September 26, 2011


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Written by: Mitch Salem
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Disclaimer:  Network pilots now in circulation are not necessarily in the form that will air in the Fall.  Pilots are often reedited and rescored, and in some cases even recast or reshot.  So these critiques shouldn’t be taken as full TV pilot reviews, but rather as a guide to the general style and content of the new shows coming your way.

HART OF DIXIE –  Monday 9PM on The CW:  Change the Channel

HART OF DIXIE has one of those premises easy to encapsulate in a single sentence:  “Cristina from Grey’s Anatomy stars in Northern Exposure–only in the South.”  After all, Northern Exposure and Grey’s are both solidly entertaining shows, so why shouldn’t this work?  As it turns out, for lots of reasons.

Hart comes from Josh Schwartz’s production company; he’s the mind behind The OC, Gossip Girl and Chuck, but he’s only a producer on this one and not the writer.  The script is by Leila Gerstein, who’s been writing on Gossip Girl, and the difference in voice is obvious.  Our heroine, Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson, herself a Schwartz veteran as one of the brightest presences on The OC) is a hard-driven young doctor who fully intends to become a leading cardio-thoracic surgeon in New York, just like her emotionally distant father.  When things go badly in the big city, she (implausibly) decides to dump her entire life and answer those postcards she’s been getting since her graduation from medical school, joining the practice of the general practitioner in Bluebell, Alabama who’s been sending them since he watched her deliver the class valedictory address.  In the ways of TV pilots, it turns out the GP’s assistant (Nancy Travis, who’ll have to be recast, since she plays Tim Allen’s wife on Last Man Standing) has continued to send out the postcards even though the old doc recently died.  But guess what?  The deceased mysteriously left his half of the practice to Zoe in his will.  (I know, you’ve already guessed the only possible reason he’d do that, but let’s not spoil it.)

Bluebell is a town that seems to pride itself on featuring the highest possible number of Southern cliches.  There are the belles who parade around town in Confederate-era gowns and who are led by the lovely Lemon (Jaime King), who’s really the meanest of mean girls and whose name really is Lemon (for a more complex version of this character, wait for Bryce Dallas Howard in the upcoming film of The Help)–and hey!  the mean girl is also the daughter of the crotchety doctor who owns the other half of Zoe’s new practice, and wants to drive her out of town!  There’s also the local electric system that can’t keep two bungalows lit at the same time.  And let’s not forget the Mayor’s pet alligator.  By the end of the pilot, Zoe’s met her 2 potential love interests, one a hunky lawyer (Scott Porter from Friday Night Lights) who (oops) is engaged to the mean girl, the other a hunky bad boy (Wilson Bethel).  After initially wanting to run back to New York, she delivers a baby and darned if she doesn’t realize that she can become a better human being and a better doctor by staying in a small town.  And she’s found out the dead old doc’s secret, cementing her place in Bluebell.

As obvious as all this is, with the right writing and production it could be entertaining enough–it’s not as though the premise for Northern Exposure wasn’t silly.  But Gerstein’s script doesn’t have any of the self-mocking, knowing humor that usually enlivens Schwartz’s shows; it just unravels its cliches, good-natured but simple-minded.  Bilson is an extremely appealing actress, yet not so much an obsessive cardio-thoracic surgeon (try to imagine her playing Cristina in Grey’s and you’ll see the fundamental miscasting).  The supporting cast, even Porter, comes off as bland, with the exception of Cress Williams (also from Friday Night Lights!) as that Mayor, who has a sense of humor and his own secret.  And the pilot is an extraordinarily ragged piece of work, stitched together with enough voice-over narration for an entire season of Gossip Girl, and capped with an awkward Big Speech of exposition.     
All hope isn’t lost for Hart of Dixie.  The CW has given it the slot behind Gossip Girl on Mondays, and none of the competition (the revamped 2 1/2 Men and Mike & Molly on CBS; House on FOX, and reality competitions on ABC and NBC) is aimed at its target young woman audience.  Now that the pilot and its burden of premise are out of the way, it’ll just be a show about a cute young doctor in a small town, and maybe it can gather itself together.  If the series is going to be watchable, though, everyone involved, from the top down, has a lot of work to do.


About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."