Lately I’ve come to think of the list Netflix provides on its homepage of its Top 10 most popular shows and movies at any given time as the streamer’s version of the roll call at the Democratic National Convention this summer: Taking it in, one can only marvel at what a big country this is and how many, many different people, with very different entertainment preferences, occupy it. Where else does one find prestige programming like The Crown and The Queen’s Gambit cheek by jowl with docufiction about aliens, a Christmas movie from 20 years ago, and, always, between one and five options you’re convinced don’t actually exist beyond their thumbnail images?
For the past week or so, the honor of most fake-seeming show on the list has belonged to something called Virgin River. In contrast to the monthslong publicity campaigns that precede some Netflix releases, others, like Virgin River, just seem to show up one day, their Rotten Tomatoes pages suspiciously lacking in reviews. With its blandly scenic setting and its generically good-looking leads, Virgin River feels, even more than most Netflix shows, like it could have been generated entirely by artificial intelligence. So what is it? Where did it come from? Why were so many people watching it last week? And should you? Allow me to be your River guide as I attempt to answer those questions. Surprise No. 1: There was actually already one season of this show last December, and this is another one.
So who are these virgins?
The show isn’t actually about virgins (or if it is, I’ve seriously misunderstood it). Virgin River is just the name of the small Northern California town where the series is set. Its premise reinvents no wheels: Main character Mel Monroe arrives in quaint Virgin River at the beginning of Season 1 (“from the big city,” no less!) to work as a nurse and midwife, having been hired by the town mayor, who lured her there with the promise of a job with a doctor who needs her help and a cozy cabin to live in. Except wouldn’t you know it, the doctor actually doesn’t want her there and the cabin is a hovel. But Mel ran away from her old life for a reason, and also she quickly catches the eye of the grizzled inactive Marine who owns the town watering hole … you see where this is going.
That sounds kind of like Everwood.
I’m so glad someone else remembers Everwood! Yes, Virgin River is very reminiscent of Everwood, the mid-2000s show that starred Treat Williams as a grief-stricken surgeon who moves his family to Colorado to be a small-town doctor and Gregory Smith as his moody son. (Everwood: also notable for having given the world Chris Pratt.) But Everwood was on the WB, meaning it went a little heavier on the angsty teens and quirky dialogue than Virgin River, which is based on a series of romance novels by Robyn Carr.
OK, but are there any shows you would compare it to for the large quantity of people who aren’t late-period WB aficionados?
Ugh, fine. Think Hallmark or Lifetime programming, but with better production value. Another good comparison might be Sweet Magnolias, which had its own run on Netflix’s Top 10 list this year. Sweet Magnolias was based on a series of romance novels too, and both it and Virgin River’s success would seem to bode well for Bridgerton, the Shonda Rhymes historical romance debuting later this month, which will mark Netflix’s most high-profile stab yet at conquering the romance space. Until then, even if you didn’t like Sweet Magnolias, you still might want to give Virgin River a chance: Virgin River strikes me as a cozier show, well-timed for a season where demand for coziness is high, and one that also benefits from having—here your mileage may vary—more attractive leads.
About those attractive leads …
Yes, we’ve got Alexandra Breckenridge playing Mel, whose hair is so pretty that I actually think it needs a section of its own, so more on that later. I’d never seen her in anything before, but IMDb tells me she’s done multiepisode stints on This Is Us, The Walking Dead, and American Horror Story. Her love interest, the aforementioned grizzled Marine, is Jack Sheridan, who looks like if Justin Trudeau spent a few years studying at the Luke Danes Finishing School for the Honorable Yet Stubbled. He’s played by Martin Henderson, a New Zealander who was on Grey’s Anatomy for a few years but whose best credit as far as I can tell remains the music video for “Toxic,” in which he is straddled by Britney Spears herself.
Who are the other characters?
Annette O’Toole, best known to me as Clark’s mom on Smallville, plays the meddling mayor who brought Mel to town in the first place, and she used to be married to grumpy Doc Mullins, played by Tim Matheson of Animal House and The West Wing. Actually, they’re still married; they’ve just been separated for 20 years, and in Season 1, Hope talks a big game about finally getting divorced … sure, Hope! Virgin River’s only Black resident seems to be John “Preacher” Middleton (Colin Lawrence), who served in the military with Jack and works at his bar, where he is beloved for his pie-making skills. He has this whole thing with this mysterious single mom, Paige. Another guy they served with, Brady, is also hanging around, mostly to be annoying and start fights, as is Charmaine, the woman Jack was involved with before Mel showed up but who you know sucks because her name is Charmaine.
But back to Mel’s hair.
Yes, it’s mesmerizing, and certainly the show’s most complex character. Is it red? Is it blond? A person could spend two entire seasons watching the show and not be able to answer definitively. Sometimes she wears it in a ponytail with a few loose strands framing her face (she tucks them behind her ears when she needs to deliver babies), but it’s at its full power when its down and hanging in a curtain of loose curls. In Season 2, Mel seems to be going for a less coiffed, wavier look, which can look unfortunately like she’s been spending too much time with the crimping iron. Rooting for her to reunite with her curling iron may be an even more powerful ‘ship to support than Mel-Jack.
What else actually happens in this show?
I swear it doesn’t matter, but if you really want to know: In Season 1, in her quest to make Doc like her, Mel has to prove her competence by dealing with whatever medical situations that come up, so that gives us some individual episode plotlines, including, early on, an abandoned baby. There’s also a sinister pot camp near the town that comes into play. Throughout, Mel is getting to know Jack, and gradually more is revealed about her past. It is, unsurprisingly, tragic. At one point, her sister comes to visit. She waffles on whether to stay or go. Season 1 ends, of course, on a dramatic note in the Mel-Jack-Charmaine love triangle.
So wait, the actual thing on the Netflix charts right now is Season 2? Can I skip ahead to that?
I would not recommend it. Virgin River is not the kind of show that has you on the edge of your seat waiting to know what’s going to happen next. What’s going to happen is always extremely obvious. Virgin River is more an ambiance to be experienced than an engine of plot. Watching it is like burning a candle: A quick solution like spraying air freshener might seem like it would accomplish the same ends, but what you’re going for is really more of a vibe. It’s the perfect show to have on and just barely pay attention to. What more could a gal with a streaming service subscription and pandemic hours to while away ask for?