I watched the trailer for Virgin River on Netflix at least three times, like it was a crystal ball that could help me predict whether or not it was worth watching. I was even considering a fourth or fifth viewing when a fellow chronic migraine person recommended it as easy watching when your brain and body are a revolting mess. And she was right! Look, there are no surprises in this romantic drama. Oh, it’s set up like there will be several Shocking Revelations, but in reality watching the series is like driving down a long open highway where you can see every change in the terrain from miles and miles away. And that’s not necessarily a criticism because the views are pretty enough, and sometimes, especially when you feel like crap, there is a comfort in knowing exactly the kinds of drama that are coming your way. You can lean back and let it all go by. And there’s also the warm satisfaction in being right 100% of the time.
And how apt is my highway metaphor? Because our story begins with Mel Monroe (Alexandra Breckinridge) listening to melancholy music as she drives alone on a dark, winding highway through the forest. (We know it’s super remote because she loses cell reception.) Then a tractor trailer comes out of nowhere and passes her car, causing her to lose control and get stuck in a ditch. When she clonks her head, we are plunged into the first of many, many flashbacks to the big-city life that she is escaping by taking a job in a tiny town in Northern California. (More on those later.) A knock on the car window breaks her reverie and brings her back to the present where a very curmudgeonly older man is saying things like, “You’re lucky you didn’t smash this ridiculous little car of yours into a tree.” And, “You’re in a heavily wooded area. There’s no cell reception here.” (He’s not actually part robot even though that line makes him sound like he is.) He gives her a lift into town and, on the way, she tells him she’s a nurse practitioner and a midwife who was hired by the mayor of Virgin River to assist Doc Mullens because he’s getting old and needs some help. Friends, brace yourselves, the curmudgeonly old man who rescued her from the ditch is Doc Mullens. Gasp! AND he had no idea she had been hired and definitely doesn’t think he needs help from some city-slicker nurse who was also rude enough to offer him cash for giving her a ride, thus breaking the code of any small town in a television series. What are the chances?!?
Anyway, she arrives at the cabin that is included with her job, which, it will further shock you learn, does not look anything like the picture she saw online. Didn’t she watch Falling Inn Love?!? Doesn’t she know not to trust the photo in the email?!? And is this now standard schtick with Netlifx-made romances? Sadly, for me anyway, there is no goat inside the cabin, just Hope McCrae (Annette O’Toole)—the meddling mayor, a character I wanted to like, and sometimes did actually like, but mostly just couldn’t like—trying to make the place presentable.
Hope sends Mel over to the bar, which is the only place to get food after 5pm and which just so happens to be run by the ruggedly attractive, somewhat Emotionally Unavailable™, but always kind and caring, Jack Sheridan (Martin Henderson)—who seems to spend an inordinate amount of time polishing glassware behind the bar.
She tries to order a Cosmo and, when he says they don’t make mixed drinks (even though there are four fully-stocked shelves of liquor-type-stuff behind him), she settles on straight whiskey, which actually almost did surprise me until I realized this is to demonstrate that she’s mainstream feminine, and not just boring old white-wine feminine, but also capable, adaptable, and tough feminine. Fine, I’ll allow her Jim Beam drinking without further harassment.
Also working in the bar is Jack’s former Army friend and current confidant, Preacher (Colin Lawrence), who isn’t so sure about Mel, but who does make a mean lentil and squash soup. I’m guessing this detail is included so we know people can be somewhat cosmopolitan in Virgin River, even if they don’t serve Cosmopolitans. (I would be seriously remiss if I didn’t point out that Preacher is also very attractive. He is also one of the very, very few people of color on the show, which is far less exciting for me to report.)
Mel and Jack share just-enough information about themselves to keep things shrouded in mystery. Jack alludes to no longer chasing bad guys and Mel alludes to a husband who is curiously-not-in-the-picture even though she wears a wedding ring. Maybe they’re separated! Maybe he’s dead! Maybe she just wears a wedding ring to keep men from hitting on her! Maybe we’ll never find out the truth. Ha! I joke. Of course we’re going to find out. Through a series of many flashbacks you see bits and pieces of everyone’s Secret Past. (And nearly every character on the show has a Big Secret that’s keeping them from their True Romantic Destiny.) It’s like you’re Sherlock Holmes and this mystery doesn’t stand a chance against your powers of deduction. Obviously, Mel and Jack are destined to have romantical feelings for each other, but there will be many physical and emotional barriers in the way of them actually being together. Which is good because it would be super boring to watch the alternative.
And also obviously, Doc Mullens is very upset that Mel has come to town and tries to fire her on day one. He’s “old fashioned,” which means he goes fishing, drives an old truck, and holds on tight to his rotary phone and his sexist views. He tells Mel that, in his day, “a nurse would’ve known her place.” She tells him to “join her in the twenty-first century,” which is a far more polite response than I would have given, but maybe that’s why no one is banging on my door to write scripts for romantic dramas. But, while he’s an antagonistic ass, Doc Mullens is also good-hearted and cares deeply about providing healthcare to all the people, which is a key character trait for cranky small-town doctors on this kind of show. So we know he’s crusty and stuck in the past, but redeemable. (Doc Mullens is played by Tim Matheson who also played a cranky, somewhat sexist, old school doctor in Hart of Dixie! It’s largely the same character plopped down in Northern California with a different backstory, which is neither here nor there if you haven’t watched Hart of Dixie, but is kind of thrilling if you have.)
Mel is a very competent nurse practitioner who, much to my glee, doesn’t really take anyone’s shit. She worked in the ER, she tells us, and has seen her fair share of nasty situations, so she doesn’t hesitate to calmly and officiously put everyone from Doc Mullens to Jack to illegal pot growers in their place. She also, and this is fairly revolutionary, doesn’t wear ridiculously high heels. In fact, her footwear verges on practical. It’s kind of a revelation in a big-city woman moves to the country kind of show. Or pretty much any detective show with a female protagonist. As you would expect, there is a medical calamity in nearly every episode, which Mel manages to handle with grace and skill while treating her patients with respect. She successfully and adeptly delivers a breech baby, fixes a gunshot wound in the middle of the woods (that one is all Magyver style, too!), assists in a difficult diagnosis, and helps a woman through postpartum depression. Medically speaking, I have no idea if any of these scenarios are realistic, but my guess would be hell no, of course they’re not! They exist for the drama and for pushing along the story. Of course, sometimes they feel contrived, especially when every episode ends in a dramatic scenario. At some point I wrote in my notes that I felt exhausted for the characters who are just never getting a full night’s sleep or a day of regular work. But literally no one is watching a show like this for verisimilitude. (Though I felt one of the most unrealistic things is that it takes Mel, like, two days before she visits the general store in town. What? No. I’m pretty sure when you’re packing to run away from your painful past you’re bound to forget toothpaste or something!)
A lot of the time Jack just-so-happens to be there when Mel is taking care of some emergency situation and he watches kind of awestruck from the corner as if she’s performing a minor miracle. I don’t know, it’s a small thing, but it’s nice to watch the woman be the competent savior while the man stands by and falls in love.
That’s not to say that Virgin River is all forward-thinking in its gender roles or that it’s giving the patriarchy the middle finger. Jack makes multiple mentions of being raised to be polite to women, or boys needing good men to grow up, and things like that. And all the men are manly, while the women are strong, for sure, but also still soft enough to be considered feminine. It all feels very traditional. And, as I said before, the show lacks diversity. Most people are white and (so far) everybody is extremely heterosexual. Which is largely what I’d expect from a show like this. (But, Netflix, if you’re listening, I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong!) And like many movies and shows in this genre, it’s just pretty damn wholesome. I mean sure, people kiss and sexual desire is alluded to (in pretty gentle of ways), but if you’re looking for skin you won’t find it here. At least not in the first season. Though, there was one scene where Jack (who lives above his bar because that is a prerequisite for somewhat damaged—but fully redeemable with the love of a good woman—men who own eating establishments) is shown walking through the bar partially shirtless. I guffawed because he looked so unnatural in an unzipped sweatshirt with nothing underneath. Like they wanted him to be sexy, but not too sexy. And now when I remember it I can only picture him with the sweatshirt draped over his shoulders, like Meghan Markle when she was on royal tour. And while we’re wandering the winding paths of my mind, let me say that while Martin Henderson’s American accent was quite good, I sometimes wanted to try to piece together the filming order of scenes based on his ability to not slip into New Zealand pronunciation. A mystery I did not solve!
Wait, what was I talking about? Oh, right. Jack’s nearly-bare chest. No! Sorry. The point is, I think if you’re looking for a cozy, somewhat sappy and sentimental small-town show with incredible scenery (the exterior shots were filmed in British Columbia) where huge medical emergencies get resolved by a capable woman in 40 minutes or less, but personal and romantical entanglements almost always end up more complicated than before, and where almost every thread of plot spools out just the way you deduced it would, then maybe snuggle up and give this one a try. Season two is in the works, and I will for sure be streaming it to find out all the not-so-shocking revelations.