BWW Reviews: ABC's Banking On NASHVILLE To Bring On The Nielsen Glory

BWW-Reviews-ABCs-Banking-On-NASHVILLE-To-Bring-On-The-Nielsen-Glory-20010101

It used to be—back in the days before 24/7 cable TV and the ubiquity of the interwebs in our lives—that Nashville was known in popular culture for pretty much one thing: County Music. Back then, there were a lot of syndicated country music shows that generally ran for half an hour and were broadcast on Saturday evenings. Then sometime later, there was a short-lived network series called XXXs & OOOs, which featured a theme song by Trisha Yearwood (and that’s really all I can remember, other than that it wasn’t very good).

Somewhere in between, acclaimed director Robert Altman made Nashville, his Oscar-nominated (it won for best song for “I’m Easy”) and critically-lauded film about the city and its love/hate relationship with the country music industry. Altman’s Nashville used the city’s country and gospel music business milieu as his focus, juxtaposing it against the campaign of a third party presidential candidate. It’s a good movie—you should watch it if you’ve never seen it—but keep in mind, it’s very much a product of its times. Since then, Nashville’s been featured in several movies, but none we care to remember with any affection or regularity.

Now, ABC is banking on Music City, putting big bucks behind the promotion and the production of Nashville, the soapy new television series written by Academy Award winner CALLIE KHOURI (Thelma and Louise) that debuted last night, right after the Emmy Award-winning comedy juggernaut that is Modern Family. Starring Connie Britton, Hayden Panettiere, Powers Boothe, Eric Close, Jonathan Jackson and a whole bunch of vaguely familiar character actors and dewy-eyed ingénues of both the female and male varieties—along with an ensemble of homegrown actors, many of them Nashville theater royalty, including Ed Amatrudo, David Alford, Todd Truley, Jake Speck, Jeremy Childs, and J. Karen Thomas, who add authenticity and atmosphere to the proceedings and make it more fun to watch for those of us who actually appreciate live theater in a town that’s always treated actors like the proverbial redheaded stepchild of lore—Nashville shows promise, even if the political subplot almost sent me in search of BBC America’s repeat of this week’s episode of Copper or for some Real Housewives behaving badly.

Of course, there is the possibility that people out of town, as it were, will find the political shenanigans compelling during this election season, but we doubt it. It seems superfluous and tacked on in order to appeal to people who won’t admit they like country music. And the fedora-wearing Boothe (no politician in Nashville—or power behind the throne, for sure—would ever wear such ridiculous-looking headgear) seems more like an ersatz J.R. Ewing instead of a Belle Meade financier and dealmaker by the name of Lamar Wyatt.

We have faith, however, in Khouri’s ability to write characters and stories that are believable and accessible. She did her time in Nashville, waiting tables and acting while writing the screenplay for Thelma and Louise that catapulted her to notoriety, so there is a certain authenticity to the people, places and things she’s written into her ambitious new series that ABC has given over to one of its most popular time slots. Adding to the series’ Music City bona fides and air of music scene sophistication is the role played by T-Bone Burnett, who just happens to be married to Khouri, in supervising the series’ music, lending further gravitas to Nashville in the process.

BWW Reviews: ABC's Banking On NASHVILLE To Bring On The Nielsen Glory

And make no mistake about it, it’s the country music business that provides the inspiration for Nashville and it is the show’s treatment of that particularly unique part of our fair city that really rings true, thank the lord. The luminous Britton, whose onscreen presence is so palpable you fully expect her to step out of the widescreen and sit down in your living room, gives a convincing performance, delivering her lines with conviction and a Southern accent that sounds like she’s one of us. As Rayna James, a legendary country songbird, Britton sings her own songs (she acquits herself admirably on that score) and she is very much the star of the show (although I kept hoping the rubber-suited man would emerge from her dressing room closet to give it to her and give it to her good).

Hayden Panettiere is cast as up-and-comer Juliette Barnes, whose pop-infused ditties are dominating the airwaves and selling more tickets. The two women are both signed to the same record label, so a rivalry ensues even before Juliette sleeps with Rayna’s producer and her bandleader. Panettiere’s pretty good as the petulant young star and she looks like a million bucks in the post-coital glow of more scenes than we could count. Juliette’s also got some serious mama issues (her mother’s some drugged-out loon—we’re betting it’s meth and not crack that fuels the monkey that’s on her caterwauling, redneck back) and Panettiere is beset with her own challenge of perfecting a southern accent that doesn’t sound straight out of central casting.

The other characters are pretty much one dimensional—ERIC CLOSE is cast as Teddy Conrad, Rayna’s ne’er-do-well husband, whose being groomed by her daddy to run for mayor; British Sam Paladdio and Australian CLARE BOWEN are cast as Gunnar and Scarlett, a pair of budding country music wannabes (it’s amazing, ain’t it, how those wily Brits can sound so much like us?); and Jonathan Jackson is cast as Scarlett’s good-for-nothing, sorry-ass boyfriend (or at least that seems where he’s headed in this tale of torch and twang). Robert Wisdom is the African-American politico running against Close's Conrad for the mayor's job, while Judith Hoag plays Rayna’s sister Tandy, the loyal protege to Boothe’s King Lear of Belle Meade. J.D. SOUTHER plays a producer who is Rayna’s confidant (it is he who first recognizes the potential of Scarlett and Gunnar) and Kimberly Williams-Paisey is poised to make her return to series television as Teddy’s old flame.

Among local stars, Amatrudo seems to have scored the juiciest role, playing Juliette's manager who spends much of his time cleaning up her messes, delivering some trenchant lines ("Thank God for auto-tune" is his best) and fending off her slatternly mama's entreaties for financial assistance (she's got that meth addiction, don't you know). Amatrudo's a very good stage actor, to be sure, but he's probably going to make a much bigger splash on Nashville.

Todd Truley, another veteran local actor, shone as the new head of Edgehill Republic Records (the record company name alone proves Khouri knows the real Nashville), providing his own special blend of oily, smarmy charm.

There are, of course, some Music Citizens who will be quick to point out that Nashville can't compare with the genuine article, and certainly the Nashville depicted in the series has a heightened reality (and I get enough of my friends' lives on a daily basis, so I don't need to see it on my TV screen once a week). But just in the same way that Smash shouldn't be construed as a blow-by-blow, note-by-note depiction of Broadway, Nashville gives a fairly unjaundiced view of what goes in the bedrooms and boardrooms of Music City USA. And, judging from the pilot at least, it's a hell of a lot better than Smash. Let's just hope producers hold off on stunt casting: I don't need to see Little Jimmy Dickens on my TV screen either.

For certain, you can expect some tear-jerking, heartbreaking and soul-baring—if slightly convoluted and sometimes silly—drama to evolve throughout the season and it’s no doubt, Nashville and Nashville will garner a lot of attention if the series lives up to its advance publicity, and the city continues to look so eye-poppingly gorgeous (the Tennessee State Capitol looks magnificent, as does the former H.G. Hill mansion that serves as the home for the Wyatt family, and the city’s skyline looks tailor-made for TV) on film. And we can’t help but take some pride in the fact that so many local actors, artists and technicians are getting paid to be part of the local phenomenon surrounding the filming of a big, splashy and shiny new television series right outside our front door.

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Jeffrey Ellis Jeffrey Ellis is a Nashville-based writer, editor and critic, who's been covering the performing arts in Tennessee for more than 25 years. He is the recipient of the Tennessee Theatre Association's Distinguished Service Award for his coverage of theatre in the Volunteer State and was the founding editor/publisher of Stages, the Tennessee Onstage Monthly. He is a past fellow of the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O'Neill Theatre Center and is the founder/executive producer of The First Night Honors, held during Labor Day Weekend, which honor oustanding theater artists in Tennessee in recognition of their lifetime achievements and includes The First Night Star Awards and the Most Promising Actors. Midwinter's First Night, held the first Sunday in January after New Year's Day, honors outstanding productions and performances throughout the state. Further, Ellis directed the Nashville premiere of La Cage Aux Folles, The Last Night of Ballyhoo and An American Daughter, as well as award-winning productions of Damn Yankees, Company, Gypsy and The Rocky Horror Show, with Ellis honored by The Tennessean as best director of a musical for both Company and Rocky Horror.


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