It sounds ridiculous, but one of the reasons some people didn’t tune into the wonderful “Friday Night Lights” was because they didn’t like football. But the prematurely offed series wasn’t about football. It was about the turmoils of growing up and the rich and complicated lives of the people in a small Texas community, and football was merely the lens through which we viewed it all. Similarly, ABC’s new family soap “Nashville” uses a divisive device — country music — to unfurl its story.


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“Friday Night Lights” ’s own Connie Britton is Rayna James, an aging country legend whose singles aren’t charting and shows aren’t selling. People pass over her true-country blues for the bubblegum country-pop of Juliette Barns (Hayden Panettiere, “Heroes”), a young and reckless starlet with huge crossover appeal. Their label offers a compromise: The ladies can co-headline, with Rayna opening for Juliette. Rayna, too proud to even touch the trust fund set up by her controlling father (perfect soap villain Powers Booth, “24”), doesn’t take too kindly to the idea.

Pitting Panettiere — who despite her longevity has always been the most forgettable act in everything she’s ever been in — against the formidable Britton was a risk, but the carefully concocted Juliette Barns allows for Panettiere to show off more range than we’ve seen in the past.

It would have been easy to write Juliette as simply a bitch, but instead, the pilot starts to unravel the character’s complexities and insecurities, while still giving her some bitchy-belle grit that yields brilliant tension: “My mama was one of your biggest fans. She used to tell me she used to listen to you while I was still in her belly,” she tells Rayna through a plastic smile.

It also would have been easy to write “Nashville” as a simple girl-on-girl showdown, and even though the promos play up the Rayna-Juliette rivalry, as Britton puts it, “This is not a catfight.”

Underneath all of the country music ooze and clashing egos is a heavy sense of entrapment for the pilot’s characters: Rayna is held back by a blinding attachment to the way things used to be. Her husband Teddy (Eric Close, “Suits”) feels helpless, sidelined by his wife’s success. And Juliette is trying to break free from a less-than-glamorous past that keeps creeping back into her life.

“Nothing,” Rayna replies immediately when her band leader Deacon Claybourne (Charles Esten, “Big Love”) asks what she’d change if she could do it all over again.



Other than Panettiere’s secret acting abilities, “Nashville” is full of plenty of other little surprises that hint at its capacity to be the year’s unexpected runaway hit, much like “Revenge” in 2011. It’s more reserved than its ABC companion and there are no Nolan puns to be found, but between Rayna’s marital problems, Juliette’s self-destructive tendencies, Deacon’s striking sadness and a pilot reveal most shows would save for a season finale, “Nashville” jumps into enough drama to elicit a Victoria Grayson eyebrow raise.

You wouldn’t write off “Breaking Bad” because you don’t like drugs or “The Wire” because you don’t like crime. Even if you hate country music, the pilot will have you swept up in “Nashville” ’s drama. Plus, can you really turn down the return of Britton’s “y’all” ’s to television? Or Britton singing, for that matter?

And if you do like country music, “Nashville” quite literally hits all the right notes — boy can some of these supporting actors sing. Sam Palladio (“Episodes”) whips out some absolutely killer notes and newcomer Clare Bowen seduces with her lilting voice and wide green eyes. The original song that scores the pilot’s final, superbly paced scenes might just be more beautiful than Connie Britton’s hair, y’all.

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