Sweet Magnolias, the Netflix original, was released in the year 2020 and has ever since gathered enough commercial success to have gotten renewed twice. The Netflix series is set in Serenity, a fictional town situated in South Carolina. The story being set in the southern state would mean all the characters are God-fearing people. As the name of the town suggests, the residents are cordial and peace-loving who couldn’t imagine not carrying out good deeds. Amongst this populace are three women from Serenity who have been best friends since their school days and are very much part of the community fabric.
‘Sweet Magnolias’ Plot
The show begins with three women, Helen, Maddie, and Dana Sue, who are independent and have been best friends for decades. All three of them are middle-aged women who are at important junctures in their lives. Maddie and her husband, Dr. Bill Townsend, get divorced over his infidelity, and she must go back to taking up a full-time job. Helen is a lawyer who is single and has earned enough money for herself to buy an old historical home from one of the famous town elders, Mrs. Frances. Dana Sue Sullivan is a chef and a restaurant owner, and she has also been separated from her husband for many years. Along with Helen, she has also invested in the mansion, and the two of them plan to open a spa for women and hire Maddie to run it.
Maddie’s kids: Tyler, Kyle, and Katie, are suffering from the aftermath of the divorce. Tyler is a gifted baseball player, but he is the most affected of the three. Kyle is trying to come to terms with his parents’ separation while he forms an unexpected friendship with his father’s fiancée, Noreen, the woman his father left them for. Dana Sue’s daughter Annie, who is good friends with Ty and Kyle, is going through the regular teenage angst phase. Annie likes photography and always carries a camera with her in her bid to become better at her hobby and turn it into a skill that could get her paid. Annie secretly likes Ty, and Kyle has a crush on Annie, but everyone keeps mum about it to retain the sanctity of the friendship.
One of the three Sweet Magnolias, Helen is a successful attorney at law. She is a good-natured person who helps the people of her town as much as she can in her capacity as a resident, and she is a vocal member of the local town community. She purchases the old mansion from Mrs. Frances to turn it into a spa to improve employment opportunities in Serenity.
Her ex-boyfriend Ryan shows up in Serenity, and all her old feelings spring up. Even though she had harbored a love for Ryan since their school days, Helen had to take a stand for herself when he declared that he didn’t intend to have kids. Helen had always wanted to have kids, and this time she could not sacrifice her dream just for love. The love they have for each other should translate in some way, and for her, it would be in the form of a child. Within weeks of Ryan leaving her life, she became pregnant with his child, but she never informed him. She assumed the worst if she had let him know. To avoid the pain, she only informed Dana Sue and Maddie. Helen had also formed a cordial friendship with Dana Sue’s new sous chef, Erik Whitley. The man is haunted by his memories of being married and losing his wife. The two bond over losing their partners, and they find themselves attracted to each other. Just like Maddie and Dana Sue, he became a close friend as well.
Helen goes through a miscarriage, and only her two best friends, and Erik are by her side. His presence during the worst days of her life made a lot of sense to her, and they were quick to acknowledge their feelings for each other and start the IVF process. Helen and Erik seem like a perfect couple because he never tried to change her or the dreams she had for herself. They were extremely happy until everything fell apart when Ryan showed up at Mrs. Frances’ funeral. Without knowing her history of miscarriage and her brand-new relationship with Erik, he proposes marriage to her. Helen is confused, which is very unlike her. As a viewer, I assumed it would be easy for her to choose between either of them, but it turns out that even for a fiercely independent woman like her, making a sound decision was difficult.
Helen chooses to be with Ryan because of their history. Even though she wants to believe Ryan is willing to have kids and be with her in Serenity, there emerges a constant tension between them after they get back together. The conflicts rise slowly when Ryan realizes he cannot live in a small town all his life. Amidst all of this, Maddie and Dana Sue end up asking Helen the wrong question. They wanted to know if Helen was happy with Ryan. Offended by the fact that they would think otherwise, Helen gets angry and goes incommunicado for weeks until she finally breaks up with Ryan. She had to break up with him because she couldn’t lie to herself anymore that her relationship was working. It was better to end everything now than get into a marriage which would lead to a bitter divorce. Knowing she broke Erik’s heart for Ryan, the guilt in her will stay forever.
Maddie’s life had gone for a toss when her husband, Dr. Bill Townsend, ended their marriage to marry his colleague, Nurse Noreen, with whom he had had an affair that led to her pregnancy. Realizing she must foray into full-time work, she is allowed to manage the Corner Spa owned by her best friends Helen and Dana Sue. She starts loving her job, and thanks to the divorce, a whole lot of time is dedicated to her kids as well. Maddie feels betrayed because she spent half her life taking care of their kids, and he ended up ruining their marriage. This divorce was her way to gain newfound independence and seek a kind of love that would not try to change her as a person. She finds this in Tyler’s baseball coach named Cal Maddox. They begin as friends, which slowly develops into love. Cal gives her space to breathe because she is fresh out of the divorce. There is a compatibility between them that rubs off on her kids, who start to like having Cal around.
Maddie and Cal’s relationship is tested when Kyle gets into an accident, and on the same night, Ty suffers an arm injury as well. Maddie knew she would have to step in and give all her time to the kids because, unlike Bill, she did not want to be a distant parent figure. Ty’s recovery did not take as much time as Kyle’s did because Kyle was frustrated by being neglected. Maddie and Cal dedicate all their time to Kyle’s recovery, and the two of them are successful in turning Kyle back into a fun-loving boy. Maddie had to balance a hundred spinning plates this time around, even though Kyle’s bitterness mentally bothered her. Things go south when she decides to go after the local mayor, Trent Lewis, for financial embezzlement, and in retaliation, Trent’s wife gets rid of Cal from the school over bogus anger issue charges. It was the first time she had witnessed an angry version of Cal, and she was not ready to see this side of him because all this time, he had been nothing but patient with her. Maddie wonders if she’s jumped from one toxic relationship to another.
Maddie was sensible enough not to break up with Cal and was willing to listen to him. This helped both rediscover themselves as friends first and later as lovers. Maddie turned out to be the most sensible of the lot because she decided not to take Bill back into her life because she was done being played by him, and she stood by Cal and let the relationship grow gradually. Maddie was the one who asked the infamous question to Helen, which led to the group falling apart for a while. Maybe staying apart was required for the three of them to collect themselves and come back with a fresh mindset. Maddie was the only one who never questioned her decisions, which led to her having a steady mind.
Dana Sue Sullivan
Dana Sue Sullivan is a chef by profession and a restaurant owner who is adamant about how things are supposed to run at Sullivans’. She has a teenage daughter, Annie, who works part-time with her. Dana Sue comes across as a logical person because she was able to establish a business from scratch and has turned it into a successful venture. The people of the town love her place, and just like Helen, she comes across as a friendly person who will go out of her way to aid people in need. Dana Sue has been separated from her husband, Ronnie, for some time, and her daughter does not approve of this new setup. Dana Sue and her two closest friends gather at one of their homes and indulge in margaritas to discuss the week. The three of them are like sisters and do not make any major decisions without each other’s advice. She briefly dated her business partner Micah, and soon after that, she dated a farmer named Jeremy, who was willing to invest in the restaurant. Dana is a stern mother as well because she never lets her teenage daughter question the life she is leading right now, even though Annie makes it clear many times that she misses her father.
Jeremy and Dana Sue date for a while until Ronnie, her estranged husband, shows up, asking for forgiveness. The woman initially does not entertain any of his moves, but Ronnie makes a lot of effort to let her know that he can be trusted. After many emotional sessions of the couple’s counseling, Dana Sue agrees to give their marriage another chance. She is also left with large inheritance money by the town’s favorite, Mrs. Frances, who suddenly passed away. Dana puts the money towards her daughter’s college fund.
With Ronnie moving in, the two go out of their way to make their marriage work. They go through their ups and downs when Ronnie’s estranged family member shows up, causing a lot of distress. Ronnie takes it upon himself to sort the matter by offering some money. He did this so that Dana Sue does not have to get involved in this because he understands her busy schedule. The two of them decide to renew their wedding vows, and the entire event is planned by her best friends. Dana Sue is happy with him, and there seems to be nothing that would break them up. Dana’s resilience was strong, which made her decide it might be time to bring Ronnie back into her life.
The eldest son of Bill and Maddie Townsend is a gifted baseball player. He was deeply affected by the sudden announcement of his parents’ divorce. Ever since, Tyler ‘Ty’ Townsend has not been okay. His game too has been affected because of this big familial change. He was used to his father being involved in the game, but with Bill busy with his new life, Ty feels abandoned. Even though Maddie tries to fill in Bill’s shoes, it is never enough for the boy. Ty is in his late teens, and he goes through conflicting thoughts about love and commitment after seeing what his parents went through. As a result, the boy matures quickly. He starts dating CeCe, the popular girl in school, and they end up falling in love soon. Through her, he understands the privileged life he has been leading because CeCe comes from a family that isn’t as well off as his.
On the night of the school prom, his younger brother Kyle gets into an accident, and the same night he ends up injuring his arm. Both Kyle and Ty go into recovery mode, and Maddie gives all her time to them. Though Ty carries a rather positive attitude, he learns that his injury will make him ineligible for the baseball scholarship. This upsets him because this scholarship was his dream, and losing it would mean he would have to choose another path for himself. As long as he can remember, there is nothing more important than baseball in his life, and giving it up would mean letting go of his childhood and embracing adulthood.
Ty quits baseball and starts looking for other college options that will broaden his perspective. He does miss his game when his friend talks about football games, and he is tempted to move to a school that might give him some prospect of attaining a baseball scholarship. Ty is in his late teens and will be venturing into his twenties, and it is only during this time that he is allowed to make mistakes and explore his options. Relying on his old dreams comes easy to him, but venturing into newer ones seems like a tough job. Ty, by the end of the third season, plans to take a break for a year to figure out what he wants to do in life.
Annie is the only daughter of Dana Sue and Ronnie, and she has been a typical teenage kid, just like Ty. She and her mother are not as well off as Ty’s parents, so she has played her part by working part-time as a waitress at her mother’s restaurant. She is best friends with Ty and Kyle. Annie also does photography as a hobby, and she realizes this could be pursued professionally if she regularly worked on developing her skills. The girl is going through her angst period, where she keeps blaming her mother for not giving her dad a chance to make this marriage work. As a young girl, she does not understand the meaning of love and commitment. Annie and Ty slowly drift apart when he starts dating CeCe, and Annie does not hide her resentment.
Annie, Ty, and Kyle further drift apart after Kyle’s accident and Ty’s injury. Since they haven’t spoken in a while, she has nothing worthwhile to convey to them. Such ups and downs are part of teenage friendships. Annie soon starts dating Jackson Lewis, the son of Serenity’s mayor. Initially, their relationship was not a problem. Since their mothers ended up at loggerheads over the removal of his father from the post of Mayor, he is banned from dating her while they keep meeting each other. The two major obstacles they faced were his mother and the distance because his family moved to a nearby town. Annie thinks this relationship is meant to be because Jackson goes out of his way to meet her discreetly. The two of them are caught by Annie’s parents, and she is grounded till she goes to college.
Annie wanted Jackson to rescue her or at least try to be there for her. He knew Dana might inform his mother, but he did not want to be grounded just like Annie. She was heartbroken for a while. When she finally runs into him, she lets him know that he handled the situation badly and breaks up with him. Their romance was one of a kind because, for the longest time, it felt as if they were meant for each other, and soon it had almost turned into a Romeo-Juliet situation. Thankfully, nobody dies here, and Annie soon learned her lesson, which is to date better boys from now on. Annie’s college plans have not been discussed here, but the brief talk she had with her parents implies that she wanted to pursue creative arts because of her interest in photography. Annie will head to college, unlike Ty, and she will most likely get over Ty and Jackson.
Sweet Magnolias mainly works because of the lead female protagonists, and their bond is the highlight throughout the three seasons. The rest of the show has a haphazard screenplay that has way too many subplots with indecisive conclusions. The makers, in the hope of making a nice show, end up sacrificing a lot of important technical aspects such as good direction, editing, and cinematography. These three key ingredients could not keep the show afloat. It is only the innate good nature of the residents, including the three women in the show, that has made Sweet Magnolias a sleeper hit ever since.