WHAT IT’S ABOUT In what CMT is calling a “gift” to longtime fans, the fifth-season one-hour opener of “Nashville” will preview Thursday (the regular two-hour opener doesn’t arrive until Jan. 5 at 9 p.m.; CMT picked up the series after ABC didn’t renew it.) Here’s what we can tell you — yes, Juliette Barnes (Hayden Panettiere) survived the plane crash. The rest of the logline, courtesy, CMT: “Rayna (Connie Britton) and Deacon (Charles Esten) are facing a new normal with Maddie (Lennon Stella) now back home and (Rayna’s company) Highway 65 struggling financially. The shocking news about Juliette creates a wave of emotions throughout Nashville and sets Rayna off on a journey of discovery.”
MY SAY There’s a scene that both opens and closes Thursday’s preview, in which Rayna pulls up to a gas station on some lonely country road in her 1970 Mustang Mach 1 (yup, still a classic). In the silence, she hears something — a song, or a whisper of a song, or almost like dry leaves rustling on a bough. She follows her ear to an old blind man, who’s quietly singing “The Wayfaring Stranger,” covered by everyone from Emmylou Harris to the Grateful Dead, although Rayna decides this is Bill Monroe’s version.
The man singing is anonymous to most viewers, but a gift to CMT ones, along with those back for the fifth season: He’s bluegrass great Jesse McReynolds, who here assumes the oldest trope in show business, also one going all the way back to the Greeks (Tereisias) — the blind prophet who sees what the sighted cannot or will not.
“You should let yourself sing,” he advises. “You might find the joy you’re looking for.”
In his brief turn, McReynolds certainly doesn’t steal the opener, but rather seals it — as a reminder to Rayna of what’s hidden in her heart, and a reminder to some “Nashville” fans of why they came along for this ride in the first place. There are a lot of “re” words attached to this opener — a refocus, reorienting, reintroduction, reset, and of course TV’s favorite “re,” a reboot.
But reminder is the best one. “Nashville” and its namesake city always were about the music, also about Rayna and Juliette — wary combatants who circled each other, vying for position, control, power, and the future. Grammy winner Rhiannon Giddens joins this season, and it’s probably giving away too much to explain in what capacity — although she’s central to Juliette’s story. But it’s not giving away too much to say that Giddens is to Juliette what the blind musician is to Rayna: A reminder of what really matters.
The opener — and fifth season — was written and directed by veteran showrunners Ed Zwick and Marshall Herskovitz, and it’s abundantly obvious they’ve taken the right steps at outset. They’ve swept away the soap froth, the frantic-ness that tended to consume “Nashville” in the fourth, and especially in the finale.
Everything and everyone settles down here. They take a deep breath, and listen to the beating of their hearts. There are actual pauses and long glances. A wonderful actress who does deep, meaningful pauses as well as anyone on TV, Britton grounds Rayna, and — in the process — the show, too.
Recall too that the finale, with its cliffhanger, was almost a ruse — or dare, if you will — to force ABC to renew the series. In TV terms, ruses are the cousins to gimmicks, and neither work particularly well to the long-term health of a series. But “Nashville” is back, and all is forgiven, and some is even forgotten. The future, meanwhile, looks bright.
BOTTOM LINE A warm, welcome and even moving return. Best of all, a reflective one.