With three shows debuting on the last big night of the fall TV season, Wednesday is a little bit like early evening on Christmas Day: The big occasion you spent months dreaming about and could hardly wait for is now almost over, and you’re lying bloated and flatulent from overindulgence on your living-room couch, crummy new shows tossed aside like cheap, already-broken toys. But wait! There’s pumpkin pie still to come. And, yeccch, fruitcake.
The pie would be ABC’s Nashville, a country-and-western soap opera so yummy that we’ll extend the metaphor a bit and add some whipped cream. The recipe may go back to your grandma or beyond, but that doesn’t mean you won’t eat two helpings and beg for more.
Nashville is unrelated to either of its Hollywood namesakes, the quirkily engaging Robert Altman film of 1975 and the appalling Fox reality show of 2007. That doesn’t mean you won’t find its romantic, show-biz triangle with two warring stars — one up-and-coming, the other fading — familiar (intimately so if you saw Country Strong with Leighton Meester and Gwyneth Paltrow a couple of years ago).
But there’s a lot of extraordinary talent involved in this show, starting with Friday Night Lights’ Connie Britton as Rayna Jaymes, the longtime jukebox queen who can’t figure why her albums and concert tickets are no longer selling: “It wasn’t that long ago that I was the future of country music,” she broods.
Rayna’s worries turn to indignation at the news that her label wants her to end her tour early to open for Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere, the mysterious cheerleader of Heroes), a ruthlessly ambitious young singing sensation who’s hot in more ways than one. Rayna’s low opinion of Juliette’s voice (“it sounds like feral cats”) may be biased, but she’s got the younger woman’s rhymes-with-witch personality correct. Juliette, begged by a manager to be nice, retorts: “This benefits me how?”
Complicating their relationship is Juliette’s new interest, both personal and professional, in the leader of Rayna’s band (Charles Esten, Enlightened), whose haunting songs of lost love Rayna can’t record because they’re all about her. And the home front, where Rayna’s failed-businessman husband is growing restless in her shadow and her domineering power-broker father is hatching poisonous schemes, is even more tattered. (Rayna’s acid take on Dad: “He’s always there when he needs you.”)
The world-weary Britton and the cunning Panettiere are spectacularly spiteful in their scenes together, wielding the insolent jabs penned for them by Nashville creator-screenwriter Callie Khouri ( Thelma & Louise) like they’re sticking pins into a voodoo doll. Panettiere, smiling sweetly: “My mom was one of your biggest fans. She said she listened to you while I was still in her belly.” Britton, offering wardrobe hints as she eyes Panettiere’s precipitous décolletage: “You’re gonna wanna make sure you’ve got those girls tucked in there real good.”
As delicious as the show is, it may not overcome the evening’s stale fruitcake, especially NBC’s Chicago Fire. Producer Dick Wolfe, whose Law & Order franchise is on its deathbed (only one of the 10 shows in the extended L&O family remains on the air), is trying to replace his vanished cadres of cops and lawyers with firemen — and not very successfully.
To be fair, Chicago Fire little resembles L&O, which mostly relied on self-contained episodes and focused on characters’ lives at work rather than home. It seems more inspired by War & Peace, with endless rows of characters trooping across the screen like Napoleon’s regiments trudging across the Russian steppes to their doom.
There are firemen — umm, firepersons — who are cheating on their spouses and firemen who are gay and firemen who are bankrupt and firemen who hold grudges against one another and firemen who have sex in the firehouse showers and possibly even firemen who understood the ending of The Sopranos. None of them is very interesting, and it’s actually kind of hard to tell them apart, though it is said that they include Jesse Spencer ( House), Taylor Kinney ( The Vampire Diaries) and Teri Reeves ( Three Rivers).
The CW’s Arrow isn’t really bad, it just is what it is — a comic book. Based on a DC Comics character who goes back to the 1940s and more recently was one of the resident superheroes on The CW’s Smallville, Arrow follows a slightly altered but recognizable mythos in which trashy, club-hopping playboy Oliver Queen is lost at sea for five years and presumed dead.
But he returns with a lot of scars, broken bones and odd semi-super-powers, including the ability to shoot bouncing tennis balls out of the air with a crossbow, which will doubtless come in handy in some future episode in which Roger Federer and Andy Murray turn into arch-criminals.
Arrow has a rather stylish neo-Goth look, and Stephen Amell (who played a dim-bulb gigolo in Hung) neatly balances his portrayal of Arrow between camp and Saturday-matinee ingenuousness.
Fanboys could do worse.