All right, film and TV executives, I’d like to propose a new rule: Next time you plan on setting a story in the South, please actually visit the South. Better yet, hire writers who have been here. The same goes for the North, Midwest, West, etc. Rarely does a location not matter to a story, and The CW’s “Hart of Dixie” is no exception. Here, New Yorker Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson) transplants herself to south Alabama and the fictional town of Bluebell, which looks every bit like the North Carolina town where it was filmed. This fish-out-of-water, culture-clash tale likely is supposed to show that people from different cultures ultimately aren’t all that different, y’all. But somehow, it has the opposite effect. It’s not just that Hollywood doesn’t get the South; it’s that sometimes, and in “Dixie” especially, Hollywood doesn’t even try to get the South.
It doesn’t help that “Hart of Dixie” is a mess of a show. Its tired plot, stilted acting and manufactured drama only highlight the fake accents and implausible characters. Bilson has been floating around since “The O.C.” went off the air in 2007, starring in bit parts on “Chuck” and “How I Met Your Mother.” If “Dixie” is her time to shine, she should have chosen a role that differed from the privileged brat Summer in “The O.C.” But with “The O.C.’s” Josh Schwartz as an executive producer, it’s apparent Bilson isn’t straying too far from her roots. As Zoe, she’s a fast-talking, type-A med student who graduates top of her class and wants to be a cardiothoracic surgeon like her famed and distant father. At her graduation, she’s approached by an old man, Dr. Harley Wilkes, who invites her to come work at his practice in Bluebell along the Gulf Coast. Thanks, but no thanks, she says to the bow-tied doctor, who looks disappointed as she struts away. Her dreams don’t work out, however, and after she doesn’t land a prestigious fellowship in her field — a doctor at her New York hospital that she needs to focus on her heart first by working as a general practitioner and learning how to care about her patients — she decides to head south. Wilkes had been sending her postcards for years since her graduation, and Zoe figures a year in Bluebell is better than nothing.
Wilkes, however, is dead. His assistant, Emmeline “Mrs. H” Hattenbarger (Nancy Travis, who only stars in the pilot), has maintained the postcard-sending the past four months on the doctor’s insistence that one day, Zoe would show up. He also left half the practice to her in his will; the other half belongs to Dr. Brick Breeland (Tim Matheson, slumming). Mrs. H gives Zoe a tour of the town and says phrases such as “The nearest high-fallutin’ coffee place is 11 miles away!” Zoe moves into an old house on the property of the town’s mayor, Lavon Hayes (Cress Williams), the only main black character who, of course, was a football player for the University of Alabama and later the NFL. She has to share a generator with bad-boy neighbor, Wade Kinsella (Wilson Bethel), and to get to his house she has to trudge through muddy backroads and confront Burt Reynolds, Lavon’s pet alligator. Because the South is one big swamp.
There’s also the sweet and cute lawyer in town, George Tucker (Scott Porter), with whom Zoe hits it off immediately. Too bad he’s engaged to Lemon Breeland (Jamie King), the living doctor’s daughter and a socialite who tragically got lost on her way to the set of The Help in Mississippi. She dresses and wears her hair straight from the ’50s/’60s playbook, speaking in a Southern drawl last heard during the Civil War. She’s a brat, too, albeit one who appears to have had a relationship with Lavon. He’s not happy to see her engaged, and one assumes they aren’t together because of race. Because that is still issue No. 1 in these here parts.
Brick wants Zoe gone, seeing her as an outsider and telling her he plans to contest Wilkes’ will. “We survived Katrina, we survived BP (by) boarding up the windows to keep the rot outside,” he says. “We are gonna chase you away.” Zoe’s mother visits to try to convince her to come back to New York as well. Zoe eventually agrees, but she changes her mind after helping a local young woman, who is plain and overweight, give birth to the baby she wasn’t smart enough to realize she was carrying. (Brick helps the delivery, sees Zoe’s skills firsthand and decides to let her stay.) Also, Mrs. H lets Zoe know that Wilkes was her father. Her mom backs up the story; the two met on a cruise when she was engaged to Zoe’s father, who figured out Zoe wasn’t his when she was 10.
So she will stay, even though, as the show’s page on the CW’s website says, she has learned “Southern hospitality isn’t always so hospitable.” It’s true: Southerners aren’t hospitable to people who stereotype Southerners. It’s true: We get downright testy when we’re seen as a joke, as an obstacle that needs to be overcome. The same would go for any other culture. The title “Hart of Dixie” is a play on one of Alabama’s mottos, “Heart of Dixie,” but ironically, it lacks just that: heart. It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, and worse, it’s a sorry excuse for drama in 2011.
Sarah Carlson has a front-row seat to the decline of the newspaper industry and lives in Alabama with her overly excitable Pembroke Welsh corgi.