[The following contains spoilers for Sweet Magnolias Season 3. Read at your own risk!]
Cozy shows get a bad rap. Typically dismissed as unimportant or silly, the coziest, the warm and fuzziest, shows tend to get very little respect — but people who follow that line of thinking are doing it all wrong. Cozy shows — where all people are ultimately good and kind, where problems are manageable, and where things always seem to work out in the end for all the attractive people in their lux knitwear who live in that one town with the quirky holidays and the never-ending supply of well-decorated homes — are a necessary addition to your TV lineup. They offer relief and a reminder that hope and optimism do actually exist in this bleak, bleak world, if you can believe it. Imagine only ever watching shows like The Bear or Succession (two of the least cozy shows I have ever laid my eyes on)! I'm not a doctor, but you will get an ulcer. Cozy shows are basically an over-the-counter antidote to the stress of other shows. They are a balm and, thus, should be taken perhaps the most seriously.
Sweet Magnolias has been high on my personal list of shows to turn to when I'm in need of something warm and comforting. The Netflix series, based on the novels by Sherryl Woods, follows three best friends, Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), Helen (Heather Headley), and Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott), as they navigate life's ups and downs in the idyllic South Carolina town of Serenity, a place where most problems can be solved over a pitcher of margaritas. Buoyed by the chemistry between Swisher, Headley, and Elliott, the first two seasons of Sweet Magnolias are charming enough to cut through some of its more egregious cheese (there is so much cheese), and it's those three performances that carry the show even when certain storylines aren't clicking (please see almost anything with the kids and/or Bill [Chris Klein] and Noreen [Jamie Lynn Spears]). With its third season, however, that might not be quite enough anymore.
Sweet Magnolias seems to have broken the first rule of cozy shows: Always remember that cozy doesn't mean boring. It's not that Season 3 of the series is doing something different and it isn't working; it's more that Season 3 is exactly as you'd expect. Maybe some might argue that consistency is what is so comforting about a show like Sweet Magnolias, but Season 3 makes it obvious that the series has never been more in need of a push forward. It would do the show some good to sit in the flaws of the characters a little longer, to not button up conflict so efficiently all the time. I'm not saying that problems shouldn't be resolved by season's end — resolution is comfort, after all — but there can still be gray areas within those conflicts, problems can be looked at a little more closely, and consequences can have long-lasting effects on characters. Perhaps the need for a little growth is more obvious this season because all of the most memorable and most successful storylines in Season 3 are the ones that take some real time to clean up. When Sweet Magnolias allows itself to get messy, it really works.
There's no better example of this than Helen and Ryan's (Michael Shenefelt) doomed relationship. At the end of Season 2, when Ryan, the love of Helen's life, rolled back into town promising that this time it would be different — that he was a changed man and finally wanted to settle down in Serenity with Helen — it would've been easy and, frankly, typical of this show to give them the happy ending (or, rather, happy beginning) Helen always dreamed of. She even kicks sweet Eric (Dion Johnstone) to the curb for this dummy! In a much more interesting twist, however, Ryan fails Helen once again halfway through Season 3, setting up a truly gutting breakup scene. It's angry and emotional and complicated. (Headley is easily this season's MVP, by the way.) Even though things are clearly over, it's not wrapped up in a neat bow. There is no closure (not yet, anyway). Helen has to grapple with the consequences of choosing Ryan and letting Eric go. By the end of the season, she's moving forward, but nothing is tidy about it. It's such a smart decision for the show, and it provides some real emotional depth to Helen and the series as a whole.
In another smart move, the same storyline functions as a catalyst for friction between the Magnolias themselves — gasp! I know — as each of them demonstrate some of their biggest flaws. Their friendship has been tested before, but not to this extent, and while I think their rift could've lasted a little longer and its resolution dug a little deeper (just because you have the best intentions to do better doesn't always mean you can help yourself, you know?), it's exactly the kind of complication the series needs if we're going to buy into this friendship for however many seasons this story gets.
For Sweet Magnolias to have some meaningful longevity, it would be nice to see it lean more into its characters' flaws and give it a little bite. Let people make mistakes and have trouble fixing them for a while! The series introduces a great antagonist for the season in Kathy (Wynn Everett), Ronnie's (Brandon Quinn) sister with a chip on her shoulder, who has it out for the Magnolias. A great addition to the story, Kathy riles people up and is the source of conflict in various capacities, and while it's the right move to humanize Kathy rather than making her a cartoon villain, by the end of the season, she's on her way to being a good person, and that's unfortunate. Not every character needs to strive to be a good person. Or, if they do, at least let people falter a little bit on their journey.
Take Dana Sue and Ronnie, for example: Once the hottest couple in Serenity, now that they're in marriage counseling and it's working, they feel a bit neutered this season. The great on-screen chemistry between Elliott and Quinn is still there, but in the few instances when conflict arises, it's squashed almost immediately. When Ronnie confesses to paying Kathy off with a big chunk of change from the money Dana Sue received from Miss Frances in order to get Kathy out of town and out of their hair, Dana Sue is angry but quickly goes into counseling-speak and forgives him on the spot. The situation calls for a little more tension than that. Sure, the Sullivans suffer some financial consequences (sort of), but there's almost no real conflict within their marriage, which would be much more interesting to explore. Give us the heat! Give us a slammed door or two! Then, an episode or two later, give us the moment of forgiveness and healing followed by some implied (always implied in Serenity) make-up sex on the couch! There is no bigger snoozefest than watching a couple take marriage counseling seriously and be successful at it, OK? In reality? Fine. On a TV series? Hard pass!
The mere fact that Sweet Magnolias' more angsty storylines shine so much in Season 3 provides hope that, should there be more stories about the folks in Serenity, the conflict will continue to grow more layered. Because when it comes down to it, these emotionally complicated storylines make the more peaceful, kind, and healing moments that much warmer. The best kind of cozy shows know how to find that balance.
Sweet Magnolias Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.