Centers on three South Carolina women, best friends since high school, as they shepherd each other through the complexities of romance, career, and family.
Not to be confused with Steel Magnolias, this show isn’t going to knock your socks off, but if you’re looking for something that feels so far removed from real life that it’s basically a Southern fantasy series, then look no further. There’s even long, panned shots of American-flag-waving covered porches and tastefully decorated mansions that make it feel a bit like an HGTV ad. Adapted from Sherryl Woods’ The Sweet Magnolias book series (which these reviews make me very scared to read), this ten-episode season will take you through the small town trials and tribulations of three best friends who decide to open a spa together.
There’s also secondary storylines for some of the teenagers, as Dana Sue’s daughter is secretly in love with Maddie’s eldest son (a popular baseball star) while she pals around as BFFs with Maddie’s middle child (a drama nerd), who wishes she had feelings for him instead. Throw in some side characters who have drama of their own, and there’s something for everyone!
Joanna Garcia Swisher as Maddie Townsend
Joanna has been working steadily since the ‘90s and if you haven’t seen her in something by now then you must never have watched TV (especially CW in the early 2000s). There’s something about her presence that I just like and enjoy, which makes her the perfect fit for Maddie, the wholesome mom of three who is in the process of divorcing her cheating husband as the show opens. Maddie is definitely a bit Mary-Sue-ish to start and wears some questionably prim outfits, but I didn’t turn on this show for its complex character studies.
Brooke Elliot as Dana Sue Sullivan
Best known for her role as dead-model-turned-ghost-lawyer Jane on Drop Dead Diva, Brooke plays Dana Sue, a chef with her own successful restaurant specializing in (you guessed it) Southern home cooking and fancy cocktails. Her teen daughter, Annie, butts heads with her in with every episode because they are crappy at communication, and she also has a mysterious ex-husband who…did something super dastardly to her or her restaurant that we never learn about for all of season one (if I’m remembering correctly. By the end I was so confused about IF we knew what he did to make her hate him so much that I may have completely overlooked the reveal). She also has a mondo chip on her shoulder with, like, everyone except her BFFs, and it was an adjustment from seeing her as Jane—who was a super upbeat character who was always smiling—to Dana Sue, who really should’ve been renamed as Debbie Downer.
Heather Headley as Helen Decatur
This casting made me fangirl a little, because Heather Headley was THE Aida in the original Broadway production and soundtrack of Disney’s Aida, one of my all-time favorite musicals. Her singing voice is phenomenal (and her speaking voice is also super soothing to listen to). Helen is a lawyer, and the only one of the three who left to see the great wide world and still moved back to their tiny town. She’s often the voice of reason amongst her friends and the best dressed to boot (case in point), and has a storyline with the popular “mean girl” of the high school that I thought was sweet (predictable, but still sweet). Definitely my favorite Magnolia lady.
I’m showing my age when I was taken aback to find that “teen heartthrob” Chris Klein is now playing middle-aged dad roles. I personally found him as milquetoast as they came back in the day, so once I got over the name recognition I adjusted quickly. Bill is Maddie’s well-off and foolish ex-husband who knocked up a nurse at his pediatrics practice and decided to marry her. Any time Maddie had to rip him a new one about his lack of parenting skills or lack of boundaries about casually stopping by the old family home, I very much enjoyed it.
Jamie Lynn Spears as Noreen Fitzgibbons
Okay, THIS casting choice took me way by surprise and I totally did a double-take when I looked her up and realized she is Britney’s little sis! I had no idea she even acted (and apparently hasn’t since 2008). I kept wondering why she was so familiar. Jamie Lynn plays Noreen, the kinda ditzy and pregnant nurse who tore Maddie’s life apart, with a guileless air that makes it hard to completely dislike her. Like, yeah, it’s pretty effed up that she willingly slept with a cheater (in such a small town you KNOW she knew his entire family), but now that everything is out in the open, Noreen is SUPER eager to be a step-mom to Maddie and Bill’s kids and mom to her unborn baby.
It’s clear that she’s a) very young (ew, Bill!) and b) didn’t have a lot of love as a child, so she’s trying—a bit too forcefully—to make this new ready-made family for herself, and honestly, it’s all a little sad. I spent the entire show hoping that she’d kick Bill to the curb and that Maddie, Dana Sue, and Helen would take her under their wings as show her how to be a kickass single mom.
Justin Bruening as Coach Cal Maddox
As I went to type this post up and looked at IMDB, I realized I had been mistakenly confusing Justin for George Stults, who had a role in 7th Heaven years ago. (I’m sorry, Justin, for lumping you in with that ridiculous show and for silently mocking you in my head about it all this time. It turns out you actually acted in a completely different ridiculous show, Grey’s Anatomy, where you played a bland religious do-gooder who simply reminded me of someone who would’ve been on 7th Heaven. My bad!) Anyway, Justin plays Coach Cal, the hot baseball coach who all the baseball moms want to *insert baseball sexual innuendo that I couldn’t make work without sounding super weird here*. Of course he and Maddie keep getting thrown together because her son on the team and, well, they are two attractive and single people. Oh, true love!
Couch-Sharing Capability: Low
Sweet Magnolias was released in 2020, so you’re probably not couch-surfing with your besties all that often, but honestly it’s not exactly must-see TV anyway; the chance that you’d schedule a friend-date to watch it together is low. BUT. What I consider a must is finding a friend—or badgering one into it—who also watches that you can text with, because you will get lots of satisfaction out of gossiping about the storylines (just like you would if you lived in Serenity!).
Recommended Level of Inebriation: Margarita Magic
Maddie, Helen, and Dana Sue, without fail, get together every week for Margarita Night, where they catch up on each other’s lives and get tequila tipsy. Break out your own blender and margarita mix so you can cheers your TV as they drink from their own fishbowl-sized glasses.
Use of Your Streaming Subscription: Excellent
Aside from the popular network shows and movies you actually bought Netflix to watch, this is exactly why Netflix exists: for finding decent-ish enough TV to put on in the background to keep you company as you play your millionth game of Freecell because you just need a g-d break from everything real life. Or, you know, so I hear…