'Nashville' Might Save Musical TV, Y'all

Country music is only part of the formula for ABC's excellent new show. Its authentic setting, good writing, and quality performances are what fix the problems with Glee and Smash.

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I've never been a country music fan. But for the love of Garth Brooks, I enjoyed Nashville.

I'm a musical fan. A musical TV-show fan. A musical TV-soap-opera fan. There's not one minute of Glee that I haven't watched, and Smash earned a season-pass slot on my Tivo the moment it was announced. But as much as there was to love about those two series, there was often even more to loathe, or at least be disappointed by. That's why ABC's Nashville (which premiered Wednesday night), the twangy tale of two rival country singers in the genre's greatest musical town, is so encouraging. It succeeds where Glee and Smash have failed. Finally, there's a sophisticated, adult musical series on TV.

The infallible Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights, American Horror Story) plays veteran crooner Rayna James, an ostensible Faith Hill/Martina McBride/Reba McEntire aging country supernova struggling to keep her star burning bright in a changing business. Hayden Panettiere (Heroes) is Juliette Barnes, a tartier version of Taylor Swift who is thriving as the industry's young upstart. In true soap fashion, the two hardly disguise their jealousy for each other. Rayna wishes for Juliette's relevance and booming fanbase; Juliette is desperate for Rayna's industry respect and seemingly stable family life. And then there's the show's third lead character, Nashville itself, which serves as more than just the setting for this All About Eve redux. It provides the beating heart of a show about bloodlust, family, and desire.

That's key because, as Glee and Smash have proved, a strong sense of place is a lynchpin to a TV musical's successes and failures. Take Glee. The halls of McKinley High School made the perfect breeding ground for the high-stakes emotions of teenagers that fueled its soapy storylines, sharp writing, and "I'm feeling so much right now that all I can do is sing about it" conceit. The problem, however, is that the halls were populated with high school archetypes and caricatures designed to dole out cutting dialogue and warble a tune, but not well-suited for nuanced storytelling. So when Glee ventured into its Important Episodes phase, with meaty plots about coming out, racism, religion, or domestic abuse, the best the show could pull off was an after-school special with Katy Perry covers.

Or Smash. The making-of-a-Broadway-musical drama was afforded all of the glitz and glamour TV had to offer with its rialto setting. Overly dramatic characters were in abundance. Every number was a showstopper. But much like an overproduced Broadway musical, the show—and its characters—were too shallow to become seriously invested in. Whether it was Katherine McPhee's painfully green ingénue, Megan Hilty's excessively ruthless Ivy, or Jack Davenport's domineering director, each person was too easily slotted into roles we've seen before. The writing, accordingly, became broad and predictable.

So thank goodness for Nashville, Tennessee, a location that allows this new drama to truly sing. An iconic city with a vaunted reputation but smaller scale than, say, New York or Los Angeles, Nashville gives off a lived-in vibe. Nashville immediately reads authentic because it's set in the historic town, a place where a multi-platinum singer like Juliette might just go to a small bar to watch another artist's set, or where a wide-eyed songwriting duo (Clare Bowen's Scarlett and Sam Palladio's Gunnar) might get discovered by an industry big wig at a dive music joint.

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Kevin Fallon is a reporter for the Daily Beast. He's a former entertainment editor at TheWeek.com and former writer and producer for The Atlantic's entertainment channel.

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