Romance has arrived on Netflix in a big way thanks to the lavish Shondaland-produced adaptation of Julia Quinn’s Bridgerton novels. The streaming service has made a lot of noise about the supposedly astounding viewer numbers that the acclaimed series has pulled in, although such details remain foggy to outsiders and near impossible to verify. Still, based entirely on social media buzz, Bridgerton is clearly reaching large and enthusiastic audiences. For romance readers like myself, it’s a long-awaited confirmation that, yes, the much-maligned genre was ready-made to flourish on the small screen when treated well by the right showrunners. Hopefully, this will pave the way for more romance novel series and films (and I have many recommendations to make!)
There is, however, another romance adaptation series doing well on Netflix, albeit with a fraction of the press coverage. Two seasons in, Virgin River has become a word-of-mouth hit, and, according to Nielsen numbers, the show took up 1.79 billion minutes of viewers’ time in the week of November 30 to December 6. That’s higher than The Crown, the supposed top dog of Netflix’s lavish slate of original content, as well as Disney+’s The Mandalorian. Not too shabby for a show that, frankly, slipped past most critics. But what is Virgin River, why is it so popular, and will it keep Bridgerton fans sated until a season two renewal is inevitably announced?
Virgin River is based on the long-running series of novels by Robyn Carr, a New York Times bestseller with around 50 books to her name. The story follows Mel Monroe, a nurse practitioner and midwife who moves to a remote Northern California town to take up a new job and start afresh following the death of her husband. If you read romance, this setup will be pretty familiar. There are many contemporary series that follow this sort of narrative: the fish out of water arriving in a close-knit community; the oft kooky but warm locals; the genteel magic of rural living. Many of these works are cozy, languidly paced, and full of low-stakes drama. They’re designed to lull you into a real comfort zone of reading. Carr’s series, however, has a darker edge. Her ensemble of lovable residents are often troubled, dealing with serious issues like PTSD, grief, illness, aging, and familial strife. Mel is struggling with her own tragic losses. Jack, her ruggedly handsome potential love interest, is a former Marine struggling with trauma. The local doctor refuses to accept that his increasing age is hindering his work. As a romance series, happy-ever-afters are guaranteed, but Carr really puts a lot of roadblocks in her characters’ ways.
The show is soapy but not particularly grand about it. It’s soapy but with a kitchen sink spin, balancing its gentle tone with the kind of plot points you’d expect on Passions: abusive relationships, abandoned babies, drugs, and murder. Yet, despite all that, the show maintains its inviting mood, the TV equivalent of a warm hug. It’s not hard to see why that would be appealing for viewers, especially right now.
Carr’s novels are more episodic than the show, with each focusing on a different couple while Netflix sticks to Mel’s story. They’ve also been accused of being more traditionalist in their approach to gender and romance. Carr’s own website describes the setting of her series as ‘a rugged outpost deep in California’s redwood forests built by men of honor for the women they love.’ It’s not exactly a he-man, me-Tarzan-you-Jane-style binary, but it is a dynamic that a lot of readers find discouraging. For the most part, the TV series avoids that. It’s much more focused on developing a sturdy slice-of-life tale that makes you feel good even as it puts its characters in some bleak places. All in all, there’s a touch of the Hallmark Channel about Virgin River, and I say that as a compliment.
The cast is attractive but not unapproachably so, and their chemistry keeps the quieter moments moving forward, especially between the central couple played by Martin Henderson and Alexandra Breckenridge. The setting is picturesque and familiarly real (and clearly Canada.) Even the sharpest moments of drama don’t threaten the pillowy comfort that Virgin River, both the show and the town, hope to offer. There aren’t any sneering villains to battle, and even the most troubled characters (including an Oxycontin addict) have a route to redemption here. Even if you didn’t know the rules of romance while watching this show, you’re buoyed by the clear understanding that things will end well for these people. There’s magic in this simplicity, in the tropes and archetypes that are so endlessly familiar to audiences far and wide. What some may sneer at as derivative, others will appreciate for the guarantees such narratives provide.
What Virgin River most reminds me of is Good Witch, a long-running Hallmark series that, at one point, was one of the most-viewed cable shows on American TV, regularly garnering more fans than critically adored series like Fargo. As is befitting Hallmark’s oeuvre, Good Witch is the creative equivalent of sparkly thermal socks. It’s gentle, unabashedly earnest, and polished to a tee. And also, there’s magic. You snuggle up with this show for the quick pecks on the cheek, the home decor that would put Nancy Meyers to shame, and the promise that nothing more dramatic than a messily organized town hall meeting will occur. Virgin River isn’t as sentimental by comparison, but they both tread similarly idealized ground (and both shows are super-white for the most part, although Virgin River does seem to be working towards changing that.)
Virgin River isn’t going to be up everyone’s alley, and it’s not the same kind of romance series as Bridgerton, a show more focused on the stakes of Regency society’s stifling patriarchy. What it is, however, is yet another reminder that entertainment made by and for women continues to be a cultural and financial goldmine, even if critical circles and studio heads seem determined to overlook it. Netflix seems more aware of that than others in the business, so let’s hope that they keep building on these new foundations.
Header Image Source: Netflix