Given the sheer amount of television in existence, it is common for a show to come and go without much fanfare. Some people find these series as they’re airing and quietly love them. Maybe those people tell a friend or two, and their friends love it too. Eventually, the shows end their runs, and their devotees flit off to the next thing. Luckily for all of us, though, living in the age of streaming means that viewers can browse hundreds of shows they may have overlooked the first time around. That’s a privilege that feels emotionally necessary right now, a perk that has the power to provide brief reprieves from the unrelenting hellfire of news and real-world horror raging around us every single day.
You take your joy where you can get it in 2018. Which is why I am suggesting you watch Hart of Dixie, an often-overlooked dramedy that aired on the CW from 2011 to 2015 and that is also available on Netflix, right now, waiting to whisk you off to a universe that is decidedly not here.
When Hart of Dixie first premiered it was mainly talked about as the TV comeback of former The O.C. star Rachel Bilson. A lot of critics weren’t all that impressed with the pilot; they dismissed it as silly and overly cutesy. Several wrote that Bilson wasn’t believable as the show’s central surgeon turned small-town doctor. And, hey, to each their own. They looked at the pilot episode and saw all that; I watched the whole series as it aired and found it to be surprisingly emotionally nuanced and mature. With time it became clear that this was a show with compelling characters who genuinely evolved with time, and that Hart of Dixie made a commitment to being a lighthearted oasis in the midst of a world that can be pretty hard to live in.
This was already useful to me in the early half of the 2010s, but I’ve found myself thinking about the show a lot in the years since it ended. Although Hart of Dixie is not yet old enough to count as nostalgia, I’m recommending it to you now anyway, in case you, too, crave release and a show that feels like the TV version of a hearty chicken soup.
Hart of Dixie follows a doctor named Zoe Hart (Bilson) who finds out that the man she thought was her father is not, and that her late biological father was a private-practice doctor in the fictional hamlet of Bluebell, Alabama. She ditches her New York life to take over his half of the practice and faces off against her dead dad’s longtime business partner Brick Breeland (Tim Matheson) — yes, his name is Brick — who was just getting used to having the place all to himself. She finds an instant nemesis in Brick’s daughter Lemon (Jaime King, who is exquisite in this show) and immediately falls for Lemon’s fiancé George (Scott Porter). Zoe also moves into a carriage house on the property of the town’s ex-NFL-quarterback mayor Lavon Hayes (Cress Williams), who quickly becomes her best friend, and forms a barbed will-they-or-won’t-they connection with her neighbor Wade (Wilson Bethel).
The series is simultaneously a romantic comedy and a show about the quirky antics of a fictional small town. It feels important here to note that Bluebell was literally built from the bones of the old Stars Hollow set from Gilmore Girls, and that the two shows are similar in their approaches to quaint small-town shenanigans. Hart of Dixie even takes things a few steps further than Gilmore Girls — the denizens of Bluebell are markedly kookier.
Hart of Dixie also seems to take joy in not having to answer to most of the real-life socioeconomic issues that might plague actual humans outside of a fuzzy TV show — so if that’s something you’re averse to, this might not be the show for you. This is a series that takes place in the American South but has virtually no interest in the very real historical tensions of the area. The world’s more painful contexts are like distant rumors in Bluebell. In some shows that would be a ludicrous and offensive oversight; here, it’s a blessed feature. So rarely do viewers get to take a break without guilt, but Hart of Dixie takes joy in facilitating your downtime. The show knows it’s ridiculous; it also knows it’s charming, warm, and emotionally grounded in a way that balances out its lunacy.
Around Season 2 is where the show really finds itself and its story comes to life. (Warning: From here on out, some foundational character dynamics will be discussed; avoid if you would consider these spoilers.) Rather than impose arbitrary ideas of who needed to end up with whom, the writers let the love triangle between Zoe, Wade, and George be ruled by chemistry and instinct. The results are surprisingly affecting storylines that contemplate timing, compatibility, commitment, and the ways we can get in our own way when it comes to loving other people.
The show also succeeds, though, because it’s about more than its main love triangles. King gives a career-defining performance here. Lemon starts off as Bluebell’s Regina George with a Betty Draper complex, a spark plug of a woman obsessed with having the perfect life. She finds herself throughout the four seasons, growing from the town’s resident mean girl into something much deeper and more interesting. But Lemon never loses her aggression, or her ambition; Hart of Dixie and King alike understood that these were integral and beautiful parts of the character, and they found a way to mature her without losing that essence. Lemon Breeland is a masterpiece of a character. She’s a descendant of Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorf and Gilmore Girls’ Emily Gilmore, another queen in the canon of intense, prickly perfectionists.
Williams, too, steals scenes and hearts as Lavon — after seeing him on this show it makes sense that the CW gave him the title role in Black Lightning, because Lavon Hayes makes you want to follow him anywhere. Porter, who previously played Jason Street on Friday Night Lights, brings a frazzled goodness to George, and Kaitlyn Black is a straight-up revelation as AnnaBeth. I could also personally write 5,000 love songs for Wade Kinsella, but I’ll let you watch and come to your own conclusions. The entire cast is stellar, which is handy for a show that is ultimately a massive ensemble piece.
All in all, Hart of Dixie is timeless comfort food. It’s tender and nuanced. It’s colorful and funny, and will make you feel like an optimist for 45 minutes at a time. And if that’s not reason enough, the show offers wardrobe ideas (I want to buy every single outfit any of the women wear) and every single person is incredibly attractive. Sometimes you just need heartwarming and hot.