Hayden Panettiere, Connie Britton 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.

Want more TV news and reviews? Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!

Subscribe to TV Guide Magazine now!