TV Time: Virgin River is so dumb. So why can’t I stop watching?

Season two of the Netflix series Virgin River (adapted from the book series by Robyn Carr) just dropped last week, and as of this writing, I have 2 of the 10 episodes yet to watch (and I will definitely finish them tonight).

Friends, this show is dumb. But it’s also incredibly watchable.

The basics: 30-something Mel Monroe is an accomplished nurse practitioner-midwife from LA who moves to Virgin River, a small rural town in Northern California, to accept a one-year position in a medical clinic.

Mel’s husband died in a car accident the year before, and she’s been consumed by her grief ever since. She’s hoping that a complete change will help her heal and move forward with her life.

What she doesn’t know is that the doctor whose practice she’s joining doesn’t want her — he’s been pressured into accepting her by the town busybody, who is also the town mayor and his estranged wife.

Mel arrives to find that the home she’s been promised is a decaying old shack, and that she’s already managed to insult the doctor she’ll be working for. On the bright side is local restaurant/bar owner Jack, a sweet, sexy man with a deep soul, who has demons of his own — he’s haunted by his memories of his time as a Marine sergeant and the young soldier in his squad who didn’t make it back.

Naturally, Mel and Jack have instant chemistry, and it seems likely that their friendship will blossom into romance. Meanwhile, Jack has a casual girlfriend who’s much more invested in the relationship than he is; there’s a town full of quirky characters to meet; and there are some unsavory types adding an element of danger as well.

So why do I think it’s dumb? But why is it so watchable?

First, I’ll focus on the good:

  • The scenery is AMAZING. While the town of Virgin River is supposed to be located in Humboldt County, California, the series was shot in British Columbia, and it shows. The rivers and mountains and forests are absolutely breathtaking. I think at least half the reason I keep watching is for the pure delight of seeing the gorgeous setting.
  • Mel herself is a great character. She’s strong and accomplished, an expert in her field, and full of compassion for her patients (even when they treat her like dirt). Over the course of the first season, we see flashbacks that establish the deep loss she experienced — scenes from her marriage to Mark, the tragic loss of their stillborn baby and subsequent struggle with infertility, and the accident that took Mark’s life. Actress Alexandra Breckenridge does a terrific job of portraying Mel’s straightforward approach to life.
  • Side note: This is shallow, but I love Mel’s wardrobe! I want to live insider her big, fluffy, cozy sweaters.
  • Tim Matheson as Doc Mullens. If you like Tim Matheson in Hart of Dixie, you’ll like him in Virgin River — he’s basically playing the same character! He’s always a delight to watch, and seems to have cornered the market on grumpy older doctors who don’t want to change.
  • Small town wholesomeness — any TV show set in a small town, whether it’s suburban Stars Hollow, Connecticut (like Gilmore Girls) or a southern town like Bluebell, Alabama (Hart of Dixie) or even a place riddled with supernatural beings like Mystic Falls, Virginia (Vampire Diaries) seems to thrive on showing town fairs, special traditions, barn dances, carnivals — you name it. Virgin River has its share of small town celebrations, just as you’d expect — even a super competitive egg relay race.

The bits that drive me nuts:

  • Manly men acting manly. Jack is an ex-Marine, as are his best buddies, and they’re all very noble and manly and protectors of the women folk. It can feel like a recruiting ad at times.
  • There’s a drug trafficking subplot that seems SO unnecessary — an illegal pot grower in the woods with bad guy enforcers with big guns, injecting an element of danger (and giving Jack an adversary to face down.) Why does a small town drama need drug runners? Why?
  • Time moves slowly. A character who revealed a pregnancy at the end of season one is now (2 episodes from the end of season 2) nearing the end of her first trimester. So… she’ll give birth in season 4 or 5?
  • Town gossip. I know, small town drama and all, but the small town gossip element is just silly. The drama between Doc and his sometimes-wife Hope is annoying as hell. They decide to reconcile, but Hope pushes him to pretend date someone else to throw people off their tracks, which seems all kinds of silly and mean to the other woman (who’s perfectly lovely and actually seems like a better match for Doc than moody, demanding Hope, who has held a grudge over a repented-for infidelity for 20 years!)
  • Teen drama. Of course one of the older women from town has her trouble-child niece come to town, and of course the niece is a stereotypical bad girl who’s leading the sweet town boy astray.
  • Let’s see, what else? Well, every possible small town drama plot point we’ve seen before, including a baby on the doorstep, a domestic violence survivor hiding out under an assumed name, petty jealousies, a surprise pregnancy, PTSD, and more.

Still, as I said, it’s highly watchable even while having moments that are absolute clunkers. Mel is really a great character, and I feel invested in her, even if it’s just watching her go on her morning runs through the forest and across the suspension bridge. I really appreciate her vulnerability as a person, which never keeps her from being the consummate medical professional.

Maybe it’s not fair to call the show dumb. It has its entertaining, heart-warming moments, and it’s definitely drawn me in.

But, ugh! PLEASE dump the drug runners and all the stereotypical small town plots already.

So, in other words:

Me: Grumble, grumble, grumble, this show is dumb.

And also me: Bring on season 3!

Query for readers: Has anyone read the Virgin River books? Should I give them a try? Or will I be just as annoyed as I am by the show?