Let me be clear: Hart of Dixie is kind of a giant mess. It struggles with long-term story arcs, frequently depicts the South as some sort of country-fried paradise where people dress like they’re in The Help and act like they’ve taken one too many hits off the moonshine jug, and is about as subtle as a cast-iron cornbread pan to the face. But despite these flaws—and perhaps even partly because of them—somehow its odd brand of Southern charm has turned Hart of Dixie into one of the most pleasant and purely fun shows on television.
Most of the credit for the success of the show goes out to its extremely warm and likeable cast, led by the impossibly charming Rachel Bilson as Zoe Hart. It was obvious from the pilot she was the draw here, but what’s been the saving grace of the show is just how wonderful everyone else in the cast turned out to be. Wilson Bethel is charismatic perfection as the hot neighbor with a crush on Zoe, Cress Williams has talent far beyond what the show has given him as the town mayor with his own secret crush, and Scott Porter brings a bit of mischief to what could be a very boring character as straight-laced George. Their engagement with the material and believable chemistry as friends and people who have known each other forever is what grounds the show, even when it teeters towards inanity.
If there is one weak link in the main cast it is Jaime King as conflicted Southern belle Lemon, but calling her a weak link feels unfair because it’s by far a flaw with the character over the actress. At times, Lemon is the epitome of everything Hart of Dixie does wrong: her tendency towards escalating hysteria, her insane wardrobe, her refusal to change course once she put a scheme into motion. It’s almost as if she’s this alien being from a planet that worships propriety and pin curls, scooped up and plopped into modern-day Alabama. Lemon has the ability to be fun and carefree, as evidenced a few times over the season, but the show’s insistence on continuing to put her in her own self-constructed box of insanity is starting to become a drag. (Seriously, last week she got her head caught in between the bars of a headboard just as she was trying to seduce her estranged fiancé, and the week before she climbed the top of a building to prove her love to him. These are the things Jaime King is forced to endure.)
This is a shame, because the rest of the show has developed so nicely since the pilot. Hart of Dixie started out with the bones of something charming, but it was only about midway through the season when the show finally decided it could drop the rigid structure of restating the themes of the pilot each week through a medical case and simply do a show about these people and how they interact with each other. What the show discovered was a way to construct a fully functional and likeable love polygon, touching all of the main leads, where pretty much every leg of the figure is interesting. In a world of staid love triangles, to have this show plainly set up that Lavon is in love with Lemon who is in love with George who is maybe in love with Zoe who is probably in love with both George and Wade who is in love with Zoe—and make us like it—is quite the feat.
The key to this was that they never overplayed their hand. While these stories percolated (mostly in the background) the show developed the town around them and told individual stories for each main character, and it’s precisely that character development that fed the show throughout it’s very successful midseason episode stretch as the show found a really interesting sweet spot between frivolity, friendship, longing, family, and fun.
Unfortunately, this didn’t last the whole season. While the storylines seemed to naturally be developing at their own pace, the last few episodes introduced plot elements imported in a way that felt completely unnatural and appeared to be there only because the end of the season was coming and there was an arbitrary endpoint the show wanted to reach. The trouble with this is the machinations set in place for the show to get there felt so unnatural, so against the style the show itself had set up throughout the season, that it just felt off.
The main offender here was the sudden resurgence of the George and Zoe romance, which was nicely hinted at in the first few episodes of the season and then shuttered completely away, only to awkwardly resurface a few episodes from the end of the season. Zoe and George as a pairing isn’t the problem—Bilson and Porter have a nice easy chemistry—but the way the show did an abrupt about face from Zoe’s season-long flirtation with Wade to suddenly declaring her love for George was poorly handled. It’s to the credit of the actors that it worked as well as it did, when by all accounts it should have been a complete disaster.
The finale fully embraces these new developments, as George prepares to get married to Lemon and Zoe must leave town to avoid doing some sort of Graduate-esque stunt and stopping the whole thing. (It’s honestly a miracle the show didn’t actually go there. I mentioned it wasn’t subtle, right?) The episode then devolves into a storm-fueled panic, as the entire town comes together to salvage this wedding that everyone in the audience knows is never going to happen, lest the love polygon become two parallel lines. It’s to the show’s credit this seemed like typical madcap fun and not a complete waste of time.
Helping the finale and the season salvage some of its mistakes was the return of the Wade/Zoe dynamic, as they get caught in the storm together (of course) and finally get a chance to parse out what is going on in their relationship. One of the reasons the Zoe/George development didn’t feel quite natural was how the show completely forgot about Wade while it was happening. By bringing things around full-circle here it felt as if Zoe finally had a real choice to make. Also, Zoe and Wade consummating their flirtation was not only long overdue for their characters, but long overdue for the show to inject a little bit of sexy into its mostly wholesome small-town feel. True, it was all done to lead to the end moment where George comes to Zoe’s door when she has Wade in her bed, but now that moment felt earned, and not imposed on the characters because the writers had a destination in mind.
The finale, like the season, meandered around a bit but got somewhere in the end: to a place that is unfocused and a little awkward, strangely plotted but completely heartfelt. Hart of Dixie didn’t have a perfect first season. But it’s one of this season’s freshman shows I’m happiest we'll get a chance to see what it can do with a season two.