Netflix hit ‘Sweet Magnolias’ is full of small-town charm

Since it debuted May 19, a sweet small-town drama shot in metro Atlanta called “Sweet Magnolias” has become a surprise hit, remaining firmly ensconced in the Netflix top 10.

There are no A-list names, no big explosions, no time travel, no superheroes; just good writing, likeable characters and an esprit de corps that seems to be lacking in a nation overrun by a pandemic, economic disasters and social unrest.

“I figure we’d be a slow-build, word-of-mouth kind of show,” said executive producer Sheryl Anderson, also the showrunner. “But we resonated with people right off the bat. It’s been a major blessing. Somebody called us comfort food.”

The premise is simple: three 30-something lifelong friends in Serenity, a fictional South Carolina town, decide to convert an old home into a high-end spa.

Maddie (JoAnna Garcia) is freshly divorced from her philandering doctor hubby Bill, played by Chris Klein of “American Pie” fame. She is now being wooed by her older son’s hunk of a baseball coach Cal (Justin Bruening), who is a charming counterpoint to Bill.

She is joined by restaurant owner and perfectionist Dana Sue Sullivan, played by Brooke Elliott, who starred in the former Lifetime show “Drop Dead Diva,” shot in metro Atlanta from 2009 to 2014.

The third friend, Helen Decatur (R&B singer Heather Headley), is a successful attorney who never had kids and is planning to do so, with or without a man by her side.

The show also explores the lives of their teenage kids as they struggle with unrequited love, bad decisions and broken families.

“Sweet Magnolias” may feel like a Hallmark series in part because executive producer Dan Paulson also oversees the Hallmark series “Chesapeake Shores.” And both series are based on books by Sherryl Woods.

But Netflix did give the producers a level of creative freedom and a decent budget, Anderson said.

“We are able to have higher stakes and more conflict,” she said.

Fans on my AJC Radio & TV Talk Facebook page flooded my query about the show with nearly all positive comments. (The biggest complaints? Klein’s not-so-great Southern accent and the overuse of Southern aphorisms.)

“In a time of tension, tragedy and restlessness,” said Anne Wainscott-Sargent, an Atlanta writer and marketing consultant and mother of two, “this feel-good story was such a balm and escape for me.”

She said the season did not “shy away from the gritty realities of divorce, parenting, infidelity, sibling rivalry, the angst of first love, peer pressure and bullying.”

And Wainscott-Sarget embraced the trio’s core friendship and their Friday night meetings “replete with laughter and homemade margaritas.”

Anderson said they incorporated Elliott’s natural dry wit into Dana Sue, Garcia’s natural kinetic energy into Maddie and Headley’s mix of warmth and strength into Helen.

“We wanted the viewers to imagine themselves as the fourth person at margarita night,” said Anderson, adding “if tequila sales go up, we’ll take a bow.”

Chaundra Meredith Walker, a 35-year-old marketer and former journalist, said she watched all 10 episodes in about a day when it first came out last month.

“I was captivated by the small-town feel and unity between the women and their world,” she said. “It felt like a sweet reprieve from the world, and I appreciated that many of the stereotypes weren’t there, i.e. black single mom, struggling to make ends meet, etc. And that the women’s friendship wasn’t based on struggle, but that they grew up with each other and had an authentic view of who they all were.”

Anderson said they strive for the characters to not be cardboard characters.

“It was really important for us that these be real people that if you strolled down the streets of Serenity, they’d come out of their houses and greet you to find out if you were new in town,” Anderson said.

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She said the show’s feel of community is “something we all yearn for and treasure in our lives. It was our way to encourage people to support the people in their lives.”

The TV series gleans strongly from the books but adds some characters and events such as Isaac seeking his birth dad and Helen’s old boyfriend who suddenly returns to town.

Anderson really felt for Maddie’s character because she too was going through a divorce when the show was being put together.

“I don’t have a hot baseball coach in my life, but I get the rest of it,” Anderson said. “It was an opportunity to bring some personal resonance to it from the beginning.”

The closest true “villain” on the show season one is Klein’s philandering doctor character.

“He’s not a bad man,” Anderson said. “He’s a man who made bad choices and sort of continues making bad choices all in the name of doing the right thing. But as Maddie told him, that excuse was getting old.”

And while it takes awhile to see any real redemptive qualities in Bill, he eventually gets some. “We need to understand the Bill that Maddie fell in love with, the Bill the kids look up to, the Bill that Noreen (Jamie Lynn Spears’ nurse character that he impregnated) fell in love with.”

One of the most resonant characters is Erik Whitley, a sous chef at Sullivan’s who has plenty of personal pain and secrets but carries himself with maturity, grace and hope. Actor Dion Johnstone helped make the role deeper and more meaningful than it might have otherwise been.

“He has marvellous gravitas,” Anderson said. “He’s so beautifully centred as a human being and as an actor. It communicates so well on screen.”

The city of Covington, Georgia, is also a character on the show, playing much of Serenity. The exterior of Sullivan’s is actually the Mystic Grill in Covington and City Pond Park was used for baseball practice. The spa is also a home in Covington. (The sound stages were in Decatur, where Oakhurst Presbyterian plays the church.)

“While it’s not quite low country, there were many things in Covington that worked for us, and they are already a film-friendly town,” said Anderson, noting that the town was used for the CW’s “The Vampire Diaries.”

Despite the show’s popularity, Netflix has not yet announced a second season. But Anderson is hopeful.

“It’s nice to daydream,” Anderson said. “These characters have become such an important part of my life. They walk around in my head all day. At risk of sounding corny, I love these people, and I love this town!”

TORONTO STAR

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