Lauren Tells Liz What Happened In “Hart of Dixie”
Guest post! Lauren Ludwig is a writer and TV watcher who likes movies about high school and weird old pictures of people. She regularly directs the comedy show Lost Moon Radio and helps out other writers in her work as a coach.
I don’t usually tell you things, but I have occasionally piped up when Frank has been telling you things. (You can see my child-like outbursts regarding the original Totoro dub track here.)
Since this is my first LTF post, let me start with some basic facts about me.
FACT #1: I love shows intended for teenagers.
FACT #2: Most shows intended for teenagers are terrible.
This does not mean I love terrible shows. It means I spend a lot of my time lamenting the fact that my favorite genre (if we can call teen-centric shows a genre — let’s!) is being run into the ground by CW executives that are more interested in playing dress-up that in storytelling. (I once heard that the Prez of the CW approves EVERY OUTFIT that goes on the air. How does she find the time to make good shows between all those outfits? She doesn’t!)
I find this all particularly frustrating because it’s so insulting to teenagers. Yes, at that age I didn’t have the MOST discerning taste; I thought both Clueless AND Titanic were brilliant films. But looking back, the best of the fare stuck with me and influenced my current taste in media. It also taught me the ins and outs of adult life and morality and a ton of other BIG LIFE STUFF. Teens are tiny sponges, ready to soak up any story that comes their way. So giving them shitty ones is basically a crime against future humanity.
That’s my rant, Liz.
I found myself approaching this fall’s CW line up with cautious interest. Two shows with dumb concepts were starring two of my teen-genre faves — Sarah Michelle Gellar in Ringer and Rachel Bilson in Hart of Dixie. Assuming we can all agree SMG was amazing on Buffy, let me pause to defend the latter assertion: The OC was a brilliant show. At its best, it glided seamlessly from blogger snark to Don Juan-level melodrama, perfectly encapsulating the tonal extremes of high school. At its worst, it felt like aliens had read Pitchfork, seen The Hills and were now trying to reverse engineer how humans move and talk. Also, it got insane in its last season. But Season 1 of that show was a perfect year of television and Bilson as Summer embodied the beguilingly awkward charm at the show’s core.
That said, Hart of Dixie looked SOOOOO dumb. Bilson in a lab coat seemed comically false. Like when a People Magazine interview tries to convince us the new Transformers actress is also a Mensa member. No, she’s not. And Bilson can’t do brain surgery. Some things go against nature.
But I couldn’t not give the show a try. Bilson really was charming on The OC and I miss that show bad. So, Liz, I’m going to tell you about Hart of Dixie today. I’ll skip Ringer because the pilot was so boring I couldn’t even get excited about ranting on it. (Though I’ve heard the show has since gotten better. True? Anyone?) I’ll mostly stick to the pilot even though I’ve seen through episode 3.
We start with Summer MD on a bus driving past churches and burnt out cars. Ahhh, The South. She tells us in voice-over that she was the valedictorian of her med school and apparently held a scalpel when she was 9.
Her commencement address turns out to be the most unbelievable thing in the pilot. It’s one thing to ask me to believe that Summer MD could pass med school at all (a stretch), but telling me she was the TOP OF HER CLASS is absurd. On the other hand, I end up being thankful that this buy comes early because everything after it seems comparatively realistic. And that’s saying a lot because A TON OF RIDICULOUS STUFF HAPPENS.
Summer MD is rejected by a big important fellowship because even though she has “the best hands in 30 years,” she has no heart. Ironic, because her last name IS HART. (Cue executives patting selves on backs.) She is told that she has to spend a year in general practice TO GET MORE HEART but the only place that will take her is this small town in Bluebell, Alabama (<— fake name).
There's a Magical Old Doctor there who's been writing her for years telling her she can come work at his practice whenever she wants (more on this strange conceit later). Now, out of options, Summer MD must pick up her Prada bag and head to the wrong side of the Mason-Dixon. This last sentence is an example of the way all of the voice-over is written.
We now CUT TO: Various stereotypes about the south. These include: a bus dropping Summer off in the middle of a field, a kindly stranger in a pick-up rescuing her, full-grown women in hoop circles dancing in the town square for no reason, a mayor who lives on an old plantation with his pet alligator, and everyone hating Summer because she's a "Yankee." This is all just in the first 15 minutes of the pilot. I am not kidding.
Some of these stereotypes might have a grain of truth to them. Frank's family is from the Ozarks and his Uncle addresses me as "New York City" even though I'm from an upstate town with a population of 5,000. (I think he’s joking. Mostly.) I do buy that people from this tiny village might be suspicious of an out-of-towner. But the show is SO OBVIOUSLY written by some LA writers who have only a partially informed understanding of the south; it's hard to take the prejudice Summer encounters seriously. I know the Doc Hollywood, "fish-out-of-water" thing is the way the show was sold, but it was grating even in the pilot. By the end of the third episode, I was like, "Okay! Enough! She lives here! Everyone deal with it and stop talking about her tiny shorts!" (She wears a lot of tiny shorts. Because this is what New Yorkers wear.)
Anyhoo, Summer decides to stay in town even though she's feeling rejected by everyone and she’s already made a mortal enemy. This enemy is the OTHER doctor in town, a gruff Southern man played by Tim Matheson. Normal people will know Matheson as VP Hoynes on The West Wing or Otter in Animal House.
But I, of course, know him as Freddie Prinze Jr.’s dad in She’s All That.
Quick aside: She’s All That is one of those movies it turns out everyone was in — Kevin Pollack, Gabrielle Union, Lil’ Kim, Matthew Lillard, Anna Paquin, Keiran Culkin, Dule Hill… It’s also funnier than I remembered. (Typical exchange: “He’s from The Real World.” “What? Like Reseda?” “No, the show.”)
Aside over. Otter and his sassy Southern daughter — named “Lemon Breeland” because the South is full of names that sound like pies — are immediately the villains of the series. Though both actors are strong from the get go (Lemon is played by Jaime King), the writing starts the characters off in decidedly 2D territory. Otter likes to swagger into rooms and call Summer “little girl.” Lemon likes to spray on her make-up and drawl all over you. Surprisingly, though, the show gives them dimension and back story sooner than I’d expected. By the end of episode 2 I’m already finding Lemon and her foundation palatable and sort of interesting.
Back in the pilot… Otter is mad at Summer because he was supposed to run the practice now that Magical Old Doctor is dead. But Magical Old Doctor left half the practice to Summer MD. No one knows why, but Summer MD is now a craw in Otter’s thingy. Lemon hates Summer too because Lemon’s Fiance is clearly into Summer. (The Fiance is, thankfully, played by Scott Porter, aka Jason Street of Friday Night Lights.) ["STREEEEEET!" --Liz]
But Summer only half notices Jason Street’s advances because she’s too busy making out with her hot neighbor in his car which has a horn that plays Dixie. (This show borders on Southern fetishism.) But Lemon really has no right to be jealous because she’s been cheating on Jason Street with the Mayor who is an ex-pro-footballer who always refers to himself in the third person. All of this sexy times intrigue is par for the course on a CW show AND IT SHOULD BE. That’s part of why we’re all watching. But the big bummer is that Summer MD isn’t the best at on-screen chemistry. She and Adam Brodie’s relationship on The OC was hot, but it turns out this might have only been because they had real-life chemistry. (They dated for reals during the show.)
In general, this ends up being the pattern with Hart of Dixie — it’s always a little better than I think it’ll be, but ultimately held back by Summer MD’s lackluster turn as a leading lady. She’s just not that dynamic and interesting when asked to carry an entire series. What is charming in a supporting role loses its appeal when you’re watching it for 42 minutes.
Oddly, the stuff she turns out to be the best at is the DOCTOR stuff. WHO KNEW? She sounds realistic and confident with all the techno-babble. And rather than fighting the bizzaro effect of seeing waifish Bilson in surgical gloves, the show embraces it. The pilot’s climax has Summer delivering a surprise baby in a pair of harem pants and heels.
Summer MD is so committed as she’s doing this (and the guest star delivering the baby is so good) that I spent the whole scene tittering between laughter and genuine tears. I was left with the unsettling feeling that this crazy show had somehow won.
The last good thing I’ll say for HoD is that it keeps making narrative moves that are smarter than I would have expected. There’s a twist at the end of the pilot — the Magical Old Doctor is her REAL DAD! That’s why he left her his practice! — and this turn ends up clicking a lot into place that otherwise felt arbitrary. It also leads Summer MD to say, “I’m staying in this town to walk a mile in my dead father’s shoes!” (<– actual quote) Thus we are catapulted into Episode 2…and a whole 20 more after that, thanks to the CW Prez taking time to green light the show between outfit approvals.
As far as teen-targeted fare goes, it’s not the WORST. There's a strong central lady, even if she is sort of lacklusterly portrayed. And the show could get good in a guilty pleasure way if it continues to round out the characters and get funnier. Final verdict: the fluffiest, fake Southernest, least medical, medical drama around. But not terrible.
Thanks for letting me tell you things, Liz!
Yours in television watching,