This is one of the hardest review assignments I’ve ever had. The difficulty has nothing to do with the show’s characters or its storylines. It has more to do with the current state of the nation. The day I began watching the first season of “Sweet Magnolias” on Netflix I had just written about Amy Cooper, the woman who weaponized racism to avoid putting her dog on a leash. While protests mounted around the nation in response to the murder of George Floyd and countless others killed by police brutality fueled by systemic racism, I took a deep breath and entered the town of Serenity, South Carolina. I found myself rolling my eyes, sucking my teeth, and talking back to the screen, “Oh please!” Sweet Magnolias offers us a glimpse into an imperfect world governed by decency and humanity. It’s the world we need but can’t quite believe in at the moment.
Sweet Magnolias on Netflix is properly named. Despited being titled after the Sheryl Woods book series, it’s just…“sweet.” The ladies live in “Serenity” a sweet little town and we follow the sweet friendship of three friends. The show has charm, grace, and conflict resolution in a town where Black folks and White folks seemed to be quite comfortable with one another. When tensions mount, you find yourself waiting for a Rated R explosion, but somehow it just wraps up in a TV-14 kind of way.
The “blue pill” people agree it’s a great escape, a departure from the real world. The “red pill” people think it’s hogwash.
At every turn the cynical voice in my head said, “Here it comes” but “it” never happened. During the first two episodes I was certain that the noticeably missing element— racism in a small South Carolina town— would become a eventual reality. When racism didn’t rear its ugly head in those first three episodes, I mounted a list of “color blind” criticisms of the show. I won’t tell you what they were because it will spoil the story. However, over the course of Season 1, they were mostly corrected.
As an American-born Black woman, my ear has been trained to hear dog whistles and micro-aggressions. For the first half of the season I said, “Mmm hmmm, there it is.” When Helen was called “sassy” I thought, “black label” but then soon after Dana Sue is depicted as “sassy” and “aggressive”. When I saw the Black chef I thought “See!” Then, in walks the Black lawyer. When the Black handyman named “Skeeter” arrives I’m thinking, “mmmm hmmm” and then the Black city inspector comes. “Whatever.”
I keep waiting for chaos to arrive in the streets. I’m waiting for the Serenity teenagers to expose their racist parents with their own supremacist behavior. I watching for the moment that everyone shows their “true colors” but it just doesn’t happen. So, I moved on to my reality argument. I want Maddie to call Noreen a name, but she won’t. She simply tells her, “We don’t have to be enemies, but you slept with my husband and we’re not going to be friends.” I want her to tell Bill where to go and how to get there. She does, but with grace an dignity that I don’t think I could muster. The characters in this show are not idyllic. The have feelings and issues. They get angry but don’t sin in their anger. (Ephesians 4:26) They make their disappointments and disagreements known, but in a way that respects the other person in the image of God. There is a cloud of redemption around everybody in the town. It’s awesome. Yet, completely and utterly unbelievable.
There is plenty of conflict in the story that keeps it interesting. The characters deal with pain and rejection, disappointment and disgust in ways that seem to honor themselves and God. They are Shine TYC living on steroids. They’re not perfect. Their lives are not perfect. So…why can’t we believe in them?
Any issue you have with Sweet Magnolias is likely a result of the feelings you have about the world we live in. I grew up in a town like Serenity in Appalachia. So it’s hard to believe there was such bigotry in Southeast Ohio and none in South Carolina. We pretty much got along but there was an ever-present racist undertone— one Black teacher, one Black cop. There was an unspoken rule of same-race prom dates and section “P” of the cemetery is where the Black people are buried. It’s wasn’t Serenity, but that would have been nice.
The show has been called “syrupy” and “annoying” by some reviewers. Rotten tomatoes critics give it 75% while the audience gives it 68%. Glamour Magazine says it’s the Hallmark Channel version of “Sex in the City.” Listen… the “blue pill” people agree it’s a great escape, a departure from the real world. The “red pill” people think it’s hogwash. (Told ya I was from Appalachia) Me? I think it’s a good show and worth your time…especially right now.