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‘Nashville’ pilot recap: Top-notch marriage of words and music

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Hayden Panettiere as Juliette Barnes

Rayna James is "the reigning queen of country" — for now. But next big thing Juliette Barnes has her eye on Rayna's throne (and a couple of other things that belong to Rayna), and in the series premiere of "Nashville," it looks like she's going to get it.

"Nashville" is a rhinestone variation on "All About Eve": a fading star who's quietly at war with an insufficiently deferential ingénue, and with the handlers who insist she accept a new reality. Moving the story from the Great White Way to the Grand Ol' Opry makes it even more compelling.

When we meet Rayna (Connie Britton, beloved from "Friday Night Lights" and still rocking some of the prettiest hair in primetime), everything's changing for her. Her newest record isn't charting well and her tour isn't selling out venues, so her record label asks — insists, really — that she "co-headline" with, i.e., open for, new superstar Juliette (Hayden Panettiere, "Heroes"). The demotion's bad enough; Juliette's personality makes it worse. Juliette slathers Rayna's bandleader, Deacon (Charles Esten of "Big Love"), with praise, then ignores Rayna's outstretched hand to shmooze a label exec before getting a dig in about how her mom was Rayna's biggest fan. ("Bless your little heart, what a charming story," Rayna says, as the temperature in the room drops to zero.)

Mean girls

Juliette comes from a troubled background — she changes phones frequently, to avoid her junkie mother's requests for money — but she's not easy to like, snarling at her assistant, sleeping with Rayna's producer Randy (and overhearing Rayna when, unaware that Juliette's in the next room, she complains that Juliette's music sounds "like feral cats"…oops), offering Deacon double his pay to become her bandleader instead. But Panettiere gives Juliette depth; she's imperious and immature, but also smart, tough, and scared.

In fact, everyone's fairly sympathetic in the pilot. Deacon should drop the torch he's carrying for Rayna, but you'll still feel bad for the guy (not least because Rayna returns the heat, at least a little bit, and selfishly keeps him on the hook as a result). Juliette's a brat, but when the guys in the studio booth mutter, "Thank God for Autotune," you'll feel a little bit bad for her. Rayna's husband Teddy (Eric Close, "Without a Trace") is just off a failed business venture, and it probably isn't the first time, or with his own money. The name "Teddy" itself is juvenile, not manly, and he longs for his own success.

That's why he agrees to run for mayor of Nashville, under the aegis of Rayna's estranged father, Lamar (Powers Boothe, bringing his customary determined menace). Lamar is a real-estate tycoon who wants the city's next mayor to be his marionette, and he's the only truly hateful character on the show so far. At the same time, he's super-watchable — especially when he's implying that it's he who paid for Rayna's first album, not "that piss-ant record label." Oh, and that one of her daughters isn't Teddy's, which is how he gets Rayna to break her promises to the Carlisle Coleman campaign (Coleman's played by Robert Wisdom, so we've hardly seen the last of him) and play dutiful spouse for Teddy, just as he's done for her for so long.

High notes

The first hour of "Nashville" is jammed with plot, backstory, and a fair bit of singing, but the exposition isn't intrusive, and if you're not a country-music fan, the music isn't intrusive either. The show does have weak spots — Panettiere's unflattering rat's nest needs figuring out, and Sam Palladio has a fantastic voice, but the unrequited love/country-folk partnership plot he's stuck in with Deacon's niece Scarlett (Clare Bowen) is tired. (The jokes at Scarlett's skeezy boyfriend Avery's expense are pretty good, though. When he loftily informs Deacon that his own music is a blend of country and punk, Deacon snorts that "around here, 'punk' is code for 'can't play at all.'")

Overall, though, it's a well textured and compelling start for "Nashville," from details like Rayna's young daughters knowing all the words to Juliette's songs, to the overt pleasure Lamar takes in manipulating his daughter, to the way Eric Close is shot to make Teddy look like an aging playboy. Definitely give it a look.

You can give the whole episode a look right here. Let us know what you think in the comments!

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