By Ken Tucker
Updated October 05, 2012 at 03:50 PM EDT
Credit: Bob D'Amico/ABC

If you recognized the headline on this review as the title song of an excellent 1976 Waylon Jennings album, then you, my friend, are ready to thoroughly enjoy Nashville, the new series that premieres on ABC Wednesday night but can be seen now on Hulu. But if you draw a blank on that song title, or perhaps think “Waylon Jennings” is maybe the guy who used to play around with a puppet named Madame, well, you see the challenge that Nashville faces. Nashville is at once the best new network show of the season, the most daringly knowledgeable about its subculture, and the one that’s taking the biggest risks in seeking a mass audience.

In Nashville, Rayna James, played by Connie Britton, is caught in a nightmare only slightly less frightening than what Britton endured in American Horror Story, facing down the scariest thing for a woman in show biz: She’s in her 40s, and she can see the competition coming up to bite her on her tight-jeaned butt. The little monster in her career is Juliette Barnes, a bubbly young country-pop singer with, as played by Hayden Panettiere, a razor for a mouth. I’d use the cliche “career-defining performance” for Panettiere, but after her role in The Show That Would Never Seem to End, Heroes, it’s more like a shocked-to-find-her-watchable performance.

The series plunges us into the middle of their career arcs. Rayna has just released an album that’s bombing; Juliette is recording catchy hits that Rayna’s two young daughters find cool enough to sing along and bop to when the music pops up on the radio. Juliette considers Rayna, a scant 40 years old, over the hill and barely worth stepping on as she ascends to Grand Ole Opry triumph; Rayna thinks of Juliette’s music as “adolescent crap.”

The wobbly aspect of Nashville is its political subplot, involving Rayna’s big daddy, a local political power-player portrayed with corn-oil charm by Powers Boothe. He wants Rayna’s husband, a rather bland nice guy embodied by Eric Close, to run for mayor. With all of the show’s other subplots, including a good one involving young singer-songwriters played by Clare Bowen and Sam Palladio, I’m not sure it needed this election storyline. I suspect it was added because the producers feared Nashville needed something besides its music-industry politicking to succeed.

But the show needs no such insurance agents. I’ll have a longer review of it — the songs invoked! the real-life models for the show’s central characters! the use of JD Souther! the shrewdness of T Bone Burnett! — when the series premieres on ABC on Wednesday night. In the meantime, let me know if you’ve watched it online, and what you think.

Twitter: @kentucker