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The heartwarming, wholesome Virgin River is Netflix’s embarrassing crown jewel

As the trashy, American romance drama returns to Netflix for season four. Leonie Cooper celebrates the show that everyone seems to be watching in secret

Saturday 23 July 2022 18:51 BST
Jack (Martin Henderson) and Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) enjoying the view in Virgin River
Jack (Martin Henderson) and Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) enjoying the view in Virgin River (Netflix)

It’s hard to express how giddy I felt when I heard about the return of Virgin River. I’m a latecomer to the show, which launched on Netflix in 2019, but I indecently binged all three seasons over the Christmas omicron wave, while housesitting with only two elderly and incontinent dogs for company. Over 10 days I watched so much of the shamelessly cheesy Netflix soap-masquerading-as-drama that I truly started to consider moving to a small Californian mountain town, where I would jovially participate in lumberjack themed sports days and perhaps fall in love with the brooding owner of a river-side bar.

I’m not the only one who has had such plaid-clad fantasies. When I first admitted to a friend I had been watching this fabulously trashy show, they immediately told me that they were obsessed with it too. More and more devotees started crawling out of the woodwork, until it seemed like everybody I knew was a huge fan, but hadn’t quite got the guts to reveal it in public. You see, Virgin River is by no means prestige television. Depicting the strangely dramatic life of a small, isolated American community, it doesn’t doesn’t have the slickness of Succession, the wisecracks of Better Call Saul, or the big budget brashness of Stranger Things. It’s cosy, and homely, and despite occasional attempts at scandal, makes Call The Midwife look edgy. That said, it’s endlessly charming. A Hallmark movie with soul, Virgin River is perfectly comfortable in its own skin, which is perhaps why it’s developed such a dedicated following.

For those yet to be swept up in its intoxicating brand of fantasy, here’s a little backstory. At heart, it’s a love story, based on a series of popular romance novels by Robyn Carr. Mel, a big city girl, moves from Los Angeles to Virgin River to take a job as a nurse practitioner. The resident doctor is, of course, curmudgeonly and stuck in his ways, but quickly Mel (Family Guy voice artist Alexandra Breckenridge) charms the town and its residents, including Jack (Grey’s Anatomy alum Martin Henderson), a handsome, hygienically grizzed owner of the local boozer, who is prone to the occasional Iraq war flashback, and owns at least 15 versions of the same flannel shirt.

At the end of 2021’s season three, we left the wholesome cast with about 37 different cliffhangers happening all at once and a host of life-altering threads simultaneously sledgehammered into one bumper episode. The grumpy doctor’s partner is in a medically induced coma, and it’s not looking good. Mel is pregnant, but unsure if the father is her boyfriend Jack or her dead husband, whose fertilised embryos she’s been keeping on ice. It’s a lot to deal with, seeing as Jack’s ex has recently given birth to his twins and he’s also in the process of trying to propose to Mel. On top of this, Jack’s co-worker has been lured to the woods and drugged, on the promise of seeing his crush, who is on the run after killing her abusive ex-husband. Oh and Jack also thinks his sister’s boyfriend – who is also his old army buddy – shot him, but we’re all pretty sure he didn’t! Various other micro dramas abound, including the separation of an adorable teenage couple, because one of them secretly enlisted for the army, and the recent, unexpected death of a beloved village resident.

All of this plays out against stunning American scenery – which is in fact filmed in Canada. There are peaceful, epic lakes, towering pine trees and plunging waterfalls. Sweeping drone shots of luminous green canopies and idyllic wooden cabins make you think you could just as well be watching an advert for the national parks.

There is also a lot of eyeshadow: shimmery shiny stuff coats the eyelids of every female cast member, who wear full glam for any and every activity, including jogging. Then there’s the red wine. Big, juicy glasses slosh around in almost every episode, shorthand for a date, a heart-to-heart chat or just to let us know that it’s after lunchtime in the sleepy, borderline alcoholic town of Virgin River.

Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) and Doc Mullins (Tim Matheson) enjoy yet more wine (Netflix)

Yet there’s a hidden depth to the show, which in its own, gently cushioned way has dealt with domestic abuse, the opioid crisis, illegal weed farms and PTSD. The characters in the show are, on the whole, extremely emotionally literate. Most issues can be solved with a good conversation, preferably over a glass of Californian red, and self-help speak rolls of the casts’ tongues as regularly as the scenic shots of the lake by Jack’s bar.

Season four promises a lot – not least a full costume renaissance fayre, according to the latest trailer – but despite the faint whiff of naffness, I’ll be there for every moment.

‘Virgin River’ season four launches on 20 July, on Netflix

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