“Who else was in the car?!” Days after the new series Sweet Magnolias dropped on Netflix, the Internet erupted in a frenzy from the Season 1 cliffhanger crash akin to the kind of season finale audiences became accustomed to in the days of The West Wing and ER, or more recently, anything Shondaland. But Sweet Magnolias has succeeded on multiple levels, delivering that kind of jaw-dropping drama with Southern comfort, a story about the power of female friendship and chosen family that provides as much depth in the lives of the three magnolias—Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), a newly single mom and spa owner; powerhouse attorney Helen (Heather Headley); and badass restaurateur Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott)—as their teenage kids. Equal parts sexy and sweet, the balance of the story and its compelling characters comes courtesy of creator Sheryl J. Anderson, who received her degree in playwriting from William & Mary.
A self-proclaimed “Navy brat,” Anderson moved around a lot as a child, but spent her formative teen years in northern Virginia. Her parents raised her on a healthy diet of theatrical productions from The Kennedy Center and The National, which “ignited my passion.”
She brings that fire to the series, inspired by the Sweet Magnolias books by Sherryl Woods. The fictional town of Serenity feels reminiscent of Gilmore Girls’ Star’s Hollow, if you swap quirk for calm. But it’s a place where everyone knows everyone, the kids can’t wait to get out, but the adults prove there’s just a heartstring that’s too tough to cut. Here, Anderson shares how her foundation in playwriting impacts her TV writing, working with Heather Headley and other Broadway talent in the cast, scripting modern romance, and what the heck she was thinking with that wild season finale.
What drew you to study playwriting at William and Mary?
Sheryl Anderson: I was very fortunate to be raised by parents who loved the arts. As I got into high school, a beautiful English teacher made sure that I had [knowledge of] the plays of Noël Coward. And my parents had already introduced me to Thornton Wilder and Hart and Kaufman, and I was like, "Oh my gosh, the sparkle, the crackle, the wit." So I started reading plays a lot more in high school, so when I got to college I thought, "Well, I'll take acting classes and I'll take playwriting classes." And very, very quickly I was like, I'm leaving the acting to the other people. And I had a fabulous professor who mentored me, and there were a handful of us from his class who actually ended up in L.A. instead. That’s how I went from playwriting to television.
Why playwriting rather than going to a film program?
I really thought that theatre was what I was going to do. I always kid that I wanted to be Oscar Levant in American in Paris and just sit in a garret with a great view and write deeply. I wanted to be Dorothy Parker writing plays.
What struck you when you read the books that you wanted to translate to TV?
I loved that it was a testament to the power of female friendship. And that—at the core of it, for me—we all have to be strong on our own at times, but [about] the glory and the blessing of having people be strong for you with you. I looked at my mother and the remarkable women who had encircled her and her life, and I looked at the incredible women in my life and thought, I really want to tell this story.
In adapting a novel, how do you go about determining what the story arc is, and what has to fall to the wayside?
When we went into the writer's room, I said I wanted to draw from the first three books. Because the first book, and this is how romance novels are structured, every character gets their HEA, happily ever after. But you can't have HEAs in TV. So I wanted to take the three women and elements from each of the three books and manipulate the timelines as it were, so that we weren't watching one woman with the other two as spectators and then the next woman, you know, cycling through. But that everybody was enmeshed in their story at the same time. And we took events, sort of tent poles from the first book, to shape the season. It was really important to me that Ms. Woods' fans understand that we respected the novels, which we do, and that we were changing things because television has different demands. So as I said, we manipulated the timeline, we let some story points fall away, and then we created other characters and incidents along the way, because TV is more conflict driven. I like to think that if you don't know the books, you can't tell what we took from the books and what we added. That was our goal.
We here in the Broadway community are obviously very big fans of Heather Headley. So any excuse to watch her do anything. Tell me about your experience with her, casting her as Helen, and working with her.
I feel so blessed. She is amazing. All three of our ladies are amazing, but, oh my gosh Heather Headley. She’s a marvel to watch in process. Obviously on the screen, she's just so genuine and heartfelt and focused and powerful. I will tell you, I had a magical phone conversation with her when we were wooing her. And then when she said yes, I think I might've danced for a couple of hours. The first time I walked up to her in Georgia [on set], I thought, “Oh my gosh, my knees are shaking.” She had just had her baby and she was showing up for 2AM calls looking fresher and more put together than all the rest of us. And the immediate bond she had with [co-stars] JoAnna and Brooke was just magnificent. When we shot the first “margarita night” our producing director and I were like, “That's it.” That's magic. That's lightning in a bottle. That's the show.
Are there conversations that you had with her or any of the three of them that led to bring something out in that character or that just affected your writing in a specific way?
We actually had written all the scripts before we started shooting, but there was one line I remember that Heather asked me about before a table-read. She just sort of arched an eloquent eyebrow and said, “Do you really think that Helen would say this?” And I said, “Oh, well, it's a joke.” And she said, “OK.” And we did the table reading and I went up to her, like flew across the room, the minute the table reading was over. And I was like, “You're right, the joke doesn't work and it's not a Helen joke and I will change it.” It was very collaborative. We not only have Heather, we have Chris Medlin, Brooke has been on Broadway. Caroline Lagerfelt. Dion Johnstone had just done [King] Lear before he came to us. So we have a real heart with Broadway on our show and I know I am one of millions who are praying that Broadway gets to come back very, very soon.
What is your secret to crafting compelling romance for all three women?
We had great source material and I had a writer's room filled with people who I think are romantics at heart, people who believe in love and joy and the excitement of meeting somebody new and figuring out where it can go and being worried about where it might go. We knew that that was the heart of the show. We wanted to make sure that everybody got their moments, but that we didn't make it too easy. I know a lot of people are annoyed with us that Dana Sue's men show up late in the game, but a writer's room's reach should exceed its grasp, or what's Season 2 for? And even though this is a romance, I didn't want these women defined by who they were in relationship with. I wanted everybody to meet them and love them as they are. The men that they encounter along the way are in addition to that; they do not define the women. That's why we delayed Dana Sue's romance, because we wanted to get into the mother-daughter dynamic more deeply.
I appreciate how thoughtful and contemporary the relationship dynamics feel. If this is the new wave of romance and masculinity, I am here for it.
That’s, again, working from Ms. Woods’ original material, but we had a predominantly female writing staff. And we spent a lot of time talking about the kind of partner you crave. What you look for in a good man, not necessarily an ideal man, but you know, good man. Respect was a big part of it. It really came from: who do these women deserve? These are fabulous women who deserve fabulous men. I feel very, very protective of the three magnolias. It's like matchmaking for a friend. I want you to be with someone who's worthy of you!
Speaking of places left to go, I mean, how dare you in that season finale! Such a raw emotional moment where you have the known tragedy and the unknown tragedy, and that visual of those three women just hugging each other. How did you decide that would be what you wanted to end Season 1 on?
We wanted to shake people up and leave them wanting more, but make it organic too. We are as invested in the teenagers as we are in the adults. And when we realized we were going to do prom night, we thought, “Well, you know, what's every parent's fear on prom night?” Once we had that, we were like, “What other tantalizing questions can we put on the table?” And we crafted it so that all those loose ends presented themselves as a season finale.
Do you have your plan of where the show goes if Netflix orders a second season?
Absolutely. We knew that in the room as we were finishing writing Season 1. I would not want us to go, “Well, let's do this 'cause it's really cool," and then get a Season 2 and go, "Oh, how do we get out of it?" We projected everything forward. It was like we sketched out an the 11th episode and then just went back with the scissors and said, “We're gonna save this part for later.” I dearly, dearly hope that we get to address everybody's concerns. What I appreciate about the fact that people are distraught is that means we did our job. That means that people care about the citizens of Serenity. And that was what was most important for me. My mandate early on was: We want everyone to be able to see themselves in Serenity.
Sweet Magnolias has been picked up for Season 2. A release date has not yet been announced.