October 4, 2011

THE SKED’S PILOT + 1 REVIEW: “Hart of Dixie”

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Written by: Mitch Salem
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A lot can happen between the creation of a TV pilot in the spring and production of episodes for the regular season:  a writing/producing team is hired, audience focus groups weigh in, networks and studios (which may have had their own turnover in the off-season) give plenty of notes, both helpful and otherwise, and critics begin to rear their ugly heads.  The results can include changes to tone, pace, casting and even story.  Here at THE SKED, we’re going to look past the pilots and present reviews of the first regular episodes of this year’s new series as well.
Previously… on HART OF DIXIE:  Dr. Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson) is your basic hard-driving, super-ambitious young New York doctor, a bit puzzled by the fact that an elderly solo practitioner from the wilds of Bluebell, Alabama, Dr. Harley Wilkes, who had approached her with hearty compliments at her medical school graduation, has stayed in touch ever since, repeatedly asking her to join his practice.  When Zoe is rejected from her cardio-thoracic fellowship and told she needs to develop some bedside manner, she goes down to Bluebell, only to find out that Harley is dead and has left her his half of his practice.  It turns out there’s a reason for this–as she discovers at the end of the pilot, Zoe is actually Harley’s illegitimate daughter.  She decides to stay in Bluebell, and quickly makes the acquaintance of many of the notable townspeople, particularly mayor and former NFL star Lavon Hayes (Cress Williams), bad-boy bartender Wade (Wilson Bethel), with whom she promptly hooks up, and good-guy lawyer George (Scott Porter), who inconveniently is engaged to high-strung belle Lemon (Jaime King).  In case Lemon wasn’t going to hate Zoe anyway, she’s also the daughter of Brick (Tim Matheson), who shared Harley’s practice and wants nothing more than to drive Zoe out of town.

Episode 2:  The biggest change in HART OF DIXIE from its pilot doesn’t hit until the end of the second episode:  Nancy Travis, who played Harley’s nurse and Zoe’s mentor in the medical practice, was also Tim Allen’s wife in the Last Man Standing pilot, and her contractual obligations to that show were in 1st position to this one, so this episode marks her exit.  (Her departure isn’t handled particularly well, with an unconvincing “Hey, sorry I didn’t tell you I was leaving town” scene at the end of the episode.)  It’s unclear how or whether her character will be replaced.

Apart from that, the first regular episode of the series, written by series creator Leila Gerstein (Josh Schwartz of Gossip Girl, Dixie‘s Monday mate on the CW, is a producer here but doesn’t write) and directed by pilot director Jason Ensler, is more of the same.  The show has one definite asset:  Bilson, who’s as appealing and likable a lead actress as there is on TV.  Luckily, the show’s concept forces her to be in virtually every scene of the series.  And there are moments when Gerstein achieves a version of the kind of Gilmore Girls charm the show seems to be reaching for.  But it’s not reaching hard enough:  every episode can’t, in the same backwards-condescending manner, require Zoe to appreciate the down-home warmth of Bluebell and its inhabitants, while she proves to them all that, while a New Yorker, she’s also a human being.

The episode introduced a new continuing plot point, which is that under Harley’s partnership agreement with Brick, Zoe will have to bring in enough patients to cover 30% of the total practice revenues, or Brick can buy her out.  Since at the moment everyone in town except Lavon, Wade and George has contempt for her, this will be a challenge, but considering that the show’s storyline will require it, we can expect she’ll manage to meet the obligation.  The medical story of the episode had Zoe agreeing to hide the MS of Lemon’s cousin so that the cousin could take part in the Founders Day parade, even though doing so meant Zoe had to wreck the parade herself and bear the town’s wrath (showing, again, that Zoe really does have a good heart).

The dynamic of Hart of Dixie is basically the same as that of A Gifted Man, except with a little more soap and humor, and no ghosts.  If the show is to survive, it’ll have to start finding plots that go beyond the original premise, and make more of the supporting characters than the stick figures they currently are–one of the reasons Northern Exposure worked for years, with essentially the same storyline, was that the ensemble was so strong.  For now, Bilson’s charisma and the geniality of the proceedings is enough to justify giving Hart of Dixie a little time to–like its lead character–try to find its better self.
Original Verdict:  Change the Channel
Pilot + 1:  Could Recover


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."