A self-described “Navy brat,” television writer and producer Sheryl J. Anderson has long been interested in people who grew up and lived their lives in one area. “Because I moved around so much when I was growing up, I always admired people with a deeply rooted sense of place,” Anderson tells me.
Anderson, who came into my life as a writing mentor and teacher, has an exceptional gift for understanding and, ultimately, pastoring others. It’s a gift that shines through in her writing. I sat down with Anderson recently to discuss Sweet Magnolias, a popular new Netflix show for which she is the executive producer and showrunner.
The series, which is set in the fictional South Carolina town of Serenity, is based on Sherryl Woods’s popular series of books by the same name. “I think that’s part of what I responded to in how Miss Woods had laid out Serenity… I thought, ‘If you lived your entire life in a town like this, how fascinating,’” Anderson explains. “And one of our central questions in the show is ‘how do you find your true self when you know everybody constantly knows your business—for good or ill?’”
Finding meaning in the messiness of life
That central question and the vibrant characters brought to life in Sweet Magnolias are clearly resonating with viewers. On the Sunday afternoon that Anderson and I spoke, she was celebrating the series reaching the #1 most watched on Netflix for the day. She doesn’t take this success for granted. Over a few decades in Hollywood, Anderson has written for a variety of shows from the 1990s comedy Dave’s World, to the original version of Charmed, to the 2015 show that she created and executive produced for UPtv called Ties That Bind. It turns out it was the ties from that last series that helped her land this new opportunity.
Her line producer on Ties That Bind, Matt Drake, just happened to be working on another series after that called Chesapeake Shores, the first book series by Sherryl Woods to be adapted into a television series. Executive producer Dan Paulson, who also owned the rights to Sweet Magnolias, had successfully pitched this new series idea to Netflix. So he was looking for a showrunner—someone to manage the development of the show scripts and production—to oversee the project . Drake recommended Anderson. He’d enjoyed working with her and saw that this new project just seemed like the right fit. It was also at a strangely serendipitous time.
When Paulson asked Anderson what she thought about the books, she noted that one of the main characters, Maddie, was “a Southern woman going through a bitter divorce.” At that time, Anderson was in the midst of her own longtime marriage ending. “I really felt that I deeply understood where Maddie was. I think it was helpful to have that perspective in writing her because, you know, there’s no such thing as a neat divorce,” she tells me.
Her own experience gave her an astute perspective on the portrayal of a mother navigating the messiness of life. As she talks of Maddie, she notes, “It was very important to me to show her shepherding her children through it and doing everything she could to protect them and give them a sounding board.”
“We also made the decision early on in the writers’ room [that] nobody has a neat life. Everybody’s life is messy,” she explains.
After hearing Anderson’s vision for the series and her unique ability to relate to the characters, Paulson knew he’d found the right person to wear the all-important showrunner hat.
The process of transforming these much-loved romance novels into a TV series began. Anderson was incredibly appreciative of how open Miss Woods—as Anderson respectfully refers to the author—was to her ideas and those that came out of the writers’ room. Anderson has nothing but praise for Miss Woods: “It’s been wonderful working with a novelist who is open to collaborating.” The first three books were separated into stories for each of the main leading ladies whom we see in the TV series: Maddie Townsend, Dana Sue Sullivan, and Helen Decatur. “In terms of adaptation, my goal was to honor the central themes, the central relationships of the books, and also to use key events,” she explains. The writers added characters and situations while taking storylines from the first three books and “braiding” them together to create a strong sense of the ensemble and a particular pacing to the show.
Sisterhood on-screen and behind the scenes
Through those interwoven stories, there exists more than simply an enduring friendship among the three main characters; it’s a true sisterhood. In the opening episode, Maddie (JoAnna Garcia Swisher), Helen (Heather Headley), and Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott) contemplate opening a new business together. Amidst all their lives’ turmoil and uncertainty, they each know the other two have their backs. This is solidified through their steadfast ritual of gathering to fill their glasses while they strengthen and refresh their spirits. Anderson reflects:
“That’s the beauty of margarita night...they can come together and, as we say, ‘pour it out’ and genuinely pour out what they’re celebrating, what they’re struggling with, what they’re worried about, and bring their unique world views together to help each other toward answers.”
Faith plays a central role in their relationships. Much like the three leading ladies of Sweet Magnolias, Anderson’s own values grow from a deep and abiding Christian faith. A proud lifelong Lutheran, she decided to have the town church be of the denomination she knows so well. That church serves as a place of refuge and rejuvenation for its congregants, as seen in several of the episodes. The wellspring of faith among the townsfolk of Serenity is clear and gives evidence of a key facet of Anderson’s beliefs: “grace first.” I ask Anderson if it was intentional that she showed people like Maddie’s cheating husband, Dr. Bill Townsend, or his mistress Noreen—both of whom could easily have been one-note villains—as vulnerable, flawed human beings trying to be better. Anderson responds, “Absolutely. No one is beyond redemption, particularly no one in Serenity.” She doesn’t miss a chance to add a little wit: “It just takes a little longer with some people than others.”
Anderson led a mostly female writers’ room—counting the assistants, the room had six women and just one male writer. It was a demographic that is the opposite of the long standing norm for TV writers’ rooms. It’s clear how thrilled Anderson is to recount the women involved in the project:
“I just want to say how fabulous it was to work with female executives at Netflix, to have a predominantly female writers’ room. . . . To have multiple female department heads when we got to Georgia. The men were fabulous also, but to have a female-led cast bringing to life female-led scripts that were built out by female-led departments was pretty awesome. I know we’re not the only one, but it still seems worth noting because it doesn’t happen as often as it should. Oh, and two of our three directors were women.”
Looking ahead—for the series and in our own communities
With a growing number of fans—both those who loved the books and those “who didn’t know there were books”—anticipation for a second season is high. While the cast and crew wait to hear, it’s heartening to see the viewers’ responses. Anderson summarizes that with a positive reflection: “It’s very exciting that people have embraced the show as quickly as they have. It’s a gift to us to be able to offer a show about hope and community and resilience in the midst of this craziness.”
Anderson acknowledges that Serenity and its close-knit community might be somewhat idealized, but she sees it as what many of us are seeking—to find a place where people will walk alongside them in their journeys. “I understand that people want to get away, and I’m happy that Serenity is where they want to go,” she says.
In a time when so many of us are feeling disconnected from the people and places we love, it makes sense that a town that has charm, a deep sense of rootedness, and a warm community is a place in which we want to dwell a little longer.