“Let’s just leave the past in the past,” said Gunnar (Sam Palladio) to Scarlett (Clare Bowen) in the two-hour Season 5 premiere of Nashville, which has moved from ABC to CMT. And indeed, a big chunk of the show’s history — including much of the soap-opera storytelling apparatus that frequently made the series a guilty pleasure rather than a pure pleasure — has been jettisoned. In its place is a more leisurely pace and, at its best, a soulfulness that Nashville has long struggled to achieve.
The changes must be ascribed to new showrunners Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick, the fellows who brought you thirtysomething, My So-Called Life, and Once and Again. The two have been working primarily in the movie industry of late, but a return to television to revive the dead-and-canceled Nashville is their current spiritual mission.
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To that end, H&Z sent Connie Britton’s Rayna James on a long car trip to clear her head and get back to her roots. What plucks her mystic chords of memory are the sounds of “The Wayfaring Stranger,” a 19th-century song that’s been recorded by everyone from Joan Baez to Ed Sheeran, but it’s Bill Monroe’s bluegrass version that rings in her head when she encounters an elderly man plucking a mandolin and singing a variation on it. To Rayna, who feels like a stranger to her own deepest feelings, the song represents an authenticity that has eluded her ever since she became the CEO of her Highway 65 record label. Her scenes in the premiere — including a few lovely, languid ones with hubby and soulmate Deacon (Charles Esten) — suggest that this will be Rayna’s path going forward.
The other major element for Nashville fans was the payoff on the season-/series-ending cliffhanger involving Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes, last seen spiraling to her supposed death in a downed airplane. Juliette lives, albeit in a wheelchair. Although she was minimally more civil to Avery (Jonathan Jackson), Juliette will be Juliette, and so even when she resolved to find the human angel whom she believes saved her life after the crash, she was still grumpy and officious, ordering Avery around like the hired help he more or less is.
In general, these two yoked-together episodes were intent on smoothing out the bumpy emotions that Nashville used as its dramatic rhythm in the past. Herskovitz and Zwick took pains to make rebel-daughter Maddie nicer to her sister and to her parents. If the show can sustain it, the notion of conflict through love — a theme in all of H&Z’s TV work — will serve Nashville well.
In the meantime, what are we to make of that tech gazillionaire who’s such a Rayna fan? This dweeb Zach Welles can’t be set up as a possible love interest for her, can he? What was up with that concert ol’ Zach got Rayna to do, the one where his own employees gave her the cold shoulder and started checking their Instagram feeds as she warbled? Wouldn’t the word have spread through the troops that the boss wants everyone to show great enthusiasm for her, or it’s off to Silicon Valley hell for them? I hope Zach is just going to offer to subsidize Highway 65 so Rayna can get back to her roots music. I’m imagining the album she makes with Deacon will be similar to The River & the Thread, Rosanne Cash’s collaboration with her producer-husband, John Leventhal.
Nashville airs Thursday nights at 9 p.m. on CMT.