Before you start watching, go ahead and pour one out for much of the levity and flirtatious moments you may have enjoyed during the first season of Sweet Magnolias, because the second season leans much harder into the DRA-MUH and the Faith (more specifically, the Jesus). We remember you fondly, oh fortuitously-timed broken pipes and sweet wet tees so gamely plastered to well-toned pectoral muscles. Amen! Though, really, it’s more like drama by snippets because scenes get cut just as stories are getting particularly juicy, which keeps things from ever getting too deep. Which isn’t to say that they’re not dealing with real and weighty issues—they are, including pregnancy loss, infertility, adoption, infidelity, marriage reconciliation, grief, physical trauma, and anger management, to name a few—but it’s done in such a way that they never really dip below the surface, and almost everything is solved with a few good (or Godly) kernels of wisdom. But, I’ll tell you what! You whip all that together with the insistently upbeat music, the questionable accents, the labored dialogue, the overly staged town backdrop, and you have a perfect visual concoction to lull your precious brain cells into a hypnotic state of binging bliss. You know, when you’re not irked out of your skin by one or all of the above things.
As you may recall—or not, because shows like this are not designed to stick—when season one ended Kyle (Logan Allen) was pulled from the driver’s side wreckage of a car, while the identity and status of the passenger was still unknown. All of the other teens had dumped their phones into a bowl at a post-prom party at Jackson Lewis’ (Sam Ashby) house—because he’d forgotten that with or without cell phones, nothing stays secret for long in Serenity?—so they weren’t answering their parents’ frantic calls. Season two picks up immediately after that with Helen (Heather Headley), Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott), and Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) praying in the hospital waiting room while Still Terri-Bill Townsend (Chris Klein) makes a nurse’s life incredibly difficult by badgering her for information and undeserved hospital access. Kyle, of course, is going to be alright, but it’s going to take a lot of inspirational quotes, most of this season, and some actual (mostly off-screen) therapy to get him there. It turns out that Nellie Lewis (Simone Lockhart) was riding in the car with Kyle, and, while she comes out with only a few scrapes, her parents, Trent (Paul Rolfes) and Mary Vaughn (Allison Gabriel), are pretty pissed at everyone except their own perfect children. Eventually, all the teenagers also make their way to the hospital. Jackson and Tyler (Carson Rowland) get into a tussle in the waiting room, which leads to Tyler breaking his arm, which is very, very bad because BASEBALL!!! It’s never really sussed out exactly what went down or even how Kyle ended up driving Tyler’s car. This is all couched as the teens not wanting to discuss it, but I’m pretty certain it was more an issue of plotting. No matter, let’s make like the show and skate across all this like freshly resurfaced ice right on into some “lessons learned”!
Thankfully, my fears about Maddie and Toxic Waste Bill getting back together were completely unfounded. She tells him to fuck right off (in more demure southern terms) halfway through the first episode. For all the gripes I may have with dialogue in this series, I would have watched her tell him to get lost at least five hundred times. Horri-Bill is still a case study in male fragility, privilege, and too few consequences too late. What I will never understand is why they feel like his character needs to convey his negative traits via squinting. Do they think that unkind men all have poor eyesight? He also makes his voice sound rough and rasping, which, again, nasty people are not particularly afflicted with throat ailments. As my friend said, “Jerks talk like regular people. That’s the problem in figuring out which ones they are sometimes.” Boom. And that’s all we need to say about Bilious Bill.
Of course, Maddie almost immediately finds her way back into Cal’s (Justin Bruening) well-toned biceps and they have many schmoopy things to say to each other. Most of this season is about how they’re blissfully happy, so you know there is a large cliff in the distance they’re unwittingly heading toward. No couple in a show like this can be that happy through to the very end.
Along with trying to figure out a way to buy out her incredibly attractive restaurant partner Micah (Marland Burke)—all praise to the casting director!—Dana Sue struggles mightily with whether or not to let Ronnie (Brandon Quinn) and his Genetically Blessed Face back into their marital bed. Or no, she’s fine letting him back into bed, it’s whether she is ready to let him back into the marriage and forgive him that she can’t decide. To complicate matters, she also has a little something on the side with farmer Jeremy (Chase Anderson), who takes her on dates in the back of his pickup truck that’s lit with glowing mason jars, because of course it is. Dana Sue also continues to scrape at my soul like coarse grit sandpaper. Some of it is that her folky southern lines sound like the wrong shape in her mouth. Some of it is her stiff presentation. But most of it is the way her character is always verging on horrible to her own daughter. Annie has been living in flux with her parents’ on-again off-again marriage and the best Dana Sue can manage is that it’s none of Annie’s business until they make a decision?!? Excuse me?!? I hope season three is all about Annie’s therapy.
Helen continues to be the very best character, and the person who actually sounds natural delivering all the awkward lines. So help me, though, if she does not end up with Erik (Dion Johnstone), a man who brings her food, offers emotional support, listens to her secrets, shares his darkness, and says things like: “People put too much emphasis on jumping back into the fray.” I honestly don’t know why we’re wasting valuable screen time on other people when we could just be watching a live stream of Helen and Erik. Anyway, Helen has quite the tumultuous season, which, since I openly contend it’s the best storyline, I won’t ruin by telling you much about. Suffice to say, if I had any plans of bailing on season three (I did not. This show is a drug.) the cliffhanger for Helen’s story would have roped me right back in.
Since these women do not have enough going on in their lives, they also pitch in to help Isaac (Chris Medlin), the line cook at Sullivan’s, find his birth parents; spearhead a mayoral recall; organize a funeral for a beloved community member; stage a whole forgiveness bonanza for Noreen Fitzgibbons (Jamie Lynn Spears); hold enough margarita nights to prop up the Tostitos industry; and literally high five each other for having sex. I do really appreciate the last one for how it modestly but steadily advocates for women’s agency, independence, and pleasure when it comes to sex. I mean, heterosexual, cisgender women having sex, which is only alluded to (and I presume to be extremely vanilla in taste), but that’s the nature of the show. (There’s also a small scene where Noreen permanently asserts her independence from Makes Me Ill Bill, and I did go back to watch it again and snorted with glee.) Men are shown being vulnerable, expressing emotions, sharing fears, and seeking out friendships. Sure, much of this is still couched in sports or over beers, but it’s still more softness around men than we usually see in these kinds of series. Also, whether it means to or not, the show really is making a statement about the importance of teaching young penis wielders to wrap it up when having sex and to live with the consequences of their actions. Do I personally wish they did all of this with far less Christianity and patriarchal values? I do, but, again, that would be an entirely different show.
Which, yes, leads us to my other not-so-pesky problem with the show. That’s right folks, it’s time to wade on into awkward dialogue. Some of it just sounds so odd coming out of people’s mouths that it’s distracting. Like when Maddie says, “I simply wanna know what happened that night.” Either another person needs to be saying the line or that simply has simply gotta go! Coming out of Maddie’s mouth it’s the verbal equivalent of trying to cut cardboard with dull scissors. Couple that with a preponderance of things people just don’t say to each other. Take for example: “One of the things I love about you is that you trust your heart. I trust your heart, too.” Yes, yes. Every show has some lines like this, but this show has so many lines like this in every episode that it starts to feel like you’ve been trapped inside an all night read-aloud at an off-brand greeting card store. And then, my friends, there are the quotes. I swear to the Gods and Goddesses Streaming that every third line begins with, “It’s like [insert name here] said…” Grandfathers, friends, the bible (so much the bible), George Washington, Shakespeare, Harriet Beecher Stowe, literally no one is safe from being chopped up into an inspirational sound bite in the Sweet Magnolias universe.You should probably watch just in case you or someone you love gets quoted in the course of season two. Do these people only read books like Life’s 1001 Best Quotes of Wit and Wisdom (not a real book)? Because how else do they manage to keep this many of everyone else’s words and ideas all packed away in their brains? And do they start to worry that they don’t have any of their own ideas? I would.
For all the ideas I’ve mentioned about independence and celebrating sex, the show leans pretty heavily into the ideas of salvation simply through kindness, good manners, and neighborly acts, which are clearly rooted in the Christian church. I often wonder what Serenity is like for the people who aren’t part of their church community. Do they feel the same amount of warmth and welcome? There’s a minor storyline about a lower-income kid who comes to vacation bible school and is very upset that they’re not serving dino nuggets. At first, Dana Sue is put-off by his lack of manners (ew. He’s a little kid.), but then realizes (or, really, presumes because this is never, ever confirmed) that it’s his one opportunity to have food that isn’t donated or off-brand. Their solution? To donate food to him without discussing it with him first. It’s the kind of poverty-porn that always irks me. Aside from requesting dino nuggets and eventually effusively thanking Dana Sue, the child has no voice. His parents don’t even appear in the episode. The story is told entirely from his “saviors'” perspective. It leaves me feeling very icky. And that’s how I felt hearing a lot of these feel good neighborly subplots in the second season.
While I may have problems aplenty with this show, I also can’t get enough of the slow drip of faux-southern charm anesthetic mixed with just enough women’s independent vim, vigor, and friendship, Genetically Blessed Faces, romance, and low-stakes drama about high-stakes matters dispensed with an almost universally mechanical delivery over ten extremely predictable episodes. So, having sucked down all of season two, I’ll be here, excitedly waiting to be equally underwhelmed by season three.