Sweet Magnolias Review: A Little Too Sweet, A Little Too Simple, A Little Too Small-Town

Rhea Srivastava -

Sweet Magnolias Review: A Little Too Sweet, A Little Too Simple, A Little Too Small-Town

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Format: Feature Series
Platform: Netflix
Movie Rated: 16+
Genre: Thriller
Language: English
Digital Premiere: 19 May 2020

 
What Is The Story About?
In the late ‘90s was a surge of saccharine sweet feel-good shows which embraced the values that people from small-towns had to often let go of as they made their way to big cities. Warmth, loyalty, friendship was a staple for those watching Touched by an Angel, Road to Avonlea and more recently, Cedar Cove, When Calls the Heart, and Chesapeake Shores - soap operas wrapped up in the garb of primetime television but kinda always the same story. Usually, someone returned in adverse circumstances to that ‘serene town’ that they left behind for better pastures, only to discover that all that they were looking for… was right at home all along.
 
Serenity, a quaint town in South Carolina somewhere near Charleston, is no different for some of the main characters in Sweet Magnolias. Tony and Grammy Award-winning actress Heather Headley stars as Helen, the bad-ass lawyer who is the odd one in Serenity because she had once run off with her boyfriend to law school, only to return. When the show begins, Helen and her two best friends (but more like sisters), homemaker Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher) and chef/restaurateur Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott), are already in the middle of their ritual ‘Pour It Out’ session (the girls bond over drinks when any life-altering event happens). Maddie is getting a divorce after her doctor husband knocked up a nurse. To get her back into a regime, the three girls invest in a heritage property to renovate into a spa for female clientele. Together, they were always the three ‘sweet magnolias,’ and while they juggle love, children, career, identity, at the end, everything is almost always sweet… even the biggest tragedy is the biggest life lesson. 

 
Analysis:
Sweet Magnolias is not a dated show, even though it may feel like one initially… think of all that Hallmark/CW content I was referring to before. It really is dependent on just how much sugar you can possibly take in your afternoon ice-tea, even when it’s really hot outside. With each episode at around an hour, it can take a few episodes to really invest yourself into the lives of these three women who seem too-good-for-their-own-good. If you do manage to stick around, then one can safely assume that it is the kind of mindless comfort TV which you will enjoy for its sense of anomic escapism. Don’t get me wrong, none of what happens in Serenity - the tongue-wagging over petty gossip, that heavily accented twang, bake sales and car washes, retired folk for their ‘usual’ at the local restaurant, ex-boyfriends coming back, angsty and hormonal teenagers - seems pretentious, even if it does seem a bit unrealistic. Call me jaded but I refuse to believe that small-town America is still happy in its own bubble and has no interest in changing it, almost like a modern-day The Help without civil rights concerns. But two give the show due credit, at least it knows what it's showing and does that with full conviction. Literally everything that ever happens to Maddie or her kids Ty, Kyle and Katie; or Dana Sue and her daughter Annabelle or Heather, or some supporting cast-members (and a lot does keep happening) is everyone’s business, but almost as conveniently resolved by the kindness and honesty of a good heart. All well and good, but in this day and age of television, it does seem like their struggles are almost too mundane. A divorce, a love triangle, a former spouse, a current flame, an on-and-off-boyfriend, a diabetes condition, kids drinking at parties… all big deals in real life. Television? Meh, maybe you’d resonate if you aren’t cooking up some melodrama in reality already. 

 
Performances:
As with most shows which are essentially about a group of friends hanging out and discussing their lives, there is little to redeem in Sweet Magnolias in terms of plot. The fact that Maddie, Helen and Dana Sue need a ‘Margarita Night’ is evident to us from what has preceded in the forty minutes before. Something’s happened, they’re depressed, they’ll drink. Thus, we need to feel for them enough to indulge in their sadness or joy. Thankfully, even with their character flaws, Swisher, Headley and Elliott show immense conviction about caring about their fictional counterparts and their lives, and this town. Especially Elliott as Dana Sue can be such a brick wall sometimes! This makes us believe that perhaps there really still are women like this out there, even if the depiction is a bit exaggerated for its own good. Thankfully, even their kids played by Carson Rowland, Logan Allen and Anneliese Judge seem more kids than anything I’ve seen on Netflix in a while. There are several other players in Serenity who all do a fine job in whatever little they get written to be - Jamie Lynn Spears as Noreen (the nurse to become the new Mrs Townsend), Dion Johnstone (Erik, a chef under Dana Sue who looks out for everyone), and Isaac (a worker at the restaurant who snoops around everyone’s business). 
 
Highlights:
There are some moments to shine when you see the people behind the stereotype come out, just trying to ‘live their lives’ and ‘do good by everybody.’ Whether you choose to do it with margarita night, or on a zoom call during a pandemic, the lesson is still important. Friendships remain. You just wonder if that message would have been any more or any less effective had it been packaged as something more palatable in today’s cynical world. 

 

 
Drawbacks:
Perhaps the writers have forgotten about the greater world as they hope for ‘serenity,’ because Sweet Magnolias seem so protected in its world(view). Yes, there are your staple Black characters (one running the show, practically) and a token gay best friend. But it’s not like this is a great revelation for today’s TV. So what exactly is the change that this town visions for itself as seasons pass? The show seems to be seated at the same table as the old residents of its location, perfectly comfortable having their ‘usual,’ with little room or urge to experiment. I don’t see anyone sticking to Serenity unless they really do view this as a menial breeze watch. 

 
Music and Other Departments:
At one-hour episodes where a lot of conversation takes place around the kitchen table, the editing of Sweet Magnolias is not much to write home about. It is, however, very quaint and pretty to look at. The three ladies are impeccably styled with enough inspiration for your next salon appointment, dinner date, or even fancy lunch. It also uses a lot of folk and country gems in its soundtrack, which is always a plus. 
 
Did I Enjoy It?
Yes, I did. But that’s because I got mildly invested after the first two episodes, in which case I can imagine you sticking with it till the end of the season. If Maddie, Helen or Dana Sue don’t appeal to you, I doubt you would spend time watching this.
 
Do I Recommend It?
If you’re not as jaded in life and like your binge-watches to be completely escapists, maybe. If you’re not big on the soft, schmaltzy and sweet, give this a pass. 
 
 

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