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Dreams are big, staging is bigger

September 14, 2007|Jon Caramanica | Special to The Times

A couple of years ago, Matt Jenkins was a young country singer with a promising record deal and a minor hit, "King of the Castle," that landed him a slot on stage at the Grand Ole Opry. On tonight's premiere of "Nashville," the new Fox reality show revolving around a group of country music aspirants, he's back at the Opry, but both his deal and his hit are long gone. And rather than singing, he's playing tour guide to an even younger singer -- Mika Combs, just a few days off the bus from eastern Kentucky -- giving her a glimpse of the possible tomorrow.

Being the éminence grise of this cast is thankless work, though. What Matt looks upon with slight sadness, the rest of the characters here regard with wide eyes. Strivers all, the stars of "Nashville" are. Stardom is on the line, and no one wants to make even the slightest misstep.

Because of that, though, "Nashville" -- which comes from the creative team responsible for, crucially, MTV's "Laguna Beach: The Real Orange County" and, a bit less so, SOAPNet's "The Fashionista Diaries" -- lacks the moist anticipation (and, frankly, the moist skin) of "Laguna Beach" or other docusoaps in which young people while away the hours, lolling around. The breezy attitude that only free time, hot sun and heightened libido can produce is absent here, replaced by craven careerism and self-consciousness.

Nashville is one of the last true company towns -- the country music industry dominates it socially and professionally. Still, there must be some conversations that don't involve the record business, no? If so, they're not shown. And worse, almost every scene on "Nashville" feels ploddingly staged. Every conversation is alarmingly, and unconvincingly, topical; no scene is wasted.

The first episode alone features three events -- Clint's barbecue, Chuck's showcase and Chuck's record deal celebration -- that all the cast members show up to. "Nashville, here I come," Rachel says, descriptively, as she leaves her parents' house in Dallas. Even when Matt takes Mika to the Opry, the door is open, the stage empty and the microphone switched on. (An idea plucked, perhaps, from the Gretchen Wilson video "When I Think About Cheatin.' ")

As a result, there's barely any anticipation here -- "Nashville" always tips its hand. Will Chuck's showcase be a success? Will Mika hook up with Clint? Will Rachel protest those who dismiss her based on her family? (She is, conveniently, the daughter of former NFL great and Fox football commentator Terry Bradshaw.)

Of course. Of course. Of course.

All involved -- even Clint, the grade-A cad who is the lone non-musician -- are mindful not only of how they're represented on television but also of the show's influence on their future careers.

Matt is the least concerned about making a fool of himself -- he radiates a quiet, slightly sad intelligence the others lack. On the other hand, there's Chuck, a pretty boy who parked cars before securing his record deal and who is just beginning his major-label journey. Noting Chuck's good looks, one secondary cast member groans, "Back in the day, there would never be a guy that modeled singing country music. Like Hank. Jr, Willie or Waylon. Could you see Hank Jr. doing a Playgirl spread?"

Chuck is meant to be a stand-in for the modern country industry, as obsessed with image as any other genre. But there would be no Chucks -- or Tim McGraws, Brad Paisleys or Kenny Chesneys -- without the army of songwriters who populate the town. Collectively, they're a crucial engine of the industry, working toward publishing deals and, ultimately, placements on albums by stars and would-bes alike.

To get a more honest glimpse of what a star's life is like, the cast of "Nashville" should watch the forthcoming GAC reality series "The Hitmen of Music Row," which premieres on Sept. 26. "Hitmen" follows four not-quite-ready-for-prime-time players as they tour the country, largely performing the hits they've penned for Nashville royalty.

Even though there's nary an ounce of narrative tension to be found on the genial "Hitmen," it feels positively suspenseful up against "Nashville." Every now and again the songwriters -- Bob DiPiero, Tony Mullins, Jeffrey Steele and Craig Wiseman, who've worked on 38 No. 1 country singles among them -- will start improvising a lyric or a tune. While the kids on "Nashville" worry about keeping up appearances, there are four eccentrics on the wrong side of 40 in the back of a tour bus somewhere, sketching the outline of country music to come. If what they create is good enough, it might end up coming out of the mouth of a Tim or a Brad. Or maybe even a Chuck.



Where: Fox

When: 9 to 10 tonight

Rating: TV-PG L (may be unsuitable for young children with advisory for coarse language)

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