“Virgin River,” for the uninitiated, is one of those small-town, fish-out-of-water comedy-dramas that network TV once did so well and now seems to have abandoned entirely. In the opening moments of the pilot, which aired in December 2019, a pretty redhead (Alexandra Breckenridge) drives her red BMW into a ditch on a desolate mountain road, only to be rescued by a gruff older man (Tim Matheson) who happens to be passing by in a truck. She’s Mel Monroe, she tells him, a nurse practitioner who’s left Los Angeles to take a job in a remote Northern California town to aide Vernon Mullins, a doctor who she’s been told is in his 70s and unable to run the practice on his own. This is news to the older gentleman, who, you guessed it, is Mullins, better known as Doc.
Things don’t go too well from there. The cabin she’s living in looks like raccoons tore through it, and Doc is ready to fire her the moment she shows up to work the next day. The one bright spot comes when she heads to the local bar and meets its dreamy mountain-man owner, Jack Sheridan (Martin Henderson, the dashing New Zealander who also played Nathan Riggs on three seasons of “Grey’s Anatomy”). You know where this is going. By the end of Season 4, Jack proposes to a pregnant Mel, even before finding out, to their relief, that the baby she’s carrying is his and not from the embryos she made with her dead husband, which Mel implanted when she and Jack briefly broke up.
One of the many cliffhangers begins when Jack and Mel rush out of dinner (with a woman who, unbeknownst to them, is a drug lord with a grudge against Jack) after getting an emergency phone call from Jack’s ex-girlfriend Charmaine (Lauren Hammersley), who’s pregnant with his twins. Writhing on the floor, she blurts out that she’s been lying for months and the twins aren’t Jack’s after all. Gasp! What does scary drug lord lady have in store for Jack, who’s already been shot once, and Mel, who was once kidnapped by illegal pot growers? Who is the father of Charmaine’s babies? And will Charmaine, who’s defied the laws of time and nature and been pregnant since Season 1, finally give birth? Stay tuned!
For some, the breakneck pace and cavalcade of characters can be completely stressful. “How do people not get burned out watching this?” asked my dad, who bravely joined me during my re-watch. “It’s like they stuck 10 writers in a room and made them all come up with a different crisis.” But for me and other suckers for love stories; gorgeous Pacific Northwest scenery (Virgin River is a fictional town, but the show is shot outside Vancouver); and ill-timed arguments during big events like the Lumberjack Games, “Virgin River” is the ne plus ultra of a relatively new streaming-era genre I’ve started to think of as “comfort soaps.”
Comfort soaps include but are not limited to other (mostly Netflix) gems with strong female leads like “Ginny & Georgia,” “Firefly Lane,” and “Sweet Magnolias,” and Prime Video’s “The Summer I Turned Pretty.” (Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos is the founder of Amazon, which owns Prime Video.) Almost all are based on popular novels (“Virgin River” is from a 22-book series by Robyn Carr) and center on a heroine or heroines forced to start over. They can be religious, middle-aged sexy, action-packed, but in a way, they’re coming-of-age stories for adults, playing with the idea that no matter what life has handed to you — infidelity, death, miscarriages, sexual abuse — there’s always more to learn, always a second chance for happiness.
Just as Netflix stepped up when studios stopped making rom-coms, the company has also filled the void of low-budget family dramas that ABC and the CW no longer make. Packing these shows with movie stars like “Big Little Lies” would ruin their coziness, and be impossible; no way Nicole Kidman is getting near them. The writing can make for a delicious hate watch. (Fans joke on Reddit that we should all take a shot every time someone on “Virgin River” blurts out a secret and then gasps, “Oh, I thought you knew!”) Critics and awards shows have largely ignored them, but audiences haven’t — although it’s impossible to tell, since Netflix doesn’t release viewership numbers, which is one of the reasons the company is a target of both the WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes.
Certainly, the streaming service saw enough interest that it fast-tracked the production of five seasons in four years. Since Netflix started releasing weekly Top 10 lists in late June 2021, “Virgin River” consistently hits No. 1 in the first or second week it releases, and stays in the Top 10 for six weeks.
“I think I like it because it’s relaxing, the characters and story are really good, it doesn’t take much thought to watch, and it’s still enjoyable,” says Tiffany Kuperschmidt, 30, who has a steady stream of comfort soaps and reality shows she tunes into as an escape from her work life as a child abuse and neglect lawyer in New Jersey. “I’m not sure about the longevity of some of these shows,” she goes on. “I don’t think they’re as magnificently acted or well-produced as some classic shows like ‘Friday Night Lights’ or ‘The West Wing,’ but I’m okay with that. I’d rather have more TV than only really good shows that are award-worthy.”
In pre-streaming days, “Virgin River” would be known as a “prime-time soap” in the vein of “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Revenge,” “Scandal,” “Desperate Housewives” and, yes, even “Friday Night Lights.” Lots of romance, plenty of overwrought drama, a largely female viewership. Shonda Rhimes owned the genre, and the last of its kind, “This Is Us” and “A Million Little Things,” died off in 2022 and 2023, respectively, though “Grey’s” will probably continue on until climate change melts all our televisions. Formally, though, it has more in common with wholesome, small-town fare like “Northern Exposure,” “Gilmore Girls” and “Hart of Dixie,” if you swapped out the quirk and humor for more plotlines involving murder, kidnapping and PTSD from the war in Afghanistan. The setting and great cinematography also give shades of “Twilight,” but instead of teenage vampires, it’s middle-aged county bureaucrats and baby mamas doing the blood sucking.
The show’s heritage is obvious; just look at the cast. Henderson came from “Grey’s”; Breckenridge was Sophie on “This Is Us”; and the wonderful Matheson (who will forever be Otter from “Animal House” to me) already played a grumpy small-town doctor chafing against the arrival of Rachel Bilson’s big city physician in “Hart of Dixie.” Whoever thought to have him play the same role twice, genius. He’s great at it!
For Kuperschmidt, the appeal of a “Virgin River,” beyond getting to see actors she likes continue in their careers, is that these shows speak to the never-give-up, hopeless romantic in her. And the intergenerational plotlines mean her mom gets in on the fun, too. Like other comfort soaps, the show’s mission statement seems to be that it’s never too late to have a new romantic journey. Mel comes to Virgin River running away from the dual griefs of her husband’s death in a car wreck and the miscarriage that had torn them apart before he died. She is soon surrounded by a gossipy knitting circle; teenagers having their first sexual experiences; a baker trying to escape an abusive relationship; and Doc and his wife, Hope (Annette O’Toole), finding their way back to each other from the brink of divorce.
I’m pretty sure I watched “Virgin River” when it debuted in late 2019 because it’s exactly the kind of show I love to half-watch while doing other things. But when it came back for a second season on Nov. 27, 2020, it felt like a necessity, particularly among my friends living under lockdown in hard-hit cities like New York and Chicago. It filled a void when very little new TV was coming out, when many of us weren’t able to spend Thanksgiving with loved ones. I don’t remember what I did for the holidays, but I remember “Virgin River.”
And I remember re-watching the entire two seasons again in January 2021 when I could barely walk from the bed to my bathroom after getting laparoscopic surgery for a uterine fibroid and endometriosis. I was in New York, and heartbroken over a breakup with someone I thought I might marry, and one of my closest friends drove up from D.C. to get me through a week of excruciating pain. It was her first time seeing “Virgin River” and she’d constantly shout out predictions of ridiculous things she thought would happen, which always turned out to be true, because comfort soaps aren’t exactly going for subtlety. Part of their charm. (Now every time I text her about a new season, she texts back, “As if I haven’t watched.”) Laughing and crying over that show, even as it physically hurt to do so, was as healing as any other cure in that lonely stretch of winter. It’s a show about people taking care of one another, and I’m sure a little bit of my loyalty to it has to do with the emotion it evokes of my friend taking care of me.
Season 5, which Netflix is releasing in two parts — 10 episodes now and two holiday episodes on Nov. 30 — has a new showrunner, Patrick Sean Smith of “Greek,” and even in the first few episodes, the show feels warmer, calmer, less gunning for Jerry Springer messiness. (Breckenridge revealed in an interview with TVLine that she pushed for cleaning up Jack’s many pregnancy storylines at the end of Season 4, so he and Mel could have a fresh, hopeful start.)
A wildfire is heading to town; Mel has quit the clinic to focus on her high-risk pregnancy; Doc, now a loyal friend to Mel, is dealing with her absence and a degenerative eye disease; Hope is fighting to stay mayor of the town after a traumatic brain injury; Jack’s sister Brie (Zibby Allen) has decided to testify against the man who raped her; Jack’s bad-boy war buddy Brady (Benjamin Hollingsworth) has become a confidential informant against scary drug lord lady; feisty senior Muriel (Teryl Rothery) has found new purpose taking over for Mel at the clinic; and Jack finally hears Charmaine out. She loved him, she thought they had a future together, and she got desperate. She’s human and worthy of forgiveness and a beautiful life, as, the show seems to say, we all are.
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