'Nashville' is back, and it's an emotional blast

Nashville comes back tonight to finish out its sixth and final season. During its CMT midseason break, the show upheld one of its traditions: Just about every main character underwent a hairstyle alteration — you’ll dig those frosted tips on Sam Palladio’s Gunnar … or not. Also, Lennon Stella’s Maddie seems to have aged by a decade — she suddenly looks so mature, which may just be her incipient pop stardom kicking in. The new episode, directed by former thirtysomething co-star Timothy Busfield, is timed to a New Year’s Eve celebration that finds Charles Esten’s Deacon being pitied by one and all for still being single and lonely — it’s his first New Year’s Eve without his beloved Rayna. (Connie Britton, whose new, terrible Fox show 9-1-1 premiered the previous night, may be wishing right about now that Rayna were still alive.)

With the arrival of thirtysomething co-creators Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick as showrunners in Season 5, Nashville’s volume was turned down to a confiding murmur, its lighting dimmed to a luminous glow. Herskovitz and Zwick specialize in conversational intimacies, and thus the show’s center of gravity shifted away from the bright country music being played at the Bluebird Café toward more domestic locations, such as Deacon’s kitchen (where he, Maddie, and Maisy Stella’s Daphne munch toast and bond) or the cavernous rooms of the property owned by Hayden Panettiere’s Juliette Barnes (where she and Jonathan Jackson’s Avery snipe and bicker over the head of their luckless baby).

The move to romantic drama has served Nashville well: After all, so much of country music’s subject matter dovetails with the kinds of strife these characters undergo. Then too, Herskovitz and Zwick are not damp-eyed sentimentalists. They’re wickedly good at building up characters you love to hate: I smile every time Jeffrey Nordling’s smuggie music exec Brad Maitland slithers into a scene, and the new episode introduces Juliette’s latest potential savior, a smarmy self-actualizing guru played by Parenthood’s Josh Stamberg. There’s also a new, naughty-boy love interest for Maddie, a Justin Bieber-ish whelp played by Nic Luken. When you combine this bubbly soap opera material with amusingly lively scenes of Will (Chris Carmack), Avery, and Gunnar getting together to form the band you didn’t know you’d always wanted, Nashville seems to be going out with an enjoyable blast.

Nashville airs Thursdays at 9 p.m. on CMT.

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