I wasn’t sure I was going to make it through the first episode of Sweet Magnolias, let alone all ten episodes, but I persevered (meaning I couldn’t deal with expending the effort to find something else to watch) and I wasn’t entirely sorry I did.
Look, does this show sometimes feel like parts of it were written with a random inspirational phrase generator? Yes! Do other parts feel like they were written with a random Southern phrase generator? You best believe they do! Does it often feel like the plot is held together with saccharine sweetness and moral lessons? Absolutely! Could I have done without the heavy-handed approach to integrating Christianity into the storyline? Amen! But, were there also elements I genuinely appreciated and got a kick out of while still having serious reservations? Also, yes! Does some percentage of my enjoyment have to do with the fact that extremely attractive men just kept popping up in nearly every episode? I’m offended you would presume I’m that easily swayed! (I am most certainly that easily swayed.) As always, if Hallmark-style series are your preferred comfort watch, you will likely have different, i.e. far warmer and fuzzier, feelings toward this show than I do.
Enough hemming and hawing, let’s dive on in. The story centers around three long-time best friends who live in the small town of Serenity, South Carolina. As the series opens, Maddie Townsend (Joanna Garcia Swisher), a perky, red-haired white woman who owns an inordinate number of floral tops and white pants, is in the process of divorcing her husband Bill Townsend (Chris Klein with a very annoying accent). She’s represented by her best friend (and my very favorite character), Helen Decatur (Heather Headley), a confident Black woman and a lawyer, who seems to keep the whole damn town together, while wearing some excellent clothing and putting her own romantic and maternal desires on the back burner. (I really hope in Season 2 that Helen gets some time to rest.) Maddie’s husband, the local doctor, cheated on her with Noreen Fitzgibbons (Jamie Lynn Spears), a younger nurse in his office. When Noreen gets pregnant Bill decides he has to “do right by Noreen and the baby,” so he leaves Maddie and now only sees their three kids on the weekends. That is some seriously twisted logic to try to somehow morally justify the ramifications of your wandering penis. I mean, really it’s a win for Maddie and a loss for Noreen because Bill is the WORST. He’s a narcissistic mediocre white man who wears boat shoes with no socks. His main emotions seem to be squinting frustration at anything he deems “untraditional” and shocked outrage that he’s not universally loved. So help me if they try to redeem him and push him onto Maddie in some reconciliatory love affair in Season 2! Obviously, I will watch the whole damn thing, but I will be EXTREMELY DISPLEASED AND DISAPPOINTED while doing it. Ugh. HE MAKES ME SO MAD!
But I have digressed. Completing the trio of friends is Dana Sue Sullivan (Brooke Elliot), a dark-haired white woman who is the owner and head chef at Sullivan’s Restaurant. Dana Sue has a mildly rebellious teenage daughter and an estranged husband, who she kicked out for not fully sussed out reasons. Admittedly, Dana Sue’s overly harried, blustering character is not my favorite, but I’m open to hearing why she might be yours.
Every Tuesday, Maddie, Helen, and Dana Sue meet up for Margarita night where they begin by saying (in unison), “Pour it out,” which refers to both the drinks and the hot goss, and I find it unreasonably irksome. I don’t know why. It just feels like the whole thing is trying too hard to be endearing, which is largely where my discomfort lies with a lot of the show.
You know by now that I have a soft spot for stories of female friendship and personal growth, served with a side of schmaltzy romance, but sometimes this just felt too stilted and archly wholesome for me to fully lose myself in the story. Characters maybe walk right up to the edge of the box, but no one is going to actually step outside it. Women are strong and independent, but when a chainsaw is needed, it’s a man that’s going to wield it. Dana Sue’s daughter Annie “rebels” by having an Instagram account with pictures of things that perhaps don’t cast Serenity in the most appealing light, but are interesting—like possums in the trash. Dana Sue is livid about this, which is another reason Dana Sue and I are not going to be friends. Or even the mere fact that Bill can say he’s trying to “do right by Noreen” and absolutely no one immediately shouts back that he didn’t take a time machine back to nineteen hundred and fifty-fucking-five, so stop talking like it is! I guess the upside of all this is that when Maddie finally loses her shit with Bill and yells at him for “screwing another woman” I actually gasped in shock and awe.
Anyway, aside from the weekly margarita nights, the show follows the women as, in the wake of Maddie’s messy divorce, Dana Sue and Helen convince her to join them in turning one of the town’s old stately homes into a women’s spa. (Small towns in these kinds of shows always have a stately old home (usually owned by a kind older woman), a cute town square, probably a gazebo, a cafe where every-frickin’-one goes at the same time, and likely a perfectly old-fashioned hardware store.) Is opening a spa a slightly cheese-ball premise? Obviously! But I’m mostly okay with them creating an oasis for women. (Even if I do hate myself a little bit for using the phrase “oasis for women.”)
Maddie and her older son’s baseball coach, Cal Maddox (Justin Bruening), develop feelings for each other, which they make feeble attempts to suppress. Personally, I spent a lot of time wondering if they had to have a separate line item in the budget for all the hair products that must have been needed to hold Cal’s hair in place. It’s distractingly stiff and helmet-like, especially in the beginning of the show. (Think of someone’s older aunt who lives alone and smokes ultra-light cigarettes and you’ll be in the right ballpark (ha!) for the helmet-like qualities of Cal’s hair.)
I was so distracted that I wasn’t convinced he was even attractive until a scene when he comes over to fix Maddie’s leaky pipes (not a euphemism, but dibs on making it one) and gets completely soaked by said pipes (also not a euphemism, though Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion might beg to differ). With his hair finally released from its tortuous bondage, I was like, “Oooooh. Yeah. I see the Genetically Blessed Face™ and get the appeal.” (And then, as if to quash any lingering doubts, in the next scene he pulls off his wet t-shirt.)
Of course, none of that is actually relevant to the plot. (Or is it?) So, moving on from Cal Maddox’s hair and abs (but not hairy abs), Helen single-handedly saves the town from being sold out to nefarious developers, reunites with a lost love, and saves the high school mock trial team. Dana Sue grapples with a medical diagnosis, saves her restaurant from a chef with ill-intentions, and continues to irk me throughout the series. The kids in the families have their own complicated romances and adventures that are sometimes more interesting than the adults’. Trying to thwart the women at every turn is the wealthy and snobby social power broker, Mary Vaughn Lewis (Allison Gabriel), their fremeny from high school who sometimes dresses like she just escaped a rural Christian cult with a very charismatic leader.
Speaking of Christian cults, religion (Christianity to be specific) plays a prominent role in the series. Everyone goes to church on Sunday and there are references to prayer at other times. It’s an entirely foreign culture for me, so I can’t comment on its accuracy or necessity. I will say, though, that I’m always uncomfortable when an otherwise secular show brings in Christianity as if it’s the expected norm, but doesn’t actually add any depth or interest to the show. It reminds me of when I was asked if a local school was secular and someone told me I didn’t need to worry because it was totally ecumenical, which is not at all the same thing, but it is what happens when you see Christianity as the standard.
I did, however, appreciate that the church pastor is a Black woman. Like many similar series, the show presents Serenity as very racially balanced (at least between white and Black people), but unlike similar series it doesn’t try to pretend that racism is completely nonexistent. A couple of characters make overt references to experiences with racism, which, look, that’s not enough, but it’s a start. Though, at the same time, what does it say that something like that stands out as different from most other series?
I also appreciate that the women have conversations about the sex they did or didn’t have over the weekend while standing outside the church sipping iced tea after service. And the way the women talk openly about sex in general—wanting it, having it, and enjoying the heck out of it—is important. Women are still so often seen as the recipients of sexual desires, rather than active participants. This is especially true for women who are mothers and middle-aged. Maddie’s mother, a free-spirited artist (within the confines of this show), talks about the joy blooming into herself. She encourages Maddie to do something (or someone) for herself. She also talks about how she needed to reclaim her sexuality and self after her own hysterectomy. I like her mother a lot, but she’s still no Helen. There is a huge deal made about how her paintings sometimes push the boundaries, so I was deeply disappointed that after all the talk about blooming and womanhood that the painting she creates especially for the spa was not of a vagina thinly disguised as a flower. Whatever. This is probably one of (many) reasons no one is asking me to write for these shows.
One thing the show unintentionally did for me was to reinforce the importance of living in the moment. Try to hold too tight to almost anyone’s southern accent in this show and you’ll find it slipping through your fingers like a thousand grains of sand. It’s better just to let the accents come and go as they please, swaying you gently back and forth across the Mason-Dixon line, South to North and North to South.
The season ends with a Very Dramatic Cliffhanger that could make you wonder if everyone will be okay, except that this is the kind of show where everyone will most certainly be okay. Though, in all honesty, I was so distracted by the fact that they really do seem to be trying to redeem Bill the Pill Townsend into a viable love interest for Maddie that I couldn’t hear much over the string of very ungenteel curse words coming out of my mouth. Like I said, this won’t stop me from watching a second season.
So, overall, if you can get through the first episode (which I respect if you can’t) I think this series could be a decent escape for you into a schmaltzy fantasy world where stories of romance, friendship, family, and career are told from women’s perspectives. And, while the tea that’s served up in Sweet Magnolias is often a little too treacly for me, I certainly wouldn’t discourage you from gulping it down.