Netflix announced Friday that season three of its romance “Virgin River” — based on the book series by Robyn Carr — releases in early July. I stumbled upon the show recently while impatiently waiting to recover from oral surgery, and by the end of the first episode I was intrigued by the show’s potential.
With sweeping mountain views filmed in Vancouver and British Columbia, the show’s depiction of the eponymous small town of Virgin River, California is charming. There’s plenty of room for heartwarming if unoriginal plotlines, as the series sees Los Angeles E.R. nurse Mel Monroe move to town to ease the grief of losing her husband. When Mel meets Jack, the handsome ex-Marine owner of the local bar, it’s obvious the show’s “romance” genre will center around the two of them.
“Virgin River” looks a bit like someone gave the Hallmark Channel an Orvis catalog makeover, but I was hopeful the small-town aesthetic and the inclusion of some side medical and crime drama would hold my interest. I don’t even mind a bit of schmaltz in a romance, but I couldn’t bring myself to care about most of the characters in “Virgin River” or their indecisive love lives.
The biggest plotline sees Mel and Jack’s budding romance threatened when, after breaking up with his previous girlfriend Charmaine, Jack finds out Charmaine is pregnant. A love triangle emerges as Mel continues to battle her grief, Charmaine competes for Jack’s attention and involvement as her child’s father, and no one really knows what he wants or how to get it.
That’s the biggest reason “Virgin River” fails. Instead of striving after anything more meaningful, the main characters just go around trying to figure out their own happiness, and reassuring each other they deserve it.
The best stories, especially romances, are tied together by themes like sacrifice, honor, forbearance, or courage. Love stories endure when they are laced with selflessness, duty, and hope: when serving others comes before cheap self-gratification.
“A Tale Of Two Cities” is a resonant and heartbreaking romance because of Sydney Carton’s unrequited yet sacrificial love for Lucie. Lancelot and Guinevere’s romance was both tragic and moving because of their duty and honor which made love impossible. Through reckoning with its lovers’ flaws, “Pride and Prejudice” shows the humility, forbearance, and grace love requires. The 1992 adaptation of James Fenimore Cooper’s epic “The Last of the Mohicans,” despite its adventure genre, tells a masterful romance of bravery, trust, and sacrifice.
Compared to such examples, “Virgin River” seems childish. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to be happy; such a desire is only human. Happiness can also play a relevant and beneficial role in decision-making. But it’s dangerous to assume anyone owes it to you. And when immediate pleasure is the highest benchmark by which you measure your happiness — or take actions affecting the people you love — it comes up shallow.
Sure, Jack wrestles with his sense of “responsibility” toward Charmaine, but his actions don’t measure up. Rather than choosing to fully commit to his growing family, Jack clings to the excuse that he just can’t make himself in love with Charmaine, and is instead infatuated with Mel.
“You deserve to be happy,” Mel tells Charmaine in season two. “I know,” Charmaine responds. That kind of entitled search for self-fulfillment is precisely what makes the romance of “Virgin River” so forgettable.
Unfortunately, it’s all too reflective of how many Americans today view romance: as a disposable means of personal enjoyment and self-gratification. Our culture’s revolving door of casual hookups, divorces, and commitment-phobia is a sign of people who don’t want obligations to limit their pursuit of pleasure.
But the concept of “what I want,” especially when it’s conflated with “what I deserve,” is as evasive as it is temporary. A moving romance — like any meaningful story — must be rooted in something deeper and more permanent than selfish entitlement.
“Virgin River’s” side plot, following Mel’s employer “Doc” Mullins and his ex-wife and town gossip Hope McCrea, comes closer to reflecting that something deeper. After an unofficial divorce 20 years ago, Doc and Hope are still friendly and look out for each other. Doc tries to win Hope back, and while their relationship has no shortage of failures and quirks, it still feels more genuine than the angsty antics of Mel, Jack, and Charmaine.
“Whether you realize it or not,” Doc tells Hope, “there is pretty much nothing I wouldn’t do to make you happy.” Simple as it is, it’s refreshing to see someone in the show for whom love isn’t synonymous with self-indulgence.
The outdoorsy, small-town aesthetic of “Virgin River” was enough to keep me clicking “next episode” while I sat around recovering from oral surgery. But as soon as I was able to go about my day, I found finishing the series to be pretty uninteresting.
As in real life, the main characters’ selfishness was off-putting and a poor replica of love. Like their indecisive flings, watching “Virgin River” may be a quick means of entertainment, but it won’t leave you with anything lasting.