“Rarely does a location not matter to a story, and Hart of Dixie is no exception.” So goes a wholly negative review of the CW’s Hart of Dixie by an Alabama journalist. I went a blessed week of watching Hart of Dixie, the first season of which is currently airing on Netflix, before I was lured into reading this critical review. As reviews can, it made me embarrassed that I was not previously wise to the show’s flaws, which mostly amount to exaggerated stereotypes and bad accents. Do I have really bad taste? I asked myself. Have I gone soft? Am I an ignorant asshole? It’s quite easy to have one’s experiences (and beliefs) tainted by a review, because many critics get a special pleasure out of being acerbic or even cruel. But this reviewer was also clearly offended by the show, being, as she is, from Alabama.
You could argue that I am perpetuating — worse, I am endorsing — the writers’ ignorance and with it, all kinds of Southern stereotypes, if I continue to watch Hart of Dixie. Here’s why I don’t care. The exaggerations extend past Alabama. They also describe New York, the birthplace of the show’s doctor protagonist Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson). According to the writers, NYC is full of type-A, overachieving Jewish Woody Allen fans who care too much about their appearance and spend too much on clothes, shoes and beauty products. Being a New Yorker, I could get mad about these stereotypes, but I don’t, because exaggeration serves its purpose here, in this, lest we forget, fictional work. It creates a stark contrast in which to establish a conflict.
For those unfamiliar with the admittedly soap opera-like premise of the show, Bilson’s Dr. Zoe Hart uproots herself from Manhattan and moves to the fictional Bluebell, Alabama, where she has inherited one half of a medical practice from a now-deceased gentleman who turns out to have been her father. The man who actually raised Zoe (played occasionally and excellently by Gary Cole) is a cardiothoracic surgeon who basically continues to be the distant father figure he was before he found out Zoe wasn’t his biological daughter. Her mother, not surprisingly, is a high-powered PR executive back in NYC (because again, for the purposes of the show, no New Yorker is allowed to have anything other than an overachiever’s job). Despite his lack of affection, Zoe has always looked up to the elder Dr. Hart, but her superiors in the big city believe Zoe has to become better at cultivating relationships with her patients before she can be promoted to a coveted fellowship and follow in his footsteps. How fitting, then, that she is entitled to half a medical practice in a small, cozy town in Alabama.
The premise itself put me off for more than a year, but I kept catching segments of the show every few months and slowly the dappled Alabama sunlight created so expertly by lighting technicians on the same Warner Brothers backlot used on Gilmore Girls, True Blood, and numerous other shows started to blind me with its peculiar golden allure, as did the love triangle between Zoe, the town lawyer George (Friday Night Lights‘ Scott Porter) and ne’er-do-well womanizing bartender Wade (Wilson Bethel). Specifically, I felt I had to retrace the exact chronological history of the triangle from the pilot episode to whatever the current episode was, some 27.8 hours of television later. The key to a successful primetime drama, as we all know, is a romantic relationship, or two, or four, teased out over the course of an entire season, or two, or four (see also: Gilmore Girls, Dawson’s Creek, The Good Wife, Friday Night Lights, and basically every other primetime drama ever).
But there is more to Hart of Dixie. Specifically, its tone. It is lighthearted, upbeat, happy, uncomplicated, easygoing — all the qualities I look for in a long-term relationship with a television show, and which are surprisingly difficult to find right now (dark shows for dark times). It can also be incredibly goofy: there is literally some town event — a fundraiser, an auction, a party, a parade, a banquet, an election, a sporting competition — in every single episode, and invariably every single resident of the town dresses up for said event. Plus, in the interest of advancing drama (as opposed to just romance), each event invariably causes something huge to be on the line — a relationship, a cookie recipe, a coveted committee position.
In this way, Hart of Dixie often comes off not as clichéd but simply old-fashioned. It could easily be portraying the Dixie of the 1950s and 60s, the only noticeable difference between that there is barely a whiff of racism in this town. Some critics, including the one I mentioned above, have asked why the resident Stepford wife in training, Lemon (Jaime King), who is engaged to George, has trouble facing the fact that she is actually in love with the town’s black mayor Lavon Hayes (Cress Williams). Is race the motivating factor for her trying to hold on to her relationship with her high school sweetheart George, the town’s “golden boy,” in Wade’s words? Does interracial marriage not fit into the storybook life Lemon has planned for herself?
The real motivation is probably that Lemon is worried about ruining Lavon’s political career and her squeaky-clean image by making their affair known to the town. I don’t see what race has to do with it. In any case, Lemon grows as a person over the course of the first season, and gradually whatever staid remnants of the past she was holding on to are cast off. She in turn becomes less of a caricature and more of a believable character: a confused and coddled 30-year-old woman caught between two worlds and finally — better late than never — trying to make something of herself instead of playing the uptight, controlling wannabe housewife still living in her father’s house. We are told early on — beautifully, I think — that Lavon brings out a completely different side of Lemon. Indeed, he transforms her paper doll perfection into a three-dimensional (and flawed) person. The love triangle between Zoe, Wade and George is undoubtedly the frustrating centerpiece of this show, but the relationship between Lemon and Lavon is the guts of the thing. It can’t all be fun and games, and their relationship gives the show the dose of gravity that it badly needs.
But about those fun and games: what Hart of Dixie succeeds at, and so few other shows right now do, is reminding of us the importance of human connection. The show is built on the idea that people from different walks of life can come together for a common cause, whether it’s something silly like a parade, or a mutual friend, or love. We’re reminded of tired but nonetheless important concepts such as “Love thy neighbor.” Barbara Kingsolver novels are good at this. So are, in a different way, Nicole Holofcener films. We’re reminded to be hospitable. We’re reminded to be accountable to each other, to stand by each other, to defend each other. These are peculiarly Southern lessons, or so it seems to me. If they’re stereotypes, they’re pretty honorable ones.
Thirty-something episodes in, it’s harder for me to believe that Bluebell doesn’t exist (critical Alabama blog review notwithstanding). It’s hard for me to believe that Bluebell is simply a Hollywood backlot, its swamps and trees just a well-known section of that backlot known as “the jungle.” The shots of Lavon’s house, taken from the preferred TV location of Wilmington, NC, are just slid sneakily in with the studio shots, along with a few glimpses of a dock at sunset and some random lobster traps. I do not care. My disbelief is permanently suspended.
I wonder what it’s like for teenagers watching this show. Is there anything to be gleaned from it, or is it pure pleasure? I find the show contains a surprising number of lessons about love and life. The lessons the show wants you to hear (mostly Zoe’s and Lemon’s) tend to get knocked over your head, but lurking in the less dramatic scenes are a surprising number of well-wrought ideas, spoken and implied. In one episode early in the second season, Zoe treats a high school football player whose affliction is that he loves being in love (as a bonus, being in love improves his playing). Zoe says something like, “That’s so sweet. You like having crushes on women because it improves your confidence.” Oh my god, I said to myself. So that is why I have been constantly in love with someone from the age of five. I thought I was just keeping things interesting. But really I was keeping me interesting to myself.
As someone who has lived in very big and very small cities and, in a couple of cases, very small towns, I also appreciate Hart of Dixie‘s contrasting of life in Bluebell and New York City, clichés and all. Fiction does not have an obligation to be real, or even realistic, or so argued Zadie Smith following the publication of her first novel White Teeth, which some said contained inaccurate depictions of Bangladeshi culture. Fiction is unreal; it is exaggerated; perhaps sometimes it is life-like. But it’s that fine meeting point between fantasy and reality that we seek in good fiction. At that point is a kind of pleasure and enlightenment that no reality show can provide. Reality itself may sometimes give it to us, but I say we still need fiction to guide us to it.