This essay contains spoilers for Virgin River.
Have you ever wanted to run away from your life and go to a place where no one knows you? You could leave the big city for a small town. Change your fast-paced job for a simpler one. Find a nice, hot guy who wants to drive you around town, introduce you to all the neighbors, take you out into the gorgeous wilderness, and do some kissing. If all that sounds appealing, you might relate to Virgin River, the Netflix soap opera based on Robyn Carr’s novels.
So the basic premise: nurse practitioner and midwife Mel Monroe moves to Virgin River, the most British Columbia–looking town you’ll ever see in California. (It’s filmed in British Columbia.) She’s been hired on a one-year contract to join the medical practice of Doc Mullins, who has been treating the local community alone for decades. But when she arrives in town, she learns that Doc was not involved in her hiring; Mayor Hope McCrea posted the job without Doc’s knowledge, and he’s not thrilled to have a new employee. The cast of characters also includes the obligatory love interest—Jack Sheridan, owner of the very originally named Jack’s Bar—who shows an immediate interest in the newest Virgin River resident. With Doc rejecting Mel, why does she stay? She is, of course, running away from her life in Los Angeles, and across the first season the show slowly doles out the story of her tragic past. (There’s first a stillborn baby and then a dead husband back at home.) Over three seasons, Mel makes her home and new life in Virgin River.
Laura: I was a big Grey’s Anatomy fan back in the day, though I fell away from watching it in the last four or five years. There’s just something great about a medical soap opera. But outside of the medical work, Virgin River isn’t really a Grey’s lookalike. The show is all small-town vibes. The medical scares aren’t a hospital shooting, or a plane crash, or a ferry crash, or some other transportation crash. In Virgin River, you’ve got a newborn left outside the doctor’s office; either they find the mom or call social services. A beloved neighbor is diagnosed with terminal cancer. A kid has a respiratory attack after getting dunked while swimming.
But the interpersonal dramas are typically soapy. Doc doesn’t want a stranger in his practice. The local bakery owner is on the run from an abusive ex. Jack is a Marine vet with PTSD from tours in Iraq and employs two of his combat buddies in his bar. As our resident historian of military veterans, what do you think of how they’ve portrayed Jack, Preacher, and Brady?
Sarah: Oh my god, I forgot how many transportation related crashes there are in Grey’s! It’s apparently not safe to travel around Seattle.
Honestly, I rolled my eyes when Jack’s PTSD started to become apparent, mostly because it was presented in such a tropey way. It’s become really common for veteran characters in TV shows to have some kind of hidden torment stemming from their military service, and I’m generally underwhelmed by the quality of that storytelling. In Virgin River, it’s used to give Jack a backstory in that classic romance novel way, where men always have some secret sadness that the right woman can heal through the power of love! They also lean into it as a way to give Jack plenty of reasons to stare with his sad blue eyes into the camera, which seems to be his signature acting move. (Sure, it’s overused, but it still works because good gravy, his eyes are beautiful! So is his hair. And his graying stubble . . . sigh.)
His buddy Preacher (whose nickname comes from his straight-laced demeanor, rather than a clerical calling) is an interesting character. He has very different plot lines than the other characters, and is pretty level-headed in a way virtually no one else is. (I mean – except that one time he hides a dead body?!) They aren’t especially imaginative in having the one Black character be an amazing self-taught cook, but at least they don’t lean too heavily on stereotypes. The unlikely pairing of him with town snoop Connie (who shares the secret of the dead body) is kind of great. And I did like how Preacher is scouted by a California restaurateur, which prompts him to call Jack out for not giving him a bigger role in running Jack’s Bar. But to circle back a bit – I’m pretty sure Preacher is the only character of color, right?
Laura: After season 1, yes. Paige, the woman running from her abusive husband, is Asian American. She and Preacher get close (which is also a weird theme in TV shows, when the only people of color pair up), but because of the drama with her husband, she leaves town. But she stays present in the story, since that pesky dead body is a problem, and then for reasons she sends her kid Christopher to live with Preacher while she’s on the run.
I have no idea how diverse a small rural town like Virgin River in California would be in real life. But it is certainly noticeable how white this town is. On the other hand, at least the crime storyline, which centers on illegal marijuana growers who get into Fentanyl in later seasons, isn’t reliant on demonizing Black or Latinx “outsiders” to the town. (Small mercies, I guess.)
Sarah: Yeah, I think that’s a good point – though it is sort of weird that there’s a colony of people living in the woods outside of town.
One thing I think that the show does fairly well is depict womanhood. On the one hand, the female characters don’t quite fall into the Hallmark-holiday-movie trap of escaping their high powered jobs to a simpler life in the country. Sure, Mel leaves LA for Virgin River as a kind of escape, but she continues to work as a nurse practitioner and demands that crotchety Doc Mullins respect her expertise. At the same time, so much of the plot writing for female characters revolves around pregnancy and babies, including both minor and major characters. It feels a little reductive, and more than a little weird. I realize this has a lot to do with the fact that Mel is a midwife, but heavens to betsy, give the women something else to do!
Laura: Seriously! There has been a surprise baby left on the porch, unplanned twins, a miscarriage, another pregnancy . . . As someone with no kids (or plans to have them), it’s a lot. But it also helps establish Virgin River as a community run by women. The gossips who make up the knitting circle seem to run this town – including the mayor, Hope. In the early days, they do set up some cat-fight scenarios (especially between Mel and the woman Jack’s been dating for years), but a lot of that tension calms down over the seasons.
In some ways, this show does require a kind of commitment. The writers are often playing a long game. It takes the entirety of season one before you learn everything that happened with Mel, her husband, and her pregnancy. You learn about her LA life and Jack’s military service mostly in flashbacks, but they dole those out over long stretches of episodes. It’s not even told to the audience for a while that Doc and Hope are married, but have been separated for twenty years. But sometimes that pays off, in both story and character development. If you don’t like Muriel, who seems set on stealing Doc from Hope in the early days, you’ll probably come around on her by season 3 when she acts as a good friend to them both.
Virgin River still has a ways to go – Netflix has already committed to seasons four AND five. What are you hoping to see as the show continues?
Sarah: I’d like to see fewer baby-related storylines, and I freaking love babies. Well, I’d take one baby storyline, actually – I want Jack’s apparent baby mama, Charmaine, to get a paternity test on those twins! (I can’t believe the fact that Jack might not be their father has never even once been mentioned as a possibility!) It would be nice to see Paige come back, too, so she and Preacher could finally be together. But one thing more than anything else: I demand more Lumberjack Games!
Laura: If we don’t get another iteration of the local Lumberjack Games, I might take back everything nice I’ve said. We need more hotties in flannel!
Sarah: Yes please! That’s what we’re here for – flirting, flannel, and forestry!