‘Hart of Dixie’ Paints the South with Generic Nostalgia

“See the New Yorker in the Chanel jacket that doesn’t quite fit in?” That’s Dr. Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson), our protagonist for the new CW show Hart of Dixie. She enters her own form of doctors-without-borders when a series of unfortunate events throw her carefully ordered life in disarray. And really, that’s all we’re given to go on during a premiere episode that speeds by like a train.

Zoe appears less-than-devastated when her basically faceless boyfriend breaks up with her because she’s too career-oriented (though we know otherwise, because of a voice-over that explains her emotions plainly). In a double-whammy, she’s not admitted to her residency program because she has no bedside manner. Facing a lack of options, Zoe accepts a job as a doctor at a general practice in Bluebell, Alabama, because she’s been “exiled from Manhattan.”

Once in Bluebell, Zoe misdiagnoses an old man because she’s not paying attention, gets a boy named George (Scott Porter) whom she “kind of likes” in a car accident, makes an enemy of his lady-like fiancée (Jamie King), and starts crushing on her sexy, bad boy neighbor (Wilson Bethel). And that’s all in the first 20 minutes.

Zoe is a competitive, ambitious woman with bite that really just comes off as a bad attitude. Bilson’s previous attempts at bitchy-but-endearing or snappy-but-endearing have gone off well: she turned Summer on The O.C. into a devoted love interest for Adam Brody’s Seth, and as the girl-next-door on Chuck, she was more than endearing. She’s less successful in Hart of Dixie (the third show she’s worked on executive produced by Josh Schwartz), though how much of that is her fault remains to be seen: the writing thus far is stilted.

The new show features some elements of O.C.‘s style, highlighted during a meeting between Zoe and George on a pier: they share longing looks and a few weighted words about not getting to know each other better. We’re left wondering, how did they get there? Do these two people, who have known each other for a couple of hours, know each other well enough to have shared phone numbers, let alone warrant this intense a goodbye?

In such faux romantic scenes, the South sure looks, well, pretty. “The nearest high-falutin’ coffee place,” is 11 miles away from town, and Zoe gets dropped off on a bus on a highway, which lets you know just how in-the-middle-of-nowhere we’re supposed to be.

Still, Zoe views the place with a kind of generic nostalgia, indicated by the warm-toned lighting, which appears to imitate her idealistic and simplistic filter. Lavon (Cress Williams), her landlord and also Bluebell’s mayor, is a former NFL player who ended up here, apparently because he just wanted to be a god again. To take it further, this is translated into regional eccentricity: Lavon has a pet alligator that frightens Zoe while she’s wandering drunk down a muddy back road, drinking box wine, in what is amounts to the only subtle and hilarious plot point in the episode. Which isn’t to say that the fact that the fact that this town is so safe she can do that, and that Bluebell has no good wine isn’t a huge stereotype of Zoe’s new home.

The episode sprinkles topical references about today’s South to make you feel like this universe exists, but they land with thuds. An interaction Zoe has with a precocious preteen (Rose Hattenbarger) is smattered with comments about New York Magazine‘s Daily Intel blog and Sex and the City (both Rose and Zoe feel like Mirandas who wish they were Carries), while Zoe’s arguments with the mean, close-minded town doctor (Tim Matheson) include Hurricane Katrina and the BP oil spill as cultural touchstones. These moments don’t do much to set the location, but they do make the script feel like it’s trying too hard.

But Hart of Dixie isn’t trying too hard. If anything, it feels incredibly easy. One thing it does is set up some drama for the future (unsurprising, coming from the CW). We’ve got a potential love-square among Zoe, Lavon, George, and his fiancée. The no-nonsense secretary at the medical practice (Nancy Travis) appears to be Zoe’s only true foil, and it’s unclear if her role will go much further than chastising grandmother-type.

And the twist that keeps her in town (Zoe’s father is not the man she believes “stopped loving” her, but the man who left her the practice) seems like an afterthought — though it appears we’re supposed to believe that those daddy issues run deep, and will crop up later.

These may interfere with her relationship with George, but it’s more likely the star-crossed lovers will have more obvious obstacles to come. Zoe tells George, “Well, that smile might make all the girls at the church social swoon, but it’s not going to work on me.” To that, we might reply, “That cute premise might work on others, but it won’t work on us.” Hart of Dixie doesn’t look to be much more than what you’d unfortunately expect. At the end of the first episode, it’s a new patient experiencing the miracle of life that keeps Zoe around (literally, she helps a young convenience store worker give birth). “I believe I can do some good here,” she says, to let you know she’s staying. Sorry Zoe — we don’t really care.

RATING 4 / 10