The CW’s new “Hart of Dixie” (it debuts tonight at 9) is several familiar kinds of shows in one. Most obviously, it’s a fish-out-of-water story of a big-city doctor – in this case, Rachel Bilson from “The O.C.” as young New York heart surgeon Zoey Hart – trapped in a small town with an unfamiliar culture. (Think “Northern Exposure” or “Doc Hollywood.”)
It’s also what Fienberg likes to call a Vocational Irony Narrative, in which a character’s strengths in his or her professional life turn out to be a huge weakness personally. Here, this theme is voiced by an older surgeon who explains that Zoey is too cold and remote to qualify for a prestigious fellowship, telling her, “If you want to be a heart surgeon, then you’ve got to work on your own.”
And in her search for her own heart – which eventually takes her to the fictional town of Bluebell, Alabama, where she inherits half of the local medical practice from the kindly country doctor who ran it – Zoey is also becoming the latest heroine to try to help the CW find the heart it left behind when the network was created out of transplanted body parts from the WB and UPN.
The CW has been here before with “Privileged” and “Life Unexpected,” two shows that tonally felt like throwbacks to the kinder, gentler WB days rather than the the cold, cutthroat WB aesthetic embodied by “Gossip Girl.” Neither of those shows succeeded, but “Hart of Dixie” at least has Bilson, as well as, ironically, a cadre of “Gossip Girl” producers, with Leila Gerstein as the creator and head writer.
Bilson isn’t particularly believable as some Cristina Yang-style surgical robot, but that’s just the excuse to put her on the bus to Alabama, where she gets to show off the likability and comic chops she displayed for four seasons as Summer Roberts on “The O.C.” (also involving most of these producers). She helps cut through the formula cliches, and the broad-bordering-on-cartoonish town of Bluebell(*), where the accents are thick, the gators roam free (and have names like Burt Reynolds) and the good-mannered people don’t know quite what to do with an impolite interloper like Zoey.
(*) Though, to be fair, even the better WB dramas were sometimes guilty of this. Stars Hollow on “Gilmore Girls” – which existed on the same Warner Bros. backlot where “Hart of Dixie” will shoot all episodes after the pilot – took a while to evolve beyond a Rockwellian fantasy village.
The pilot introduces a lot of potential friends, allies and lovers for Zoey, including Scott Porter as a hunky lawyer, Wilson Bethel as the bad boy to counteract Porter’s good one, Jaime King as the local belle of the ball (named Lemon, of all things), Cress Williams as the ex-jock mayor (and Zoey’s landlord), and Tim Matheson as the doctor who shares the practice with Zoey and wants her gone, ASAP.(**) (The pilot also heavily features Nancy Travis as the practice’s administrator, but she won’t be back due to her commitment to ABC’s upcoming sitcom “Last Man Standing.”)
(**) Think of him as Tom Amandes on “Everwood,” perhaps this show’s closest WB analogue.
It’s a good cast, and Porter in particular works very well with Bilson. The show just needs to find a way to transcend both formula and Southern stereotypes, then wait and see if there really is an audience for this kind of show anymore on the CW, or if the network long ago chased away anyone who enjoys a bit of sentiment with their attractive young stars.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org