If there's one thing ABC's new drama Nashville totally nails about the South, it's how passive-aggression is often masked as politeness. Communication is hardly ever direct. Compliments are backhanded. Small talk is catty. Secrets are buried, but hardly ever kept. All rooms come furnished with elephants and appearances are always king. All in all, it's an ideal set up for some top-notch sudsy drama.
Last week Nashville introduced viewers to a world in which business is everything, and everything is personal. If Rayna Jaymes didn't win America's hearts and minds when she told her smarmy label head he could "kiss her decision as it's walking out the door," networks viewers have got some serious screws loose.
Writers wasted no time in setting up narrative dominoes in the pilot episode. The Reba-esque Jaymes is the reigning queen of country, but her throne is threatened by up-and-coming pop-country princess Juliette Barnes. That's not Rayna's only conflict, however. Her dashing husband Teddy Conrad is a failed businessman who lost the Jaymes' nest egg to Bernie Madoff (or some other kind of horrible, morally-dubious financial folly we're sure to soon find out more about) and now Rayna is forced to be the breadwinner in a post-Napster world where even her free mp3s are probably in the same low demand as her ticket sales.
Unlike Teddy, Rayna's father is successful Music City business tycoon Lamar Wyatt – a politically influential puppet master played by chiseled-headed character actor Powers Boothe, who does a better Darth Vader than Dick Cheney. "Cash-poor" Rayna refuses to take his money under any circumstances, so we know he's probably a bastard. "The take-away message is this: Don't mess with me," Lamar tells a political adversary.
In episode two, "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still In Love With You)," Nashville is already brimming with tension. At the start, Rayna is stuck in traffic, trapped bumper to bumper in the Music Row Roundabout, a circular mid-town thoroughfare that connects the Row's avenues. At its center is Musica, an abominable bronze statue depicting nude figures dancing in a circular human pyramid atop a grassy knoll.
Today Musica is the site of Juliette's latest video shoot, for "Telescope." The song is as insipid as it is catchy (a case made by its recent release to country radio as a single), and the short glimpse we get into its accompanying video – which features Juliette hanging from the statue like forbidden fruit – plays like comic relief. The fact that the singer herself loathes the song as much as the film crew that has to hear it played back ad nauseum bodes well for her potential development. "People think this is all I can do, make pop music for pre-teens," she says between takes.
Juliette's got baggage. Last week she insulted Rayna backstage at the Grand Ole Opry ("My momma was one of your biggest fans. She said she'd listen to you while I was still in her belly."), nailed Rayna's producer and attempted to steal her bandleader and ex-flame, Deacon Claybourne, who we'll talk more about in a minute.
Juliette's mom was/is also apparently a big fan of hardcore drug abuse, bad parenting and trying to shake down her superstar daughter for dollar bills, which, like Teddy's nefarious business dealings, we'll certainly learn about in greater detail as the season progresses. While Juliette's ostensibly troubled family background is likely to explain her compulsive character, her obvious desire for artistic cred suggests she has untapped talents and something meaningful she actually wants to say with her music.
After a planned Barnes/Jaymes Monsters of Diva-Tonk Tour falls through, prompting Jaymes' label to ditch her, she and Deacon plot a stripped-down tour of smaller venues. The rehearsal space hallway exchange between Rayna and Juliette where the latter passive-aggressively taunts the latter with a shit-eating congrats on the tour and a reference to a writing session with Deacon is great. "She's got about 500 miles worth of nerve," Rayna remarks.
Rayna and Deacon touring together is something Teddy and Juliette both have a problem with. While Teddy's reasons are obvious, Juliette's are a bit more layered. Sure, she totally wants to bone the rough-hewn troubadour – she dresses in daisy dukes and cowboy boots and drives him out to the lake (on a piece of property once owned by Tammy Wynette, no less) to "finish 'rattin' that song." That wasn't just a euphemism, the pair actually do craft "Undermine" – an emotionally-moody adult-contemporary ballad – by the lake. More often than not, country hits are written in Music Row offices by appointment, not next to idyllic fishing holes in antebellum settings. And they certainly don't tend to include skinny-dipping sessions, but let's suspend disbelief.
Seeing Deacon as her ticket to artistic credibility, Juliette is dead set on stealing him from Rayna's musical clutches. "Don't be fooled by the shiny exterior, I'm more than meets the eye" she tells him, so desperately wanting to prove it. "I think something about you makes me wanna grow up," she says. Knowing that the way to a Nashvillian's heart is through his guitar collection, Juliette gives Deacon a $50,000 six-string. And she's even more determined when that doesn't work. The guitar does, however, drive a wedge between Rayna and Deacon and inspire a new kind of break up for the couple.
Rayna, Deacon and Juliette's love triangle wasn't the only one to blossom in "I Can't Help It." Last week we also met Scarlett O'Connor and Gunnar Scott, two impossibly attractive, platonic (for now) co-workers at the sacred singer-songwriter haunt the Bluebird Café.
Stage and studio scenes featuring full-length performances of songs and intercut with other plot developments are to Nashville what meth-cooking montages are to Breaking Bad, and Gunnar and Scarlett stole the show last week with a closing love requiem that caught the ear of star-maker producer Watty White, who discovered Rayna. Watty wants the duo to demo the track. Problem is, Scarlett's not a musician, she's a poet, and now she walks right into the windfall opportunity her indie-rocker boyfriend Avery Barkley has been waiting years for. He congratulates her, of course. But inside we can tell he's consumed with jealousy. It doesn't help that Avery found out just as he was getting offstage at a dive-y local rock club, where his Echo and the Bunnymen-goes-Americana bar band (Elvis Costello actually contributed the song they play, "Twist of Barbwire") just turned in another blistering performance to a hot crowd, but no managers or A&R reps.
Meanwhile, Gunnar and Scarlett – both starry-eyed, uber-green Music City transplants with occasionally laughable Southern accents – continue to out-aw-shucks each other at work. Scarlett moved to Nashville to be with Avery and is loyal to him, to the point of considering turning town White's offer (and at the same time sinking Gunnar's big opportunity). In just two episodes, there have been no shortage of signs that Scarlett should drop the zero and get with the hero – and hey, maybe a heartbreak ordeal is just what Avery needs to pen his first hit song.
On the other end of the spectrum, last week Lamar essentially emasculated Teddy and muscled him into a mayoral run because, as we've now learned, "A mayor with secrets is easier to control." Writers are still waiting to drop the bombshell on what exactly the big skeleton in Teddy's closet is, but Lamar has commissioned a crack team of underlings to vet the candidate and his wife. A shot showing Teddy tossing documents into the family fireplace near episode's end hints that maybe not all of his darkest days are behind him.
The mayoral race presents a problem for Rayna, who was all set to endorse (in song) candidate Coleman Carlisle, played by actor Robert Wisdom, who portrayed Bunny Colvin on The Wire. That's worth noting if only because Nashville, like any city, could use a Hamsterdam.
Despite rather extraordinary first-world problems like playing to half-empty arenas and refusing to live off a family trust fund, Rayna so far is still the show's most relatable character, thanks mainly to a stellar performance from Connie Britton. That was never more apparent than in a climactic scene at the Bluebird, where Deacon calls her to the stage to join him on an impromptu "No One Will Ever Love You," a duet from the duo's early days. Like Scarlett and Gunnar last week, the chemistry is undeniable (an observation not lost on Watty) and the performance is mesmerizing – the song absolutely kills "Undermine." And Juliette totally knows it, giving her a humbling compounded by the fact the she was clearly expecting Deacon to call her to the stage. She walks out in tears. "I wish we hadn't done that song," Rayna tells Deacon, sitting in his car after the gig. Old love dies hard.