Do you remember the glory days of the WB?
Everwood. Gilmore Girls. One Tree Hill. Dawson’s Creek.
These soapy family dramas chronicled the storylines of teens and the adults in their lives. They were set in small towns where everyone pretty much knew everyone else’s business. There was one restaurant. One church. One school. One gazebo. A town meeting had like 40 people in it. You couldn’t walk down the street without running into someone you knew. There was an innocence to the adolescent angst and a sweetness to the adult romances.
But the WB became the CW, and teens on TV are now more Rue Bennett than Rory Gilmore. Still, there’s a little corner of Netflix that transports us back to circa 2000, when Michigan J. Frog was part of our weekly television line up.
I’m talking, of course, about Sweet Magnolias which has returned for a second season on Netflix. The drama, based on a series of novels by Sherryl Woods, follows three best friends—Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), Helen (Heather Headley), and Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott)— who have lived their whole lives in Serenity, South Carolina. If it’s comforting TV and sweet, soapy storylines you seek, this series will provide.
In the pilot, which launched way back in May 2020, it’s revealed that Maddie’s husband Bill (Chris Klein), the town’s beloved pediatrician, is having an affair with Noreen (Jamie Lynn Spears), the nurse who works at his office. Noreen is also pregnant with Bill’s child. Wanting to forge a new path for herself, Maddie opens a spa with Helen (a lawyer) and Dana Sue (a chef with her own restaurant). The women buy the home of Serenity’s beloved matriarch Miss Frances (Cindy Karr) and voila, with a little construction and some paint, the Corner Spa is born! Their pal Trotter (Hunter Burke) teaches yoga, manages the front desk, and does pretty much everything else because he seems to be the spa’s only employee.
Sweet Magnolias wraps the viewer in comfort, starting with the dialogue. Allow me to share a few bon mots from the new season: “That woman has been whipping up cream since childhood. Do not mistake yourself for the cow.” Or “Sometimes no matter how I dress it up, my slip still shows.” Do people in South Carolina talk like this? Do people anywhere talk like this? I honestly don’t think so, but I enjoy it all the same.
There is a simplicity to their world. Helen is the only lawyer and practices all types of law. Need a divorce lawyer? Helen. Someone to review your business contracts? Helen. Someone to spring you from jail? Helen. And Dana Sue is the woman to call for all your food needs. Do you need someone to cater your event? Dana Sue. Send food over to someone who is sick? Dana Sue. The spa needs a little café? Dana Sue, of course.
Serenity is an idyllic town that most unfortunately does not exist in real life. It is #towngoals. Trotter and his husband are totally accepted. Racism is nonexistent. The show is body positive. While Elliott’s previous show Drop Dead Diva was about a skinny woman returning to Earth in a plus sized body, Dana Sue’s weight is never even mentioned. May all TV shows follow in Sweet Magnolias graceful lead.
If you didn’t watch Season 1 and want to dive in, here are little more catch-up notes to know before starting Season 2: Maddie finds love again with her son Tyler’s (Carson Rowland) new baseball coach Cal Maddox (Justin Bruening). Cal is, of course, a former professional baseball player (whose level of fame is something the series constantly waivers on) looking for (that’s right) a second chance. Helen’s first love Ryan (Michael Shenefelt), who also happens to be Miss Frances’ nephew, comes back into her life, but leaves again because Helen wants children and Ryan doesn’t. Dana Sue is also trying to finalize her divorce from Ronnie (Brandon Quinn) even though her daughter Annie (Anneliese Judge) would really like them to be a family again. No matter what is going on in their lives (and there is always so much going on!) the ladies always have time to meet for margaritas and try to solve each other’s problems as they “pour it out.” In the first season finale there is prom drama that ends in a car accident, which is where the second season picks up. Really that’s all you need to know to jump right into the series. This isn’t Game of Thrones.
To that end, the biggest villain in the second season is Mary Vaughn (Allison Gabriel), the mayor’s wife whose sole purpose is to stir up trouble (she’s like a grown up Nellie Oleson from Little House on the Prairie). This is a town where everyone attends the same church of indeterminate Christian affiliation. There’s only one pastor and all the kids either attend or work at the Vacation Bible School. What do they do the rest of the summer? Who knows! I can tell you they decidedly do not get in their parents’ way. Unless of course it serves the plot.
Redemption is a big theme in the show’s second season, as the men in Serenity particularly Cal, Ronnie and Bill must face their past and the mistakes that they’ve made and the people they’ve hurt. Sweet Magnolias explores what it means to forgive someone, and understand that good people can make bad decisions (even though in the second season, Noreen becomes much more than a stereotypical homewrecker).
The mysteries are also softballs. Dana Sue’s employee Isaac (Chris Medlen) comes to Serenity in search of his birth mother. All he knows is that his mother was from Serenity. After his mother is revealed, the mystery becomes who is his father? And can I tell you the reveal is simultaneously ridiculous and totally makes sense. (It was a surprise but I was also kicking myself for not connecting the dots.)
Sweet Magnolias loves a good love triangle, and the second season delivers a great one with Helen, Dion Johnstone’s Erik (Dana’s sous chef who is sweet on Helen), and Ryan, who returns at just the wrong time—as men on these types of shows always do.
If I haven’t yet convinced you to watch, know this: Headley who originated the role of Nala in The Lion King and won a Tony winner for Aida, finally gets to sing this season. And it is definitely something to talk about.
So pour yourself a margarita and come spend some time in Serenity, South Carolina. Bless your heart, I promise you, you won’t regret it.
All episodes of Sweet Magnolias are now available on Netflix.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer and a member of the Television Critics Association. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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