No one expected Netflix to dive into the murky waters of “soap opera”-style television, but with the season two release of “Virgin River,” the streaming service has certainly dipped its toes in the water.
Based on New York Times-bestselling author Robyn Carr’s novel series “Virgin River,” the show is riddled with cliché TV tropes that left me wondering, “How much longer is this episode?” I truly wanted to be charmed by the small-town drama, but, ultimately, I couldn’t force myself to get past its one-dimensional characters and congested storyline.
After the death of her husband Mark, city-girl Melanie “Mel” Monroe moves to the small town of Virgin River. Upon arrival, Mel can’t imagine living in Virgin River much longer than the 30-day trial period she signed up for as a midwife and nurse practitioner at Vernon “Doc” Mullins’s practice. But, like any good cliché romance, Mel meets some people who change her mind.
Doc’s ex-wife Mayor Hope McCrea, the town gossip, and bakery truck owner Paige Lassiter are nothing but welcoming to our grieving widow. Restaurant worker John “Preacher” Middleton knows the ins-and-outs of the town culture and greets Mel with grace.
Of course, Mel meets dreamy Jack Sheridan, owner of Jack’s Bar. A hunky, emotionally damaged bar owner? Now we’re talking.
Jack is a former Marine who’s haunted by losing a friend in combat. He opens up to Mel about his posttraumatic stress disorder. Slowly, the two develop a romantic relationship. So, despite the town’s lengthy proximity to the nearest shopping mall, Mel decides to stay in Virgin River for the long haul.
Although the show isn’t terribly entertaining, it’s been sitting stably as one of Netflix’s top 10 TV shows for several weeks and counting. Something must be attracting viewers. After all, the show has already been approved by the streaming service for its third season, slated to premiere mid-November 2021.
At its best, the show is a fun representation of small-town authenticity. While it’s not spectacular, it’s one of those shows that you watch because you’ve grown attached to the town and the story. The community draws you in until you’re knee-deep in all of its unique and homey quirks.
It’s fun to imagine a town nestled in the foothills of a beautiful mountain range where everyone knows your name. Thankfully, the town isn’t perfect; it has flaws that each character learns to adjust to. If anything, its imperfections add a much-needed depth to the series.
The shining aspect of the series was the scenic town. In the show, Virgin River is located in Northern California, but it was actually filmed in Vancouver, Canada. Unfortunately, the idyllic scenery isn’t a good enough reason alone to spend the requisite time watching the show.
“Virgin River” shares striking similarities with “Hart of Dixie,” a romantic comedy taken off Netflix this last week. In “Hart of Dixie,” New York City doctor Zoe Hart moves to small-town Bluebell, Alabama after a family-owned practice is willed to her.
Hart clashes with her partner in the practice, doctor Brick Breeland, as she fosters a budding romance with rugged but emotionally complicated Wade Kinsella. Brick is played by Tim Matheson, the same actor who plays Doc Mullins, and there’s even mayor Lavon Hayes, who is as nosy as Hope, the mayor of Virgin River.
Despite the similarities, however, “Virgin River” is nowhere near as charming as “Hart of Dixie.” Although Carr’s book series received national fame for its heart-warming, feel-good romance, it doesn’t translate well on camera. In fact, much of the acting was downright insufferable.
Mel’s crying face is identical to Kim Kardashian’s, Jack’s PTSD flashbacks feel hollow and over-dramatized, Hope is repulsively aggressive, and Doc’s sporadic — and spineless — bouts of emotion are incredibly unpleasant. Overall, the characters’ performances felt extremely one-dimensional. For a show trying to delve into PTSD, grief, and love (three intense feelings that are fairly difficult to encapsulate anyway), it fails miserably.
That all said, the show isn’t completely unwatchable. The beauty of the British Columbia woodlands is almost enough to offset the plot’s unnecessary additions. The main story branches off in odd segments, like Paige’s secret identity, a cannabis camp located near the town, Jack’s pregnant two-year fling, Mel’s sister Joey whose marital problems enter their way into the forefront of a whole episode, and many more. The plot additions could be engaging, but they’re undeveloped, and almost every problem is resolved by the close of each episode.
Earlier this year, Netflix saw six months of record-breaking growth after state-mandated shutdowns left people looking to fill voids of time. I don’t want to preemptively assume that “Virgin River’s” success is less of a success and more of an inevitability, but home-bound viewers are less picky about what shows they’re watching.
There’s a time and place for mindless television; but a two-season, 20-episode show of this caliber isn’t the time or place. If you’re in the mood for a drama you don’t have to think about, turn on the Hallmark Channel instead. If you prefer complex storylines with character depth and development, find entertainment elsewhere.
“Virgin River” won’t leave you on the edge of your seat wanting more; there won’t be any twists, turns, or surprises. If, however, you’re interested in what a Hallmark Channel re-shoot of “Grey’s Anatomy” looks like, knock yourself out — but even that comparison might be giving “Virgin River” too much praise.