel Huisman (Treme), Kim Williams-Paisley (Father of the Bride), songwriter JD Souther (Providence), and YouTube sensations Maisey and Lennon Stella (who play Rayna's kids) all turn in some outstanding work here. Plus, the show is populated by tons of folks from the actual Nashville music industry, which helps push the show away from any overly soapy lameness and into something more grounded.
One of the best selling points for the show, though, is the music. Music producers T-Bone Burnett and Buddy Miller (both legends themselves) assembled a fantastic collection of songwriters to pen the tunes performed in the show, including Gillian Welch, Elvis Costello, John Paul White (of the Civil Wars), Kasey Musgraves, Lucinda Williams, and Ashley Monroe, just to name a few. It also helps that the cast is actually performing these tunes, too. Some of the tunes are good enough that I've had them stuck in my head for days (and this is coming from a guy who isn't a fan of most modern country). Nashville seems to make a point to represent a number of sub-genres in the industry: Juliette is pure country pop; Rayna plays the sort of modern country that was popular in the '90s; Gunnar and Scarlett make music in a country folk vein; and Avery (poor, miserable Avery) is trying to make it by playing alt-country a la Ryan Adams. The show is smart enough to recognize how all of these different types play against each other, and how cyclical things are—at one point someone points out that traditional country fans balked at Rayna's music the same way she balks at Juliette's crossover hits. This attention to detail—with music, with characters, and with the setting—helps make the first season of Nashville far, far better than its soap roots would suggest.
ABC Studios does a nice job with their production of Nashville: The Complete First Season, which has all 21 episodes spread out over five discs. The quality of the standard definition 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is excellent. The Dolby Digital 5.1 track is even better, which works especially well with the show's great soundtrack. There aren't a lot of extras, but what's here isn't bad:
• "Nashville comes to Nashville"(6:09) shows how
intentional the cast and crew were about filming on location in Nashville and
getting the show's setting right;
Nashville: The Complete First Season might be a hard sell for some—a prime-time network soap set in the country music world! The show is surprisingly excellent, though, and the quality of the music, acting, and writing made me take notice. Highly recommended.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: ABC Studios
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