COMMENTARY

Understanding the relatively unsexy allure of Netflix's "Virgin River" comes down to one thing

While "The Crown," "Bridgerton" & "Stranger Things" get the buzz & glory, this quiet show is consistently No. 1

By Kaitlin Thomas

Published July 17, 2021 3:30PM (EDT)

Martin Henderson and Alexandra Breckenridge in "Virgin River" (Netflix)
Martin Henderson and Alexandra Breckenridge in "Virgin River" (Netflix)

It didn't happen with the type of overwhelming word-of-mouth social media push that has propelled some of Netflix's most popular series to the top of the streaming mountain, but the heartwarming, small town drama "Virgin River," which just released its third season on July 9, has emerged as one of the streaming service's most beloved and reliable performers since debuting in December 2019. 

Based on a long-running series of romance novels by author Robyn Carr and developed for TV by showrunner and executive producer Sue Tenney, the drama stars Alexandra Breckenridge as Melinda "Mel" Monroe, a nurse practitioner and midwife from Los Angeles who moves to the remote Northern California town after a series of traumatic heartbreaks has left her lost and seeking a chance to start over. While the small cabin she was promised by the town mayor (Annette O'Toole) is in great need of repair and the aging town doctor (Tim Matheson) she was hired to assist would rather she disappear, Mel ultimately decides to stay in town a while after a newborn is left on the clinic's doorstep. Well, that and there's an obvious spark with Jack Sheridan (Martin Henderson), a former Marine living with PTSD and the owner of the only bar and restaurant in town.

With the right amount of romance, soap and small town charm, "Virgin River" is the type of show that screams comfort viewing and is thus appealing to lots of viewers. It has been especially helpful in quelling real-world anxieties during the COVID-19 pandemic. But the perception of the show, which is rarely talked about with any depth in the media, is that it's not very exciting. After all, it's not a prestige drama like "The Crown." It's not an awards contender like "Ozark" or "The Queen's Gambit." It doesn't even have the overt sexiness of a series like "Bridgerton." So why, then, are viewers flocking to it en masse

It might not be obvious to the casual subscriber, but Netflix has made a concentrated push into the romance genre over the last few years, with licensed K-dramas and adaptations of popular romance book series like "Virgin River," "Sweet Magnolias" and the aforementioned "Bridgerton," which just received 12 Emmy nominations, leading the way. With few television options for romance fans, this seemingly small effort has allowed Netflix to tap into a previously underserved audience and see maximum gains as a result. It's also part of a larger endeavor by the streaming service to produce programming that is created by and for women (see also: "Firefly Lane" and romantic comedies like "Set It Up"). 

Women, but especially women over 30, are an important demographic and one whose interests have regularly been overlooked or considered inferior despite the fact women overall make up more than half of the U.S. population. A general lack of programming made specifically for women could be the result of the fact that men continue to hold the majority of senior positions in the media and entertainment industries, with women filling just 27% of the top roles. Netflix reported in January that women make up nearly half of its workforce (47.1%), including 47.6% of its senior leadership team. Whether or not there is a direct correlation between these employment statistics and the number of programs made for women in recent years requires deeper investigation than this story allows, but it does seem obvious that Netflix has, at the very least, figured out that entertainment made for women is financially wise in addition to filling a cultural void.

Also working in its favor is the fact that "Virgin River" primarily stars women over 35, with many of the show's supporting cast members being women who are at or over the age of 60. It's one of the few programs that refuses to play by the ancient, misguided rules of Hollywood, which tend to claim that a woman is washed up by the age of 30 but men in the 60s can still be leading men. Geena Davis has been working for nearly two decades to bring equality to the industry for this reason, and seeing so many roles for "women of a certain age" is a breath of fresh air for many viewers. Their stories are easily the biggest draw of the show, and if you need further proof that Mel and the older women are the stars, the single storyline involving teenagers is the show's weakest and often feels like nothing more than a half-hearted attempt to also attract younger audiences. 

But simply being content for women and offering better representation aren't the only reasons "Virgin River" and series like it have found success. There is an obvious Netflix factor at play as well. After all, basic cable networks like Hallmark and Lifetime have been producing content for women for years and haven't seen the same mainstream level of success. While the former had the No. 2 scripted series on cable in 2019 and both managed to break through to the masses in terms of holiday programming — Hallmark was actually cable's most-watched entertainment network in primetime and total day ratings during its Christmas programming block last year — a stigma still persists. It is not unlike how romance novels continues to be mocked as being the guilty pleasure of horny housewives rather than a booming and profitable industry (and in many cases, a form of resistance). 

But even if Hallmark has managed to escape the worst of the ratings woes that have befallen much of basic cable by offering heartfelt programming with low stakes that audiences of all ages can watch and enjoy, TV shows and movies airing on niche cable networks still suffer in comparison to those being readily available on a streaming service like Netflix that has 208 million global subscribers. This is because it's easy to push these cable programs aside and ignore them — especially now that more people are cutting the cord — which only further alienates them. So while romances and soapy dramas have been and still are available elsewhere, it's possible — and even likely — that being made for and being available on Netflix has helped to not only put more eyes on these types of series and strengthen the foundation of these genres but potentially even legitimize them more in the eyes of viewers after years of being maligned. (The fact that Shonda Rhimes is an executive producer on "Bridgerton" also certainly helps.)

If these were the only things "Virgin River" had going for it, they would be more than enough to draw viewers. But there is one more reason the show continues to appeal to so many, and it's because it puts issues that women face in the spotlight. During the show's first season it was revealed that Mel had lost a child prior to her husband's (Daniel Gillies) tragic death in a car accident. The baby was stillborn, and Mel and her husband struggled with infertility in the years that followed, going through multiple rounds of in vitro fertilization but never again becoming pregnant. Mel's grief, especially with regards to motherhood, was a major throughline of the first two seasons. The series again returned to the topic in Season 3 when Mel chose to undergo another round of IVF on her own after she and Jack broke up because he was hesitant to have another child when he already had twins on the way with someone else (Lauren Hammersley's Charmaine). 

According to the CDC, approximately 12 % of women in the U.S. ages 15 to 44 have difficulty becoming pregnant or carrying a pregnancy to term. Within the last few years many women have taken their struggles with infertility public in order to increase awareness of these issues. High-profile celebrities like Meghan Markle and Chrissy Teigen have both shared their personal miscarriage experiences recently in the hopes that women everywhere will feel less alone and be more comfortable talking about something that affects millions of people. The fact that "Virgin River" tackles this little-talked about but relevant topic and the way it has affected its heroine is a powerful step in bringing even more awareness to it.

Mel's struggle with infertility is not the only important topic that the show has tackled since its debut though. "Virgin River" has also covered domestic violence in a storyline involving Paige (Lexa Doig) fleeing her abusive husband, geriatric pregnancies and postpartum depression after Lilly (Lynda Boyd) gave birth in Season 1 and sexual assault after Jack's sister, Brie (Zibby Allen), suffered a miscarriage in Season 3 after being raped by her then-boyfriend. These are all topics that unfortunately affect women, and while "Virgin River" is far from the only show to tackle these types of stories, they're most often relegated to the sidelines or added for melodrama.

Even if "Virgin River" deals heavily in soap at times — there are drug dealers outside of town and the main narrative thread of Season 3 rests on who shot Jack at the end of Season 2 — it always returns to the very real, very honest issues affecting women today. And while women are hungry for comforting slice-of-life dramas full of romance, they also just want to see programming that is made for them by women like them. They want to see their stories depicted on TV. And "Virgin River" is doing all of those things with no signs of slowing down. You might scoff, but "Virgin River" is a bona fide success, and Netflix is sitting on a goldmine.

"Virgin River" Season 3 is now streaming on Netflix.


Kaitlin Thomas

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