“Sweet Magnolias” is the surprise hit of the summer on Netflix.
Set in Serenity, a small Southern town, the series follows lifelong best friends Maddie, Helen and Dana Sue as they juggle divorce, careers, kids and romance. Within a week of its debut in late May, “Sweet Magnolias” shot to No. 1 on Neflix’s list of its top 10 trending shows .
Its sudden popularity was a surprise to almost everybody, including showrunner and executive producer Sheryl Anderson, who grew up in Northern Virginia and graduated from the College of William & Mary.
“I thought we’d have a slow build, but we had a wonderfully strong start. I was delighted, surprised and humbled all at the same time,” Anderson said by phone from her home in Los Angeles.
Netflix doesn’t release ratings of its shows. The only way to find out about a show’s popularity is by seeing whether it hits the coveted trending list on the streaming channel.
“I asked my kids to check to make sure I was reading it correctly,” Anderson said with a laugh.
“Sweet Magnolias” has been compared to shows such as “Gilmore Girls” and “Sex and the City” for its characters’ penchant for gathering for a weekly margarita night. It’s also been called a sweet Southern soap, similar to a Hallmark movie.
But that’s what has fans gobbling up the show, binge-watching all 10 episodes while quarantining at home due to the coronavirus.
It also helps that fans see familiar faces on the show: JoAnna Garcia Swisher, known for her role in “Once Upon a Time,” plays the main character; Chris Klein (from “American Pie”) is her cheating husband; and Jamie Lynn Spears (Britney’s little sister) plays a nurse.
“The core of this show is about the power of female friendship and how crucial it is to have people in your life who are willing to celebrate with you in the good times, mourn with you in the bad times and lift you up when you’re struggling,” Anderson said. “It sounds simple, but it’s not. It’s a gift.”
If you look closely, the setting might look familiar, too. “Sweet Magnolias” is filmed in Covington, Ga., where “Vampire Diaries” was shot. But this time, it’s a stand-in for a small town where everybody knows your business and the sprawling front porches are plentiful.
A self-described “Navy brat,” Anderson grew up in Alexandria and later headed to Williamsburg, where she earned a double major in theater and English at W&M. Originally, she wanted to be a playwright, so after college she moved to Washington, D.C., to figure out whether she should go to graduate school or to New York “to starve for my art,” she said.
But when some friends moved to Los Angeles, they said, “Move to L.A. The weather’s better.”
So she did. She got a job working at a TV production company, wrote spec scripts and eventually landed a job on the half-hour show “Parker Lewis Can’t Lose” on Fox.
“I realized I was more interested in telling longer stories, the kind of stories where characters grow and change,” she said. She moved into hourlong programming and landed a job on “Charmed,” starring Shannen Doherty on The WB.
“It was a lot of fun. I worked with amazing people. It had magic and romance. It was a blast. I’ve pretty much been working in hourlong TV ever since. It’s my sweet spot,” Anderson said.
“Sweet Magnolias” is based on a series of romance novels by Sherryl Woods, a Virginia author of more than 75 romance novels, including “Chesapeake Shores,” which has been turned into a series on the Hallmark Channel. She splits her time between her family’s summer home in Colonial Beach, Va., and Key Biscayne, Fla.
“I tried to write stories that a lot of women could relate to,” Woods said from her home in Colonial Beach. “I hit on things that women today are dealing with in real life, like divorce or childlessness. If they can see themselves in my characters, they can see hope; they can survive this difficult time. Strong friendships can help you get through things and strengthen your life no matter what you’re going through.”
That made Anderson a good fit for “Sweet Magnolias”: “I’m from Virginia. I’m in the middle of divorce. I can tell this story,” she said.
When Anderson adapted Woods’ books for the series, she made a conscious decision to diversify the characters.
“Everyone can see themselves in Serenity. We wanted representation of all sorts, not just racial but across orientations, across generations. To me, the beauty and strength of a community is in its diversity, and I wanted Serenity to reflect that,” Anderson said.
“It’s very timely in a way,” Woods added. “I think that Netflix did a fabulous job of looking for opportunities where they could broaden it.”
Broadway star Heather Headley, an African-American actress, stars as Helen, a strong Southern lawyer and one of the three Magnolias. Anderson added more African-American characters to the mix, as well as a gay couple, an interracial couple and octogenarians.
A favorite part of “Sweet Magnolias” for its fans is the weekly get-together over margaritas.
“The decision to have a margarita night in every episode was one of the best decisions we made in the writers room. It’s the beauty of knowing you have set time aside to be with your friends, and it gave a focal point to each episode,” Anderson said.
“I love the fact that if one of them calls with a problem and says, ‘I need to pour it out,’ their friends are there,” Woods added.
Now, the big question is: Will Netflix order a second season of “Sweet Magnolias”? No one can say for certain, but with the response the show has received, the showrunner and author are hopeful.
“We’re waiting with fingers and toes crossed,” Anderson said.