As a romance novel connoisseur, I thought nothing of pressing play when Netflix recommended “Virgin River” to me during the 2020 holiday season. Like most of the world, I had spent the better part of a year on my own, sequestered in my Harlem apartment, reading books, cooking and attending several unfortunate family Zoom calls. I was bone weary from the uprisings following the death of George Floyd and the endless and exhausting Presidential election. However, with work approaching a near stalemate, frigid temperatures and COVID-19 numbers soaring, I needed something new to occupy my time. Hours and snacks later, I found myself in a cocoon of blankets, wholly absorbed in Mel Monroe’s world.
“Virgin River” (Alexandra Breckenridge) follows Mel, a heartbroken nurse who moves from Los Angeles to the fictional Nothern California town for a fresh start. I binged the first two seasons (the only two available at the time) at warp speed. It was only after finishing the Season 2 finale, “Blown Away,” which ended with Mel’s lover Jack (Martin Henderson) incapacitated and bleeding out on the floor of his bar, that I learned that “Virgin River” was an adaptation of novelist Robyn Carr’s best-selling books of the same name. Netflix ordered the series from then-showrunner and executive producer Sue Tenney in late 2018, debuting the first season just one year later.
Since those unexpectedly cozy days in the winter of late 2020, I’ve rushed to gobble up new “Virgin River” episodes as soon as they’ve been made available — and clearly, so has everyone else. The second and third seasons of the show debuted not even a year apart, in Nov. 2020 and July 2021, respectively. When Season 4 premiered in July 2022, it dominated Nielsen’s weekly Top 10 Streaming chart, dethroning “Stranger Things” Season 4, a series with 10 times the budget and Netflix’s massive marketing team behind it. “Virgin River” garnered 2.6 billion minutes viewed during its first three days of availability. This past May, the romantic drama was greenlit for a sixth season before the launch of Season 5 and its accompanying holiday specials.
So, how did this little show on an increasingly crowded streaming service become such a phenomenon?
Though the series is five seasons deep, the show’s timeline has yet to hit its six-month mark. “Things move slowly in Virgin River,” Breckenridge told Glamour in July 2022. “I think Mel’s only been in Virgin River for maybe four months. It’s a hundred and some odd days; there’s a chart for it. She’s only nine weeks pregnant at this point, and Charmaine (Lauren Hammersely) is like five months, apparently.”
Despite the brief timetable, the show centers on women over 35 and the daily issues and obstacles they face. Fans have watched Mel, Jack and the citizens of Virgin River deal with pregnancy loss, death, substance abuse, the opioid market, sexual assault, terminal diagnoses, PTSD, postpartum depression and everything in between (if there’s anything left). The entire narrative is set within a picturesque town that holds its community events in the same reverence that the residents of Stars Hallow on “Gilmore Girls” once did.
Yet despite those surface similarities, it would be insincere to align “Virgin River” with “Gilmore Girls.” The Netflix show is much more modest and conservative in tone than the Lorelais ever were. Instead, “Virgin River” seemingly deliberately presents a melting pot of people with no overt political ideology. The characters have varied sexual orientations, racial backgrounds and body types, which are presented as facts of the series instead of entire plot points. Except for a few bad apples and some aggressively nosy neighbors, everyone looks out for one another.
Still, there is no shortage of dramatic moments. In Season 5, a wildfire rips through the town and resident bad boy Dan Brady (Benjamin Hollingsworth) gets involved in yet another drug ring. There is also some gun violence and two very unexpected romances. Unfortunately, the baby girl Mel is pregnant with when this season begins does not make it to term — but fans of Carr’s novels know that there is still reason to be hopeful. The timeline may move at a snail’s pace, but the specifics of the show and the actors who bring the characters to life present an easy relatability often missing in this peak TV era. Deep cries, heartfelt chats and long walks through lush Vancouver woods, where the series is shot, help the characters move forward amid adversity. These are coping mechanisms that many people lean on in their everyday lives. “Virgin River” also has an almost precise ability to close out a cliffhanger and wrap all its storylines up in a neat bow, a nearly implausible task in real life that is all too satisfying to witness on screen.
Despite the dramatic flair, romances are the cornerstone of “Virgin River.” The series delivers charm without the complete cheesiness and cliches that can make Hallmark movies often intolerable. When she first arrives in town, Mel, grieving the death of her husband Mark (Daniel Gillies), finds herself drawn to Jack, a retired Marine, and his stoic steadiness. Complicating their burgeoning friendship is the fact that Jack has been stringing along his long-term girlfriend, Charmaine, for years. Since their initial meeting, Mel and Jack have broken up and gotten back together. Meanwhile, other couples in the town have been mixed and matched together. Though often sneered at, the romance genre remains a safe space for women and femmes in an increasingly misogynistic and hostile world. After all, there’s no obliteration of women’s healthcare or think pieces about lonely college-educated women in “Virgin River.”
There is something comforting in the warm-milkiness of “Virgin River,” which is also known to throw a curveball at its audience. While the dialogue often offers glittering banners of foreshadowing, not even I, a faithful “Virgin River” Reddit sleuth, could have guessed that the father of Charmaine’s twins was the diabolical and suddenly undead gang leader, Calvin (David Cubitt). Moreover, the revelation about Mel’s mother’s affair and questions about her parentage during the Season 5 finale will make for a delicious mystery to be unwrapped this winter when the special holiday episodes drop on Nov. 30.
As the television industry finds itself at a crossroads with streaming, Netflix has, seemingly inadvertently, found itself a successful model in quaint romantic escapism. Greenlighting shows like “Virgin River” and “Sweet Magnolias,” an adaptation of Sherryl Woods’ book series just before the pandemic — and on a fraction of “Bridgerton’s” budget — was brilliant. “Virgin River” has 54 episodes in the can, with Seasons 4 and 5 boasting 12 episodes each. If Netflix’s summer of “Suits” has revealed anything, it appears that expanding seasons beyond 10 episodes seems not only achievable but ideal. Though it’s stuck to a standard 10-episode season, the recently-released “Sweet Magnolias” boasted 1.2 billion minutes watched in the first four days of its Season 3 premiere. The show could easily follow in “Virgin River’s” footsteps with expanded seasons.
“Virgin River” spinoffs should be something that Netflix looks into next. As viewers have seen with the expansive “Yellowstone” and “Power” Universes, when fans love something, they can’t get enough of it. “Virgin River” could easily shift focus toward other characters currently living in the same timeline as Mel and Jack, or even delve into the lore of the town’s past, giving fans a glimpse of Virgin River in the ’80s or ’90s, centering known characters like Hope and Doc (Tim Matheson) in their younger years. Multiple shows would allow long-term “Virgin River” actors to exit or return as needed while providing a solid platform for more book characters to make their on-screen debuts.
Given the success of “Virgin River,” “Sweet Magnolias” or even the new life that USA cable drama “Suits” has found on Netflix, it’s clear that TV viewers still crave longform drama and predictability. Series that garner massive ratings without much boosting from Netflix could become long-lasting tentpoles for the streamer, especially if they are given even a touch of the razzle-dazzle the service dedicates to its critically acclaimed fare. With a winning formula already in hand, “Virgin River’s” forthcoming holiday episodes should only be the beginning.