Rachel Bilson’s Hart of Dixie reviewed – It’s like Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde for the small screen

by Matt D

To most Rachel Bilson will always be best-remembered for her role as Summer in The O.C., because though after the show finished she had leading roles in both The Last Kiss and Jumper, she failed to set the big screen alight. So has returned to T.V. with Hart of Dixie. This time Bilson takes centre stage as Dr Zoe Hart, a brilliant young medic who dreams of being a cardiothoracic surgeon like her absent father, however she has one character defect, namely that she doesn’t get to know her patients.

The first ten minutes of Hart of Dixie’s opening episode sets up the plot to explain to us why Bilson is currently sitting on a bus full of Hillbillies, wearing an Armani suit and in her own words looking like she just doesn’t fit in. We rewind to her medical school graduation where she is approached an old Southern GP Harley Wilkes, who we are lead to believe is eccentric, who offers her a job at his surgery which she turns down. Instead she journeys to a New York hospital with her loving boyfriend but things start to unravel when he dumps her because she wants to talk about surgery more than his day or their future. It’s a theme that continues when she doesn’t get the scholarship she wants, as she doesn’t get to know the people she’s operating on. Her superior advises her to go into general practice for a year so she gets to realise that patients are people to heal rather than problems to solve. Shockingly there are no more GP rotations in New York so she has to take Dr Harley up on his offer, who has been sending her postcards since their first meeting, and journeys to the backwater town of Bluebell, Alabama.

Bluebell is just as big a part of Hart of Dixie as Rachel Bilson is and seems to be the stereotypical Southern town for people who have never been outside of New York. As the coach gets in we see images of burnt-out cars and roadside diners with old bearded men downing beers outside, essentially letting us know that this isn’t the kind of place in which Zoe is going to fit in. While walking down the dusty path towards town Zoe is picked up by George, a square-jawed Bluebell native who is apparently an attorney but for me he is the least convincing TV lawyer since Ally McBeal.

When Zoe rocks up to the surgery she discovers that Harley has died months ago and that the practice receptionist Mrs Hattenberger had been forwarding on the postcards in order to entice her to Bluebell and then it’s revealed that she had been left half of the practice in Harley’s will. The other half of the practice belongs to Tim Matheson’s Dr Brick Breeland, an antagonistic short-minded hunting enthusiast who wants the surgery all to himself and wants to push Zoe out by contesting Harley’s will. There are further complications for Zoe when George, who is destined to be her love interest, turns out to be the fiancée of Brick’s daughter Lemmon a Southern socialite who is surrounded by a posse of would-be Stepford Wives. However Zoe does find some friends in Bluebell, namely Mrs Hattenberger’s niece who is obsessed with Zoe as she is from New York and the mayor Lavon Hayes who is a former football player but more importantly has seemingly had a bit of a thing with Lemmon.

The question throughout the first episode is will Zoe stay in a place in which she is generally unwanted and in which the mayor’s alligator turns up randomly to scare her? The answer is of course and she soon has a chance to practice her bedside manner when she is the only one to notice that the simple local store-worker Mabel is pregnant. Of course it is up to Zoe to deliver the baby and help Mabel stand-up to her interfering mother so she sees this as a sign that she should stay in Bluebell. There is also a big revelation at the end of episode one, where Zoe finds out why she was left half of the practice in the first place and why her father has been so distant with her for years.

While I was watching Hart of Dixie I kept thinking that if this was a film then Reese Witherspoon would be in the leading role, as to me this combines elements of both Sweet Home Alabama and Legally Blonde. Though the programme that Hart of Dixie owes most of a debt to is Northern Exposure, as it also deals with a young doctor from New York who has to become accustomed to small town life in order to progress in their career.

In Northern Exposure it was to pay of a student loan, while in Hart of Dixie Zoe keeps reiterating that she will only be in Bluebell for a year. as she will then be eligible to apply for that all-important scholarship once again. Rachel Bilson is well-cast as the lead here, mainly because she can do the fish-out-of-water scenes very well and we can believe her as somebody who shouldn’t have left her big city lifestyle. In episode one alone she is shocked by an alligator, shouted out by the town’s queen bee and has to fumble about when her electricity goes out so essentially everything happens to Zoe bar her stepping in a giant puddle or getting splashed by a giant car however there is still time.

As well as Northern Exposure, Hart of Dixie definitely evokes memories of Gilmore Girls and Everwood as, shows in which the small town feel plays a big part to the plot. One of the programme’s best qualities is that it has an escapist nature this is because Bluebell is a place with lovely blue skies, untouched green grass and a town centre which has a bandstand right in the centre of it. To help Bilson out there are a reliable supporting cast to help her out including Cress Williams as Levon, Tim Matheson as Brick and Nancy Travis as Mrs H.

On the negative side I didn’t really buy Bilson as this tough-as-nails surgeon, as she is just far too likeable to take seriously as someone who doesn’t get along with other people. There was also the dreaded first-person narration which I’m never a fan of as Zoe talks us through her past, her feelings for the other characters and her reasons for leaving or staying in Bluebell. An over-abundance of country ballad heavy background music, which was particularly off-putting during the birth scenes, led me to believe that there will be a Hart of Dixie Soundtrack CD being released in the near future. Those criticisms aside I can’t say I was bored during Hart of Dixie, occasionally finding it a rather charming if slightly clichéd programme.

Bilson’s likeable nature will surely be better utilised in latter episodes as Zoe’s tough exterior is melted by the townsfolk of Bluebell and she will be torn whether to stay there or go back to New York a decision which will probably be based on whether or not The CW will decide to renew it. If you’re a fan of this sort of fish-out-of-water drama or a fan of Bilson I don’t think you will be disappointed and for me I could definitely see promise in this show. Overall Hart of Dixie is an enjoyable enough show which never claims to be original but does entertain as well as providing an hour full of uncomplicated light-hearted drama and is a show in which Bilson will likely thrive.

Hart of Dixie begins tonight on Really [Freeview Ch. 20, Sky Ch. 248] at 8pm.

Have you watched Hart of Dixie or will you be watching it tonight, if so what did you think? Leave Your Comments Below.