This fall, we’ve got so many writers who’ve seen these pilots that we thought getting two takes on each show would be helpful to you. The first review is the “official” TV Club review, and the grade applies to it. But we’ve also found another reviewer to offer their own take on the program. Today, Todd VanDerWerff and David Sims talk about Hart Of Dixie.
Hart Of Dixie debuts tonight on The CW at 9 p.m. Eastern.
Todd: The chief complaint being leveled against Hart Of Dixie is one of believability. How, the critics leveling this complaint ask, are we supposed to buy Rachel Bilson—she of the snarky cuteness—as a doctor, much less an aspiring heart surgeon? This, of course, is both ridiculous and vaguely sexist. Bilson—or rather, her character, Zoe Hart—is given plenty of good reason to have become a doctor on her way to working as one of the top heart surgeons in the country. No, the real thing the pilot tries to saddle Bilson with that’s unbelievable—something that even it seems to forget it was on about—is the idea that she’s somehow a closed-off, emotionless robot, just the kind of person who needs to travel to the middle of nowhere and learn a bunch of lessons about love from small-town folk.
Yes, Hart Of Dixie marks the return of a TV genre that’s been sadly missing from our screens for far too long: the quirky, hour-long small-town dramedy. There had been plenty of small-town sitcoms in the history of the medium, but with the arrival of Northern Exposure (still arguably the best of this particular subgenre) in the summer of 1990, the rules of a new kind of hour-long show were codified. (For purposes of this experiment, we’re not counting Twin Peaks, which was a fantastic show but skewed a little too far away from one of the main purposes of the small-town show, which is creating a small town just about anybody would be willing to pack up and move to, if push came to shove.) Old routines and clichés about the respective merits of city folk and country folk would be trotted out and dusted off as though brand new. There would be will-they/won’t-they romances. There would be some element of “outsider versus insider” to the plot. And the narrative would always, always, always be secondary to the characters and setting, to creating a world you might want to disappear into.
The subgenre thrived in the ’90s, and it reached its apex right around when The WB became a thing. At one time, that fledgling network aired both Gilmore Girls and Everwood, two shows for the vanishingly small pantheon of the subgenre, and every week, viewers were invited to move to a quirky New England town where all of the residents were well-versed in American pop culture or a deeply earnest small town in Colorado where everybody was working through their own emotional issues. It was a good time for fans of the subgenre, but it also presaged the fall. The WB merged with UPN to become The CW. Gilmore was ported over for one last, disappointing season (sans its creator). Everwood was canceled in favor of 7th Heaven and One Tree Hill. And the few attempts to resurrect the genre since—such as ABC’s punishingly bad October Road—have fallen on their faces.
Into the void step Gossip Girl co-producers Josh Schwartz and Stephanie Savage (Schwartz, of course, worked with Bilson before on The O.C.), as well as series creator Leila Gerstein. Hart Of Dixie captures all of the superficial trappings of the small-town show, but it never captures the soul that made shows like Northern Exposure or Gilmore Girls work. On those series, you really got the sense that the creators longed for a strange Utopia, hidden away in Alaska or New England, a place where people behaved oddly but were also content to mostly live and let live. Hart Of Dixie mostly seems to express Gerstein, Schwartz, and Savage’s desire to watch TV shows about those places. It’s a problem that frequently infects things Schwartz is involved with, where the layers of arch sensibility and the layers of TV-show love get in the way of just telling a satisfying story. Schwartz shows often seem more preoccupied with making sure you realize how cool and pumped full of references to other works they are, rather than with making you feel anything at all.
The absolute worst section of Dixie underlines this point incredibly well. The pilot begins with a long, long recitation of Zoe’s graduation from medical school and how she was approached by a kindly Southern gentleman after her speech, a nice guy with bright blue eyes and a soft-spoken voice who invited her to come and help out at his general practitioner’s clinic in small-town Alabama. That wasn’t for Zoe, however, as she turned down his offer, in favor of working toward her dream of becoming a cardiothoracic surgeon. In the end, however, she was passed over for a fellowship, the doctor telling her that if she wanted to be a heart surgeon (pregnant pause), she had to start using her own. Why, just last week, a patient had asked her to read Nicholas Sparks novels out loud, and Zoe had said no? Just what kind of big-city doctor is she? And doesn’t she realize she’s starring in a small-town show, not a medical drama?
You can probably suss out how this all pans out. Zoe ends up in Alabama, it turns out the soft-spoken old man has left her his practice in his will (because he just knew she’d turn up one day), and now she has to cope with everything from dueling love interests (every small-town show ever) to another doctor she’s forced to work with who wants nothing more than to run her out of town on a rail (Everwood). It’s one of the clumsiest, worst introductions to a series premise in a fall season full of them, and it puts the show several steps behind, steps it can’t make up when it keeps lapsing into Southern character clichés, including a pet alligator named Burt Reynolds and good ol’ boys by the dozen. (Also, the one African-American regular? A former athlete.) Gerstein plays by all the rules of the genre, creating a Southern paradise where goofy things happen as banjo music plucks along and where racism doesn’t exist, but she doesn’t imbue anything with soul.
Plus, she insists in the long, boring opening that Zoe lacks heart and emotion. This is fine as a character beat. It’s straight outta Northern Exposure, actually. But there’s just no way it makes any sense with either the character of Zoe—who’s soon bonding with a convenience store clerk who didn’t know she was pregnant—or with Bilson herself—who exudes a warm friendliness, blended with snarky humor, that somehow makes her seem even more approachable when she’s being mean. Make no mistake: Bilson’s a huge TV star just waiting to happen, particularly if someone can find the right role for her. But Zoe Hart, at least as written, doesn’t make much of her particular skill set, and the only indication there is that Gerstein understands this is the fact that she doesn’t seem capable of presenting a consistent character here to save her life. Everybody’s either a boiled-down cliché or a muddled mess, while the town itself is a reduction of many, many other TV small towns. There’s a good show inside of Hart Of Dixie somewhere, an enjoyable small-town dramedy that recaptures what made the whole subgenre so easy to love and one that stars someone who deserves great TV success. But the pilot gives no indication that Gerstein, Schwartz, or Savage know how to find it.
David: I guess Hart Of Dixie was always going to be bad. The premise is just too hackneyed to really be salvageable, although God knows Josh Schwartz worked wonders with a similarly ridiculous premise in The O.C. (I know he didn’t actually write this pilot). But did this show have to be so thuddingly, obnoxiously obvious? It’s not enough that Zoe moves to Alabama; she moves there in a dirty ol’ bus that lets her off on a dirt road in a town where women dress like it’s Gone With The Wind—plus she has to live on a plantation.
My real problem, though, is that Hart is just not respectful of The CW’s (really, The WB’s) excellent record of fish-out-of-water small-town dramedies. Take away the setting, and everything here’s going through the motions, from the two romantic prospects (straight-arrow Scott Porter and rugged scoundrel Wilson Bethel) to the town bitch to the no-nonsense sidekick. Every plot element just feels lazily cobbled together, down to the medical case of the week.
Bilson is a very appealing actress, and she got a rise out of me once or twice when she was in disdainful “fuck Alabama” mode (“What’s up? You sick?” being her greeting to a patient), but the character is already uninteresting before the hour is done, well on the road to bettering herself. I’ll bet future episodes still have her cramming references to SoHo and Barney’s into every line just to hit us over the head with the point, if we didn’t get it already. But as campy as that might be, Hart doesn’t even rise to the level of “guilty pleasure.”