I hadn't written about the CW's Hart of Dixie until now, because it involves admitting that I'd watched beyond the pilot. I have. I've watched almost every episode. (The same is true of 2 Broke Girls, even though I vowed not to watch past the second episode -- and renewed that vow after the writers used racially offensive jokes about Asians, then made unfunny reference to Sapphire's PUSH and Hurricane Katrina -- but that's another article.)
Hart of Dixie was problematic for me from the gate, simply because, in my mind, any mention of "Dixie" evokes images of confederate flags and fond memories of the good ol' days when my people were enslaved. I knew the show was a fish-out-of-water romcom, featuring yet another of the CW's requisite post-adolescent, fresh-faced predominantly white casts.
Then I found out Cress "Scooter" Williams plays a principal role and decided to watch. He plays Lavon, the mayor of Bluebell, the Alabama town where the show's set. In the pilot, the writers allude to the fact that he was only elected because he once played in the NFL. Rachel Bilson's character, Zoe Hart, is even initially taken aback that the town is "progressive" enough for a Black mayor.
So it begins.
The show's racial objective is murky, but it obviously has one. First, the African American cast seems to multiply every week. The medical receptionist at Zoe's office was initially played by Nancy Travis, who left to see a man about a generic ABC sitcom. She was -- rather intentionally, it seems -- replaced by pulitzer prize nominee Eisa Davis. Two eps after her introduction, her black policeman husband was added. In many episodes, one of the patients at the medical practice is black, especially if Williams or Davis have too little screen time.
Race has never been referenced beyond the pilot (and it wasn't directly mentioned there, either). But there's something about the show that is working a little too hard to convince us that smalltown "Dixie" in 2011 is merrily post-racial.
This assertion goes into overdrive whenever we're faced with the elephant in the town: Lavon the mayor is in love with an engaged, blonde, icily blue-eyed society girl named Lemon, who participates in Confederate re-enactments. They had a brief, offscreen affair before she agree to wed the town's golden boy, a lawyer named George.
Cress Williams and Jaime King, who plays Lemon, have great chemistry. They make it obvious that their characters are better suited for one another than Lemon and George are -- that is, if we can suspend disbelief long enough to buy that Lavon would be comfortable dating a daughter of the Confederacy.
But that's a pretty big belief suspension, isn't it?
On Monday night, I happened upon a viewer's #HartofDixie live-tweet: "I don't understand how Lavon and Lemon could ever be together. How is her character not racist?"
I pointed out that racism and attraction to a black man weren't mutually exclusive, which the tweeter countered with: "I know. But the character seems like the kind of cliche who would never date a black man."
The trend of treating interracial onscreen romances as matters of fact began in the '90s. But rarely are those romances set in the most historically racist regions of the country and presented without racial context.
Lavon is rather vocal about his lingering love for Lemon; for her part, she regards him lustfully and remorsefully, but remains dogged in her resistance to his advances. Then, she sabotages any attempts he makes to return to the Bluebell dating scene.
It's also noteworthy to mention that, for all his talk of love and desire, Cress is rendered as rather asexual in this role. In a show where men are being imagined near-naked at least once an episode, Lavon barely rates. Just last night, Zoe walked around loudly lamenting the lack of eligible men in Bluebell and no one even mentioned the mayor as an option. Mind you, Zoe lives with him and has seen him shirtless.
For all its work toward inventing a post-racial Dixie, the show misses a few marks and necessary conversations. Why does Lemon find Lavon so desirable behind closed doors, yet so inappropriate a marital partner? (She never says, and he never asks.) Why has Lavon been elected mayor when it's clear that the citizens find his role ceremonial rather than functional, often ignoring or steamrolling his decrees? And why isn't he allowed any black friends or relatives -- or doesn't he want to socialize with them?
Until we're afforded some insight into this town's true attitudes about race, this show will remain as implausible as you'd expect a drama featuring Rachel Bilson as a top-rated New York surgeon to be. And trust me: that's pretty implausible.