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TV Tonight: Nashville

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Remember when everyone knew that musicals did not work on TV? An age ago—three, maybe four years—it was common knowledge that TV audiences would reject dramas in which people burst into song as hopelessly implausible or cornball. Look no further, they said, than Cop Rock or Viva Laughlin.

Now, of course, you need look no further than Glee—but you can look further than that. Broadway drama Smash may not have been the massive hit NBC hoped for (and I was not a fan) but it is coming back for a second season. HBO’s Treme is a niche show at best, but it tells a rich, involving story of a New Orleans where life and music-making are inseparable. It may be that TV audiences are skeptical of musicals—in the policemen-bursting-into-song sense—but emotional stories about and involving music are another story.

To that list, add ABC’s Nashville, debuting tonight. As a confirmed Smash detractor, you might think I’d be turned off by a show that, on the surface at least, is essentially Country Smash. There’s a rivalry between two singers, country veteran Rayna James (Connie Britton) and rising pop starlet Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere), who clash when the record label puts the slumping Rayna on Juliette’s tour as the opening act. There’s backstabbing and conniving, as Juliette aims to poach Rayna’s guitar player, contributing family entanglements and a city-hall subplot, this time involving Rayna’s husband and her estranged daddy, Nashville big-wheel Lamar Hampton (Powers Boothe).

But unlike the glitzy but stylized—and ultimately shallow—Smash, the pilot of Nashville quickly established a real and lived-in feeling that goes beyond the local landmarks. Whereas Smash’s Karen never became more than a generic heartland ingenue, Britton’s Rayna has soul, charm and the kind of earthy realism the actress gave Tami Taylor in Friday Night Lights. Rayna still has dreams, but her dreams have some miles on them. Panettiere could dial down the vampiness a bit, but she capably sells Juliette’s beyond-her-years cunning without making her a cartoon. Meeting Rayna for the first time, she says what a big fan her mama is: “She used to listen to you when I was still in her belly.” She serves up the line like a big, cold glass of poison lemonade.

Unfortunately, ABC hasn’t sent anything, as of this writing, beyond the pilot, and there’s a sprawling lot of story to account for, including several music-biz, family and political plots. But the first episode gives us a deft introduction, thanks to Callie Khouri—former Nashvillian, writer of Thelma and Louise and wife of music producer T. Bone Burnett, who contributes the episode’s authentic-sounding music. This show is aiming big, to capture a city and a generational story, and it has a strong sense of music as both dream and business.

It’s those intangibles, really, that have me most excited for the show. The conflict between Rayna and Juliette is the engine that drives the story—the booster engine being the bad blood between Rayna and Lamar—but the pilot fills in the rest of the Music City ecosystem with intriguing side characters: an aspiring songwriting duo, Lamar’s African American political rival, a record producer played by singer/songwriter JD Souther. The pilot (directed by The War Room’s R.J. Cutler) feels like it could hit a sweet spot between Treme and Smash, and I mean that as a compliment: it has some of the realism of David Simon’s quasi-documentary music-scene drama and enough sheen to make it an entertainment, not just a cultural study.

Nashville’s pilot (which ABC has been previewing online) is not perfect; Last Resort was probably the most accomplished first hour of TV I’ve seen this fall. But Nashville’s was the one that made me most excited to see more episodes of the series and see how its world unfolds. I wish I had more than that hour to judge by, but it gives hints of a drama that can work at several levels—from ballad to barnburners, from the low-key and plaintive to the grand old operatic.