Of all of the pilots I’ve given lackluster reviews this year, the one I had the most secret hopes might turn out to be a good show was Hart Of Dixie. I love the small-town show genre, and I’ve stuck with many a middling small-town show in the hopes that it might turn out to be good somewhere along the way. I think Rachel Bilson is quite a bit of fun, and the supporting cast was stocked with people I’ve liked in other projects, people like Scott Porter and Tim Matheson. The pilot was a mess, but episode two was an improvement, while episode three was basically fine. Still, the show wasn’t yet at a level where I would heartily recommend it to other small-town show fanatics.
Tonight’s episode, sent out by The CW on screener (often a good indication that a network thinks a show has taken a step up) still isn’t that step up, but it’s easily the best episode yet, and it finally gives a good sense that this could be a small-town show that develops its own voice, instead of leaning on the voices of shows that came before it. It still has a number of issues (at one point, the show kills time by having Bilson make funny faces in the mirror for what feels like five minutes), but the central ideas in this episode are solid, and the show finally has a good sense of how to keep a number of pots boiling at once. Yes, the conclusion—where a bunch of near-hook-ups are thwarted by a convenient (and very literal) cold shower—is pretty stupid, and I still hate the whole idea of the buttoned-up city girl who just needs to learn to let her freak flag fly (which feels copied from dozens of other works), but it’s starting to feel like there’s an interesting world here. And an interesting world is the single best thing a small-town show can have.
It should come as no surprise that tonight’s episode is so solid. The script is credited to Rina Mimoun, who’s one of the unsung TV writer heroes of the last 10 years. Mimoun came out of The WB, where she wrote on a number of shows, including Dawson’s Creek and Jack And Jill. She ended up working on Everwood, where she found what she did best—forthright sentimentality that maintained a sense of earnestness and didn’t seem too embarrassed about what it was doing—and rose through the ranks to the level of executive producer. Everwood was a schmaltzy show, no doubt, but Mimoun worked with the show’s creator, Greg Berlanti, and its other producers to embrace that schmaltz and make it feel organic and earned. Mimoun’s best work came in that show’s third season, when the writers built an intricate storyline where the show’s protagonist kept a devastating secret from his son—a storyline that had about as good a slow burn and devastating payoff as this type of show has ever seen.
Since then, Mimoun has bounced around the TV landscape. She worked on the misbegotten final season of Gilmore Girls, then briefly popped up on Pushing Daisies, before landing the showrunner gig at Privileged, one of The CW’s many stabs at rekindling the humor and heart of the WB of old. It took a while for Privileged to evolve, but by the end of its run, it was a fine and funny show, one that was, naturally, canceled after a season. In short, Mimoun is exactly the kind of voice Hart Of Dixie needs in its writers room, and though she’s only billed as a consulting producer, here’s hoping the show realizes this and gives her lots of money to stick around in a larger role.
Tonight’s episode plays off of one of the oldest small-town show tricks in the book: There’s some incredible natural phenomenon, and it’s making everybody in town feel a little bit goofy. Northern Exposure loved this device so much, it did two episodes essentially built around the idea, one where the long darkness of winter made everybody long for light and one where the spring thaw drove people into each other’s arms and beds. Gilmore Girls always got a lot of mileage out of the two Lorelais’ excitement over the first snow of winter. And now Hart Of Dixie tosses its hat into the ring with the idea that in Bluebell, Alabama, periodic heat waves make everybody go crazy with lust. As ideas go, it’s not bad, even if it feels far too indebted to earlier shows. It often seems like an excuse to get everybody in the cast into as skimpy of clothing as possible, but these are attractive people, so it’s not like that’s hard on the eyes.
The heat wave is also an excuse to allow the show’s surprisingly complex web of illicit lovers to all lust after each other. Zoe (Bilson) lusts after local bad boy and bar owner Wade (and vice versa). Lemon (just what the hell are these names?) lusts after Lavon, even as her fiancé George’s parents are coming into town. Lavon and his date, George’s assistant DiDi, lust after each other. Mimoun and the show’s other writers bring the whole thing up to a nice simmer, without pushing it over into a boil, then they cool off the heat with that rain shower, which stops Zoe and Wade, as well as Lemon and Lavon, from makin’ it. (For an episode that promises a lust-filled madhouse, nobody has any sex.) There’s a nice build to everything here, one that helps me forgive some of the more tired elements of the script.
For one thing, you may have noticed that Lemon’s central story has a lot to do with freaking out over her future in-laws coming into town. This is a storyline that ceased to be interesting somewhere back in the 1950s (if it was ever interesting at all), and the fact that George’s mom is such a clichéd “my boy is perfect, and no girl is good enough for him!” figure is incredibly bland. But when the show contrives a way to get Lemon, George, his parents, her father (who’s also Zoe’s kinda-sorta-nemesis), Lavon, DiDi, and finally Zoe all in the same restaurant, it’s sort of amazing just how well the whole setpiece works out. There’s a wonderful momentum to the way that the episode’s many storylines all dovetail in this one place and this one moment, a momentum that forgives much of the dull setup.
If I still have a central criticism of Hart Of Dixie, it’s that the show could stand to be a lot funnier. Not all small-town shows needs humor to work—Everwood was more earnest drama than anything else—but it certainly helps the kookiness and the idea of a place just one or two degrees left of reality to go down more easily. There are some funny jokes and moments in this episode—particularly from the assistant down at the clinic, who talks about hiding gum in a container full of condoms as a treasure hunt for the kids—but the majority of the humor seems to be trying too hard, like that sequence of Bilson making funny faces. Similarly, the medical-case-of-the-week has already turned into an afterthought (though this might work to the show’s benefit, since nobody’s watching to see Zoe deliver complicated diagnoses). Hart Of Dixie is a young show, one just starting to find a voice not borrowed from other, similar shows. Here’s hoping that when it finally finds that voice, it’s a funnier one.