Tuned In

Test Pilot: Nashville

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Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next season’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: Nashville, ABC

The Premise: Rayna James (Connie Britton) is one of the biggest stars in country music. Or was. Her record sales falling off, she gets an ultimatum from her record label to jump-start her label by doing a tour opening (“co-headlining” is the tactful term) for young country-pop phenom Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panetierre). Juliette, meanwhile, wants to seize the opportunity to eclipse Rayna’s stardom, steal her longtime guitar player / collaborator, and maybe eat her soul for dessert. Rayna takes the deal, anyway, feeling the pressure of money problems and age, as well as the complications presented by her estranged daddy Lamar Hampton (Powers Boothe), a Nashville power broker who’s meddling in her family business as part of a political scheme. And Juliette, it turns out, has her own parental issues, in the form of a drug-addicted mama trying to resurface in her newly rich daughter’s life.

First Impressions: A confession of bias: I wanted to like this show. I love Connie Britton, I love good stories about the music business—I even love the Robert Altman movie (which this show has nothing to do with). But I was also expecting to be disappointed, not having heard any particular buzz on the show. I really enjoyed the pilot, written by Callie Khouri (Thelma and Louise) though: Britton’s earthy charm unsurprisingly suits the role well, but Panettiere holds her own as her cunning adversary (though she could stand to take the vampiness down a notch). Setting up a sprawl of stories in the music biz and city hall—the two being closely entwined in this town—Nashville plays like a country version of what Smash could have been. Count this as my most pleasant surprise of fall 2012 so far.

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? Did God make little green apples?