Good old traditional down-home programming
While conventional networks scramble to distance themselves from their typical programming in the hopes of winning back the viewers who’ve abandoned them in favor of the stream and binge, Netflix has seized the opportunity to generate a fresh batch of traditional, slow-paced, down-home programming. Virgin River, based on the 20-novel series by Robyn Carr, is their latest offering made to entice traditionalists.
As in many romances, the setup is simple. A midwife-slash-nurse practitioner fleeing her sorrows retreats to an idyllic mountain town to start afresh. She meets a mysterious and ruggedly handsome local who makes her want to stay, while facing pushback from the settled locals who wish she’d go. Though lead actress Alexandra Breckinridge most recently mired herself in the swamp of sadness of This Is Us, and male lead Martin Henderson only just escaped from the torqued feels of Grey’s Anatomy, these two aren’t meeting on the banks of Virgin River to generate intense drama. Their chemistry is immediate, their performances are solid, and most importantly, they are super pretty to watch as their imminent love story unfolds at an appropriately leisurely pace.
The small-town trope once served as television shorthand for quirky, whether within the world of Northern Exposure, Gilmore Girls, or Twin Peaks. Recently, though, small-town life has morphed into an excuse for people who are “simple,” but not dumb, to share their inherent wisdom. They enjoy lives lived at their own pace, speak their minds openly, and possess an uncanny sense of knowing from which outsiders would do well to learn. As an escapee from a tiny town in Pennsylvania, I would attest firsthand that true and simple country life wouldn’t qualify as aspirational for many of us, as it involves way more closed-mindedness and Metallica T-shirts than the moving-picture box ever indicates.
In the world of Virgin River, the mayor, Hope, has gone behind the back of Doc Mullins, the town’s only physician, who also happens to be her estranged husband, to hire Mel, the nurse, to provide some help for his practice since he’s getting up in years, and someone will need to take over once he’s gone. The low-key dramatic tension of the first several episodes centers on the possibility that nurse Mel might load up her fancy BMW and leave at the elderly doc’s behest.
As the cantankerous doctor, Tim Matheson embodies the old coot for all it’s worth, while Annette O’Toole, as the mayor, delivers her cumbersome lines flatly, as though vocal evenness equals wisdom and authority. Virgin River rounds out the cast out by a gaggle of locals who hang out at the only watering hole, which, coincidentally, Mel’s love interest Jack owns. And he happens to nobly suffer from PTSD after twenty long years in the Marines. In other words, there are backstories galore to mine for ages ‘round these parts.
The show is so squeaky clean, it makes Doctor Quinn, Medicine Woman seem raunchy in retrospect. When Mel remembers her life in Los Angeles, the show doles out her memories gently and easily, literally bathing them in a contemplative golden light. Though these characters may carry difficult troubles in their hearts, Virgin River never mentally taxes the viewer. Instead, we get space to absorb, nod, and smoothly flow along with the story. Copious landscape shots help maintain the show’s overall sense of calm. The soothing effect mimics that of a pleasant mug of hot tea, or a relaxing, warm bath. It gives onlookers permission to settle in, let go, and take it easy for at least for 41 minutes or so, while asking for nothing in return except complacency.
Lest anyone get bored and feel inclined to wander away amidst all these docile happenings, it’s still a serialized romance, which means every episode must abruptly end with a Sweet Valley High caliber shocker. Abandoned babies drop onto doorsteps, kidnappings occur, and main characters collapse from sudden illness right as the last frame rolls. It’s a tried and true storytelling device that compels us to keep watching, and even though the very nature of the series guarantees everything will work out mighty fine, it makes us need to see that resolution unfold.
Netflix has directly targeted Virgin River towards those who enjoy slowing down, propping their feet up, and settling in for a visit. Given the ample source material, this could go on for quite some time. It’s already ordered a second season of great chemistry, gentle romance, and readily-resolved cliffhangers. Whatever happens next, we can all rest assured it will all work out just right.