’Tis the season — well, year, really — to light a scented candle, curl up with a cup of chamomile tea and binge-watch a simple drama starring conventionally attractive people grappling with love and loss in a scenic small town.
At least that’s what millions of TV viewers think.
“Virgin River,” based on the book series by Robyn Carr, climbed to No. 1 on Netflix’s most popular shows list shortly after its Season 2 debut on Nov. 27, surprising naysayers who’ve come to expect “prestige” TV series at every turn. Starring Alexandra Breckenridge and Martin Henderson, the show is about a widow, Melinda “Mel” Monroe, who sells her Los Angeles home and takes a nurse practitioner job in a wooded California town where she meets a handsome bar owner and veteran named Jack Sheridan.
It’s a feel-good watch, a Hallmark-esque offering that goes down nice and easy.
In a recent phone conversation with HuffPost, Breckenridge admitted she avoided projects like “Virgin River” in the past, opting to chase “edgier” roles for a large chunk of her career. But after becoming a mom in 2016, the 38-year-old actor, who’s starred in everything from “American Horror Story” and “The Walking Dead” to “This Is Us,” embraced the allure of a soapy drama series.
“Sometimes you don’t want to watch something that’s gonna really take you down some kind of analytical path,” she said. “Sometimes you really want something that’s just basic and cozy — a beautiful small town where people fall in love. Emotions are heightened right now and this show provides the perfect sort of soft landing and entertainment for people dealing with loss or going through what they’re going through [with the coronavirus pandemic].”
“Virgin River,” like its equally bingeable successor “Sweet Magnolias,” is seemingly targeted at millennial women looking to channel their teenage television preferences: think The WB’s “Everwood,” “Dawson’s Creek” and “One Tree Hill.” But older generations have been drawn in, too. According to Breckenridge, viewership doubled for the second season. “Not only the people watching, but the people who actually finished the show within the first eight days,” she said. (Netflix did not confirm that or share specific statistics for the series.)
Initially, Season 1 numbers shocked Breckenridge, who thought “Virgin River” would sink into the Netflix abyss after its debut last year.
“I just kept telling Martin, ‘Nobody’s gonna watch this!’” she said, laughing. “And to this day, he just quotes me: ‘Nobody’s watching, right, Alex? Nope. Nobody’s watching.’”
“When I took the job, at the time, I had seen so many things on Netflix that just ended up in the graveyard, so to speak,” she continued. “You’d see a show, it would flash by, you’d say, ‘Oh, maybe I’ll watch that,’ and then it just disappeared. And so, during my own exploration of acting in the first season, I was just like, ‘Well, nobody will be watching this,’ and it was a great opportunity for me to sort of unabashedly lay all of my guttural emotions on the table and see how it goes — really rawly connect with this character on an emotional level and just kind of let it all out. It’s hard to reach in and pull those emotions out in front of a crew, let alone knowing that lots of people will be watching.”
“Virgin River” centers on a group of locals who know way too much about each other’s personal lives. There’s the prying mayor, Hope McCrea (Annette O’Toole), who is in a secret relationship with her ex-husband, Mel’s boss Vernon “Doc” Mullins (Tim Matheson). There’s John “Preacher” Middleton, the friendly chef at Jack’s bar. And then there’s Charmaine (Lauren Hammersley), Jack’s clingy former fling who learns she’s pregnant just as he falls for Mel. But for all its melodrama, the series also carefully explores tougher topics like infant and pregnancy loss, as well as post-traumatic stress disorder.
For Breckenridge, that was important, especially when she recognized the show’s popularity and reach. Although the characters don’t get into “complex dialogues with each other about their feelings,” as they do on more highbrow shows, Breckenridge noted, she did work with showrunner Sue Tenney to make sure Mel’s healing process was on full display in the second season.
“I really wanted to see this woman come out of her grief,” she said, “so that people who are dealing with their own trauma can relate to and find inspiration in that.”
Breckenridge began acting as a teen in the early 2000s, appearing in cameo roles in Judd Apatow-produced shows “Freaks and Geeks” and “Undeclared,” as well as hits like “Charmed” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” She began working as a voice actor on Seth MacFarlane’s “Family Guy” before dipping her toes into premium TV horror in the 2010s, appearing in “True Blood” (Katerina Pelham), “American Horror Story” (Young Moira in “Murder House” and Kaylee in “Coven”) and “The Walking Dead” (Jessie Anderson).
“I was [a horror fan] before I had kids and then I had children and I was like, ‘Oh, I can’t.’ I’ve become too empathetic,” Breckenridge said with a chuckle. She married guitarist Casey Hooper in 2015 and gave birth to son Jack and daughter Billie in 2016 and 2017, respectively.
It’s possible maternal instincts led her to audition for the role of Rebecca Pearson in “This Is Us,” which eventually went to Mandy Moore. But, to her excitement, she got a call from creator Dan Fogelman offering her the role of Sophie, Kevin Pearson’s (played by Justin Hartley) lifelong on-again-off-again love. Although she’s appeared in prior seasons of the series, her contract with Netflix now makes a Season 5 Sophie spotting unlikely.
“I can’t do two shows at once, unfortunately,” she said. “I was supposed to go back, but I wasn’t able to, which is all I can say about that.”
Breckenridge, who was a series regular for Season 2 and won a SAG Award with the cast in 2017, said that when the writers were mapping out Kevin’s arc in the later seasons, they needed him to step away from Sophie for a while to go on his own journey. NBC let her out of her contract and, in turn, she booked “Virgin River.”
“That’s a bittersweet situation,” she admitted. “[‘This Is Us’] is such a lovely environment to work in.”
Network TV is tricky in general, Breckenridge said. She and Henderson, who starred as Dr. Nathan Riggs on “Grey’s Anatomy” before joining “Virgin River,” often discuss navigating the ever-changing industry.
“Sets have an emotional component to them that’s based on the group of people that are working on the show,” Breckenridge said. “If you have a group of people that wants to be there and loves their job and everybody gets along, you have a set that’s a really familial environment and we’re really lucky to have that on ‘Virgin River.’ Sometimes on network shows, you don’t get that and I can’t put my finger on exactly why that is. Maybe it’s more of a machine. With Netflix, they just send you off to do your 10 episodes and then it’s over.”
Breckenridge says “Virgin River” seasons take about three and a half months to film, whereas a network series shoots for about nine months out of the year.
“My uncle [Michael Weatherly], is on ‘Bull’ and they do 23 or 24 episodes a year,” she said. “And he was on ‘NCIS’ for years [before that]. It just sounded grueling.”
For now, Breckenridge is more than satisfied as the leading player on a heartening Netflix series, even if it means acting out “unrealistic” scenarios for the sake of cliffhangers.
“I’m really happy that, creatively, I was able to do something that people are really enjoying,” she said. “You know, that’s what I do. I’m an entertainer, really. So if I get an opportunity to entertain, in any genre, then I’m happy to do it. I’m happy for the work.”
As for whether or not the cast will be back on screen for a Season 3, Breckenridge is technically not allowed to say. She did, however, give all those fans a glimmer of hope following that shocking Season 2 finale scene.
“Jack? Jack can’t go away,” she said. “In the books, [Mel and Jack] get married and have children. Jack can’t go anywhere!”
Put on those rose-colored glasses, because it sounds like another “Virgin River” wave is on the way.
UPDATE: Dec. 18 ― “Virgin River” Season 3 is a go. Alexandra Breckenridge confirmed the news on Instagram.