Pilots are tricky business. They’re usually somewhat obvious, in the way we don’t like our TV to be. Plots are often positioned without grace or subtlety, important and informing exposition can be glossed over clumsily, and there’s a tendency to establish characters too quickly at the cost of idiosyncrasies and nuance that might have endeared an audience in the long game. The pilot—and, to some extent, the first season—is all about finding footing, and there’s a certain amount of missteps we’re expected to allow in that process.
All of this is to say that, if there’s a solitary reason the pilot of Nashville succeeds, it’s because it takes its time in growing the story. It seems remarkably aware of the many pilot pitfalls, and manages to navigate around nearly all of them. Never does it feel ham-fisted, or dumbed-down, or rushed. The pilot is interested in planting seeds, which is the work of any introduction, but it does so with trust in its audience that they will be intuitive, patient.
The pilot opens with Rayna James (the brilliant and brilliantly-casted Connie Britton) running down the hallway, chasing her two daughters, Daphne and Maddie, and her husband, Teddy, while simultaneously removing curlers from her hair. There are kisses all around and then she’s off to the Grand Ole Opry. Her daughters are played by Lennon and Maisy Stella—the Youtube sisters whose top 40 covers have garnered them millions of viewers—and Eric Close plays Teddy, Rayna’s stay-at-home husband. Having seen a promo for Nashville some months ago, I recognized some reshooting for the Stella sisters, who have replaced the daughters originally cast in the show. A wise choice, too. They’re musically gifted (really, watch those videos—they’re unbelievably refined) and they play well with Britton and Close.
“Why does she have to go to work?” Daphne asks, as Rayna dashes out the door. “I thought we were rich?” Teddy corrects her, says they’re a different kind of rich: cash-poor. The economy of Rayna and Teddy’s marriage and the sustainability of the life they’ve grown accustomed to will likely be one of the largest points of friction for the show, and I really appreciated the way in which we’re clued into that in this scene.
The episode cuts to Rayna performing on stage at the Opry, celebrating Watty White, “the pope of Nashville.” He’s a legendary country music producer, a beloved fixture in the community, and something of a mentor for Rayna. This scene gives us our first sampling of Britton’s singing chops, and, with admitted bias in the way of predisposition toward country music and something like an obsession with Connie Britton aka Mrs. Coach (“Friday Night Lights”), I think she nails it. I’ll be interested to see, over the course of the season, how the show goes about making the songs a part of the story. It’s a challenge, to be sure. There’s always a chance the songs will disrupt or falsify the plot—as happens far too often on Glee. But seeing as country music casts such a wide net in what it’s willing to write and sing about, Nashville should have no problem pulling off seamless juxtapositions between story and song.
Rayna exits the stage, with bandleader Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten) by her side. Deacon is greeted by his niece, Scarlett (Clare Bowen) and her boyfriend, Avery (Jonathan Jackson.) Rayna joins them, and Scarlett goes total fangirl. She says Rayna’s her favorite, and not just because her uncle is on lead guitar. We learn that Scarlett is a server at The Bluebird Cafe, an infamous hotspot downtown where anyone who’s anyone in country music has paid their dues. Rayna calls it “the mecca,” and from what I know of that venue’s reputation in real life, it’s the truth.
We’ll learn later in the episode that Deacon has been in love with Rayna for years, probably since they first started playing together. We know enough to know that something has happened between them before, and we’re smart enough to recognize the possibility of it happening again. Another point of friction for the show, and it’s a dynamic different than the rest at work so far.
In a different green room backstage, we’re introduced to Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere,) country music’s latest ingenue in the style of Taylor Swift. She’s getting her makeup done before it’s time for her to go on when her assistant informs her, with a horrified look and a hesitant voice, that Juliette’s mother is on the phone.
“Isn’t it part of your job to make sure she doesn’t have my number?” she asks her assistant, only to learn that the number has just recently been changed. “Change it again,” she says, and tosses the phone in the trash. Further along in the episode, we get a scene of Juliette crying in a utility closet, her mother on the other line calling from a pay phone and asking for money. She looks like a meth-head straight out of Breaking Bad, and Juliette confirms as much when she denies her mother the money. “You’re using,” she says. “I can tell.”
But before Juliette has time to come undone by the first phone call, she’s pulled away to meet Rayna James. She asks why, and her manager tells her it’s a favor to the label; a bow-down, kiss-the-ring kind of thing. As she’s being escorted toward Rayna’s dressing room, she bumps into Deacon and professes her adoration. “I still have your first record on vinyl,” she says, all smiles and awe and flirtation. As they walk away, Juliette asks her manager why Deacon isn’t in her band. He laughs, tells her there’s no way—he’s been with Rayna for twenty years. (Later in the episode, we’ll find Juliette at the Bluebird, watching Deacon play his own songs in the round, wiping tears from her eyes, asking him for the rights to record one of his songs.)
We then cut to one of my favorite scenes in the pilot—Juliette and Rayna meeting for the first time. With a fake smile on her face, one that reeks of unearned authority and audacity, Juliette introduces herself. “My mama was one of your biggest fans,” she says. “She said she’d listen to you while I was still in her belly.” It’s kind on the surface, but cutting and insolent underneath. Rayna isn’t fooled, and Britton delivers one of many great lines in the pilot. “Well, bless your little heart,” she says, with equally-matched condescension and sarcasm. “That is a charming story.”
After Juliette leaves, suits from the label sit down to deliver unto Rayna (and consequently the audience) the truth that sets the show in motion—Rayna’s record isn’t performing well, and her tour is undersold. In venues where she’d previously sold out, she’s now at a third of capacity. Randy, who produced Rayna’s record, reminds her of the songs he first suggested. These were songs he knew were chartable, but Rayna nixed them in favor of cultivated, high-brow tunes that haven’t proved radio-friendly. Her artistic decision directly conflicted with what her team deemed best for her longevity, and now she’s paying the price. This is a theme I expect much of the show to be predicated on; the idea that honesty—be it creative, between partners and family, or with oneself—can often be at odds with durability.
The executives hand down to Rayna a suggestion from the new head of the label: she should combine tours with Juliette Barnes. “Co-headline?” she asks, and she asks it with disgust, dismay. “Noooo. You’re kidding?” The room is silent. “Who goes on first?” she asks, only to be met with the same muted audience. In that space, Rayna puts the pieces together, and, suffice it to say, she isn’t pleased. “Is that why you brought her in here?” she asks. “Was there a turnip truck that just drove through here you think I just fell off of?” A nameless suit tells Rayna that Juliette is the number one crossover artist in the country. Combining the tours will expose Rayna to a whole new fanbase. She sits in shock. Opening for Juliette Barnes appears to be the most revolting concept she’s ever heard of. The suits say they need an answer by Monday.
The pilot then jumps to the next day, to Nashville’s city hall, where a proclamation is being made to establish Lamar Wyatt Day—a whole day dedicated to Rayna’s distant father, played exceptionally well by Powers Boothe. The show makes clear that he is a man of enormous social cachet in the city; a major player in politics, with his nose in everyone else’s business. Rayna is a few minutes late, walking in with a rehearsed smile and a wave to the press. She goes to the ceremony as a favor to her sister, Tandy; a way of saving face, despite what little interest she has in being in her father’s company.
In a studio not far away, Juliette is busy working on her next album. She sings juvenile lyrics like these:
Boys and busses,
got a lot in common
They both pick up speed
when you try to stop ‘em
“Heartbreaker,” one of the producers says. “Moneymaker,” another corrects. “Thank God for autotune,” chimes in a third. It’s clear that no one finds her particularly talented, or even listenable for that matter. Their reactions are instead indicative of where their priorities lie—marketability. It’s about the song that sells, not the song that is better-written or more deeply-felt. And as we look to the country music environment outside of celluloid, it seems that art really is imitating life. There’s an increasing influx of brainless, bubblegum country, and Nashville seems to be giving light to that trend here.
Rayna’s first extended scene with her husband comes on the heels of this. She’s sitting in front of her mirror, stretching away the wrinkles on her face and running her fingers through her hair in frustration. What the pilot doesn’t reveal, and what I’m hoping the show will explore, is how sudden the revelation of Rayna’s career downturn really is. Is it really this surprising and out of left field to be asked to reinvent herself, or was she living in some kind of blissful disconnect, without her finger on the pulse of country music, still clinging to the idea that quality carried more weight than sales?
Rayna tells Teddy what the label wants her to do, and he doesn’t seem to react as strongly. “You could walk away and quit right now,” he says.
“Not if we wanna keep living in this house I can’t,” is Rayna’s quick reply.
Teddy suggests that they could borrow money from Rayna’s father, but she shoots that down immediately. “I’ve worked very hard not to be my sister, who is practically my daddy’s handmaiden,” she insists.
The show is ambiguous when it comes to what has happened before we first meet Teddy—some economic failure, “unscrupulous mortgage lenders” is all we’re provided so far. But it’s clear that he yearns for an opportunity to prove his worth to his family, to his wife. He isn’t the breadwinner by a long shot, and it seems to be bothering him more and more.
No one knows this better than Lamar Wyatt, Rayna’s father, who comes up with what he thinks is a great idea—he’ll use his Nashville clout to run his son-in-law for mayor. The audience can tell this plan has more to do with Lamar involving himself in Rayna’s life than it does with his dissatisfaction with the city’s political landscape, but his cronies seem to be in agreement. Lamar invites Teddy to dinner to discuss his grand plan, speaking in aphorisms like “Fate is what befalls a man that fails to act,” and “Destiny is for men who refuse to accept their failures as their fate.” He tells Teddy not to let his previous failures define him, but rather refine him. Lamar is a smooth talker, and a calculated one, too. Teddy seems interested, eventually asking who’s going to be the one to tell Rayna. “Your first order of business as a mayoral candidate,” Lamar says, “is to grow a pair.”
The conversation between Rayna and Teddy, unsurprisingly, does not go well. The two argue in the kitchen, Rayna trying to convince Teddy that her father always has ulterior motives. That isn’t what Teddy’s interested in, though. He sees the promise of sustainability, of cash flow, of contributing to the family in ways he hasn’t yet been able to, and is overcome by that promise.
“If I served a term or two as mayor, I could write my own ticket,” he says. “You could stop working.” Rayna rejects him, says that isn’t what she wants. She isn’t looking to be left out of the spotlight, waiting in the wings. “Oh, you wanna tell me something about standing on the side of the stage that I don’t already know?” Teddy says. A terrific, distilled line that tells us all we need to know about what their marriage has been like and in what ways it has been damaged.
It isn’t long until Rayna is on her daddy’s doorstep with an earful of a vivisection. Lamar, of course, denies concealed motives, insists that he only wants to put a little wind in Teddy’s sails. When he learns that his daughter has already made a commitment to speak at a different candidate’s announcement, Lamar is apalled. “How would it look if you weren’t there for your own husband?” he says. “I cannot believe you’d further humiliate him after all he has done for you, especially as it relates to little Maddie.” We can only guess at what that last line means—a bastard child sounds about right for a show concerned with country music and the people who make it—but whatever it is, boy does it set Rayna off. She storms off like a bat out of hell, screaming, “We cannot be bought!”
It’s one of Rayna’s many meetings of the day, and none of them end well. She visits Randy, who produced her record and is now producing Juliette’s, to see if he still has those songs he showed her last year. The sure-to-be hits. He tells her he doesn’t have them anymore, that those types of songs don’t remain unclaimed for long. Rayna makes a comment about Juliette’s music— “Why do people listen to that adolescent crap? It sounds like feral cats to me!”—and the camera brilliantly pans down the hallway, to Randy’s bedroom, where Juliette lies naked, the comforter strewn across her body. She’s there because she doesn’t want to be a flash in the pan, but when she grabs for Randy again after an upsetting call from her mother, we know she’s also there because she needs the numbness that sex can offer.
Rayna gets more bad news in her meeting with the new head of the label. She’s prepared a little speech about how she feels like she helped build the label, what with being their signature artist since their less-than-stellar beginnings, but nostalgia doesn’t seem to do the trick with the new guy in charge. He gives her the same ultimatum. “So you’re telling me after twenty-one years at this label, if I don’t open for your little ingenue who wouldn’t make it as one of my back-up singers, you’re not going to support me?” The president tells her they need a decision, and Rayna suggests that he kiss her decision as it’s walking out the door.
The night ends with Rayna in her best red dress, at whose announcement ceremony we aren’t at first sure. She gets a call before it’s time for her to go up, from Watty White himself. He’s been made aware of her current predicament, and he’s calling her from the Bluebird Cafe, where Scarlett has taken the stage with not-her-boyfriend Gunnar on guitar. They sing a haunting duet as Wyatt holds his cell phone up toward the stage. Rayna listens intently on the other end, moved and curious. “I’ll call you later,” he says. “I got an idea.”
Across town, Juliette turns away Randy at the door of her palatial mansion and then goes back to straddling Deacon on her couch, his biggest fan. It’s Rayna he wants, but here he is, accepting what he’s been offered. And over at the Bluebird, Scarlett and Gunnar are giving a debut performance that will surely set some major things in motion for them as characters.
Where does this leave Rayna? Well, we’re not so sure. She’s been more or less disowned by her record label, she doesn’t have any material that might generate renewed interest, and the idea of aligning herself in any way with Juliette Barnes is out of the question. In a walk down the pier with Deacon earlier in the episode, she reminisces about when she was the new face of country music. So much has happened since. “Sometimes I wish I could just do everything all over again,” she says. Deacon asks her what she would change. “Nothing,” she says. “Everything.” It’s a scene that showed up in much of the promotional material surrounding Nashville, and wisely so. It really does encapsulate much of what the show is concerned with when it comes to Rayna. What has she done right? What has she done wrong? As she finds herself at this crossroads, she’s forced to reevaluate her past and renegotiate her future. She’s at the intermission of her role as performer, wife, and mother. What will she make of her second act?
We’ll have to wait and see. But, for now, she takes the stage to join her husband, wearing a strained smile that breaks even before the applause has ended.