Hayden Panettiere, Connie Britton
Though the TV season is already a few weeks old, tonight counts as one of the biggest rollouts of fall, with three high-profile premieres on three networks, including my favorite pilot of an admittedly anemic batch.
Even in a better season, ABC's Nashville (10/9c) would stand out, making beautiful music and juicy drama with its sensationally entertaining medley of backstage rivalries, family and political shenanigans, and enough sexy-sudsy twists to transform Music City into Sin City. Can you enjoy Nashville if country music isn't your thing? Here's a clue: The leading lady is Connie Britton (Friday Night Lights), whose tremendous appeal cuts across genre and format. She's not just Top 40, she's Top 10 (with the recent Emmy nominations to prove it).
As Rayna Jaymes, country's reigning queen on a shaky throne, Britton is immediately sympathetic and admirable — not to mention credible as a headlining singer, no small feat — especially when contrasted to the Auto-Tuned upstart vixen of a rival, crossover siren-ette Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, already mastering the mischievous twinkle), who'd love nothing more than to steal the spotlight — and maybe Rayna's handsome lead musician and former beau Deacon (Charles Esten), while she's at it. At various points in the very full pilot episode, Rayna and Deacon walk away from encounters with jolly little Juliette, wondering, "What the hell was that?"
It's a hell of a good story, that's what it is. All About Eve by way of Dollywood, an ABC-style soap with meat as well as heart, catty without being trashily campy and yet never less than enjoyable. There's an authenticity to Nashville as well, with the actors singing their own songs, filmed on location, and boasting the renowned T-Bone Burnett as executive music producer. Adding to the talent pool: Burnett's wife, Callie Khouri of Thelma & Louise fame, is the show's creator, and fellow executive producer/documentarian R.J. Cutler directed the pilot. These aren't your typical TV talents, and Nashville for all of its tuneful sizzle doesn't feel like a typical TV show.
"I'm not ready to hang up my rhinestones just yet," declares Rayna, pressured by her label to make concessions to current tastes and humble herself before the trendy new flavor-of-the-moment Juliette, who appears to be channeling Taylor Swift's evil twin. It's easy to root for Rayna, even as her power-broking daddy (a malevolent Powers Boothe) meddles in her marriage (to milquetoast Eric Close) while her career hangs in the balance, all promising to be the highest drama we've seen on Wednesdays since Emily Thorne first clashed with Victoria Grayson on Revenge. ABC has done well in filling the time period with a show that's both sassy and smart, singing a tune we can name in three words: It's a winner.
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The CW also knows its audience pretty well, enough so as to have made one of its top priorities a search through the DC Comics vaults for a new superhero franchise to fill the Smallville void. In Arrow (8/7c), the network's aim is true, adapting the Green Arrow comics into a deluxe action melodrama with a rich Gothic-romantic mythology, about a hunky crusader (abs-tastic Stephen Amell) who's part Hamlet, part Robinson Crusoe, and in case the success of the Dark Knight franchise escaped anyone, part Batman.
Familiarity points deducted, Arrow is still a very slick piece of work, as we're introduced to Oliver Queen (Amell), first seen as a scraggly survivor of five years shipwrecked on a Mandarin island whose name means "purgatory," where "I had to forge myself into a weapon" to survive. (Flashbacks from this period are expected to be a regular Arrow feature.) Before becoming an unnaturally buff human weapon and first-rate archer, Queen was a prince of mythical Starling City, a more debauched version of a Bruce Wayne-like billionaire brat-about-town. His conscience awakened during his time away, with family tragedy and intrigue further coloring his view, he now vows "to bring justice to those who have poisoned my city." By any means necessary, usually violently, mostly by wielding a super-charged bow-and-arrow while disguised in a simple green hood.
Oliver Queen's origin story may not be terribly original, but Arrow aims high in its production values and its casting, including the regal Susanna Thompson (Once and Again) as his enigmatic mother, Broadway headliner Colin Donnell as his spoiled pal Tommy and CW regular Katie Cassidy (one of my favorite Supernatural lasses ever) as his lost love Dinah "Laurel" Lance, whose unfriendly welcome back — "I'd hoped that you would rot in hell a whole lot longer than five years" — may have something to do with her sister having perished when Oliver's boat went down (she was in his bed at the time). Angst, action and hard-bodied heroics — if that's not a CW formula for success, what is? (Pairing it midweek with Supernatural also feels right.)
I wouldn't say Arrow blew me away — it's a bit too derivative — and I'd never pretend to be an expert in the comic-book world this character inhabits. But it's hooked me for now, and seeing that they're front-loading this first arc of episodes with characters like Kelly Hu as China White and guest stars including Torchwood's John Barrowman, how can I resist?
And then there's a new-but-feels-instantly-old show that's as generic as its title, and packing precious little heat between emergencies. From Dick Wolf's procedural assembly line comes NBC's oh-so-ordinary Chicago Fire (10/9c), which dramatically is less animated than the beefcake calendar its stars appears to be auditioning for. "If I have to eat the pain, I will," says pill-popping Rescue Squad stud Kelly Severide (Vampire Diaries' Taylor Kinney) after getting bad medical news in an upcoming episode. The real pain is in the scripts, so trite and earnestly predictable they should come with four-alarm cliché warnings.
As Severide's fellow firehouse Lt. Matthew Casey, House's colorless Jesse Spencer is so stiffly holier-than-thou, you may wonder how the helmet fits over his halo. And even if the hotness of the cast sets off some personal smoke alarms, the familiar personal dramas rarely ignite more than a yawn. Slickly produced on location — proving that authenticity isn't everything when it isn't on the page — Chicago Fire isn't half bad when the fires and other crises take over as the star of the show. It's after the smoke clears and the stories kick back in that you begin to realize the only way to salvage these sorry stereotypes in uniform is to burn them the only way we know how.
By changing the channel.
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