Every movie or TV show about a community of southern women will (and should) inevitably be held up to the paragon set by the 1989 classic “Steel Magnolias.” That movie, starring Sally Fields, Julia Roberts, Dolly Parton, Shirley MacLaine, Olympia Dukakis, and Daryl Hannah, sweetly and articulately explored the bonds of female friendship in a quirky, tight-knit Southern town, all centered around the marriage and family of Roberts’ character, Shelby Eatenton.
When Netflix came out with the first season of its TV series “Sweet Magnolias” in 2020, it was obvious the name was meant to evoke the ’80s girl gang classic. Centered on the friendship between childhood friends Maddie, Helen, and Dana Sue, as well as their families, struggles, and town drama, the show gave clear nods to its predecessor and celebrated community ties that were besieged by Covid restrictions and lockdowns.
My biggest critique of season one was its lack of strong marriages, a central foundation for strong families and strong communities. In season two, which came out this month and is currently No. 2 on Netflix’s Top 10 TV shows, that omission is even more glaring. (Spoilers ahead.)
Continuing from season one and into season two, Maddie’s marriage is in shambles after her husband got another woman pregnant and then left his wife for her. That reflects no fault of Maddie’s, of course, but was still an intentional decision by the screenwriters that leaves Maddie to be romanced by the local hunky ex-MLB star turned high school coach.
Dana Sue’s marital situation is also a mess, after she kicked her husband out for implied unfaithfulness. He’s not a major character in season one, but season two sees him trying to reconcile with his wife — and a conflicted Dana Sue enjoying his attention while also enjoying the advances of another man on the side.
To her and the screenwriters’ credit, she eventually acknowledges she can’t keep both suitors, realizes it’s only fair to the other guy to let him go, and allows her repentant husband to come home. There’s a decent emphasis on the significance of marriage vows as the couple works to reconcile.
But rather than being the exception to a baseline of functioning marriages, Dana Sue’s rocky situation is the only protagonist’s husband-wife relationship that’s even close to intact. In fact, the only unproblematic marriages showcased by the show are between the villainous mayor and his wife, and between side character Trotter and his husband. The only explicitly happy one is the latter.
Then there’s Helen, who has been unlucky in love but desperately wants a baby. After a pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage with her now-grown-up childhood sweetheart — who leaves her before finding out about the baby because he doesn’t think it’s “responsible” to bring more children into the world — Helen decides to have a baby on her own, no husband necessary. (Meanwhile, she’s also being wooed by her friend Erik, who is delightfully kind and caring.)
It’s refreshing to see the show celebrate the miraculous blessing that each baby in the womb is, as well as the joys of motherhood. But Helen’s attempt to artificially impregnate herself with a fatherless child to satisfy her own wants is very uncritically accepted as laudable and wonderful, when it is neither.
And when Helen sorrowfully learns it may be biologically too late for that route, the doctor coldly asks her, “Are there aspects of your current life you would forfeit for a hypothetical child?” to comfort her. Helen answers in the negative, further solidifying the assumption that the purpose of a child’s existence would be to bring Helen happiness.
Season two also sees a longer laundry list of awkwardly inserted woke lines. A young girl refers to “female identifying” characters in a game, in a sentence that no rational, normal ninth-grader would ever say. Maddie’s youngest child Katie informs her mother that if her baby half-sister “wants to be a princess she can. But if she wants to be an astronaut, that’s okay too.”
The cameraman makes a point to zoom in on a “Black, Pregnant, and Loving It” book that Helen is reading. The show also goes out of its way to celebrate Trotter and his husband’s decision to adopt a child, without even considering the fact that the child would never be afforded the chance to have a mom.
For a show centered on family, romance, and community, it would be nice to see one unproblematic husband-wife relationship that isn’t between the villains. In contrast, 1989’s “Steel Magnolias” had Shelby’s marriage and her sacrificial desire to have children with her husband, even at risk to her own health, at its center.
On screen as in real life, marriages are bedrocks of healthy communities. That doesn’t mean every good story is about marriage or relationships, but a family-centered romance like “Sweet Magnolias” just doesn’t have the same heart without them.