Oh, Nashville: a town where "subtle" is just another word in the dictionary right next to "subplot about Powers Boothe." Nobody would argue that Nashville is groundbreaking drama, or that it earns its myth-mongering title. But it is steeped in the prime-time narrative code of a classic Eighties soap. Connie Britton is the veteran country star trying to keep up with the new brat on the radio, Hayden Panettiere, an eye-rolling, cleavage-rocking young thing who gets about 30 seconds of screen time before her first cellphone-throwing tantrum. Looks like we got us here a cowgirl-diva bitch-off.
Nashville shares its name with the Robert Altman masterpiece, one of the defining films of the 1970s, full of great characters like the pompous country hack Haven Hamilton, who barks, "I will not tolerate rudeness in the presence of a star! Two stars!" But fortunately, the two stars in this Nashville are both actresses who leave third-degree side-eye burns all over the scenery.
Panettiere, it must be said, is shockingly good. Most of America seemed to forget her existence after Heroes' fast fizzle, but if Panettiere's been keeping a low celebrity profile, maybe it's because she was plotting her bitch-brat makeover. Her Juliette is a man-stealing tramp goddess in the mode of early Tanya Tucker, with similar taste in plunging necklines – obviously, like Tucker sang, her favorite color is blood red and going down. (She also has a junkie mom she keeps hidden from the public, a theme we might visit a time or two before the season is through.)
Britton's long-suffering heroine, Rayna, is trying to make a musical comeback, fight off her scheming young rival and cope with the no-good menfolk in her life. Her husband is running for mayor of Nashville (this happens to country stars all the time), and her political power-broker daddy is the magnificently oily Boothe, who was put on Earth to make Mandy Patinkin look laid-back.
True, the story is basically Shania Twain fan fiction, except it's set in a parallel timeline where Shania kept making records long enough to become a hard-luck has-been. In a way, it's a glitzier, dishier version of Shania's reality show on the Oprah Winfrey Network, Why Not? With Shania Twain. (What do you mean you didn't watch it? Whose bed have your boots been under?) But Britton hits a lot of viewers where they live, so Nashville will attract the Friday Night Lights fans who still miss their weekly date to cry over Tami Taylor's travails.
It's easy to see why the cult of Connie Britton runs so deep: She brings dignity to every role, along with a self-righteous streak that falls an inch or two on the south side of the Sarandon-to-Streep cusp, so her characters can get irksome, especially on last year's American Horror Story, where she got horribly humiliated week after gimp-humping week.
Nashville is a lot more honest and cynical about its soapy heart. Like the Altman movie, it's a portrait of America's mythic Music City the way it looks from L.A., depicted with a mixture of fear and more than a little envy. And like the 1975 movie, Nashville doesn't bother much with the sleaze or glitter of actual country music. Now as then, the celluloid soundtrack is basically squeaky-clean folk rock. This is the "Nashville" that suits L.A.'s fantasy of country music – something purer, nobler and duller than it actually is, just as Connie Britton is L.A.'s fantasy of what a country star should be. But that's also why the show would be a snooze without Panettiere trashing it up. American fantasies need a little sleaze.
This story is from the November 8th, 2012 issue of Rolling Stone.