"We like to keep things as complicated as humanly possible,” Virgin River's leading man Jack once said. And he wasn’t entirely joking.
Now in its fifth season, the hit Netflix drama about widow and nurse practitioner Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge) starting over in the titular northern California town with the help of the marine turned bar owner (Martin Henderson) may look like a Hallmark movie, but it’s plot is far messier.
There’s been romance in the forest-fresh air, but also fertility issues and surprise pregnancies, secret illnesses and tragic losses, PTSD and alcoholism — not to mention a violent drug kingpin (and queen), an abusive ex with a twin brother, and a wildfire.
As we wait to see what the show, based on Robyn Carr’s prolific book series, has in store for its holiday episodes arriving Nov. 30 (hopefully the reveal of Mel’s father!), here are seven similarly sudsy yet earnest shows like Virgin River to watch in the meantime.
It can be just as difficult to start over in a town you grew up in, as Maddie (expert crier JoAnna Garcia Swisher) learns in this Netflix series, based on another of Woods’ book series. As Season 1 opens in the deceptively named Serenity, South Carolina, the mother of three is finalizing her divorce to Dr. Bill Townsend (Chris Klein) — who’s expecting a baby with his nurse Noreen (Jamie Lynn Spears).
In Maddie’s corner are her best friends, attorney Helen Decatur (Heather Headley) and chef Dana Sue Sullivan (Brooke Elliott), and, soon, retired pro turned high school baseball coach Cal Maddox (Justin Bruening). The ladies say there’s no problem that their margarita nights can’t solve, but that theory is tested when they decide to open a spa together, Dana Sue’s estranged husband Ronnie (Brandon Quinn) returns, and single Helen realizes she’d like to have children.
Throw in some teen drama (Maddie’s youngest son has a crush on Dana Sue’s daughter, who has a crush on Maddie’s eldest boy!), along with some adult love triangles, a vindictive sister-in-law, and a blowout fight, and you have more than enough occasions for the pals to “pour it out.” Fans are still awaiting word on whether they’ll be replenishing their glasses for a fourth season.
Watch on Netflix
This is Us
If you were someone who missed the emotional rollercoaster that was this 2016-22 NBC drama, then you also missed one of the most satisfying TV rides in recent memory. Over six carefully-crafted and exquisitely acted seasons, we follow the lives of the Pearson family in the past, as couple Jack and Rebecca (Milo Ventimiglia and Mandy Moore) are raising “The Big 3” in Pittsburgh; the present, as their twins Kate (Chrissy Metz) and Kevin (Justin Hartley) and adopted son, Randall (Emmy winner Sterling K. Brown), deal with adult issues like divorce, addiction, anxiety, and long-simmering resentments; and the future, as Rebecca’s Alzheimer’s disease runs its course and her children prepare to say goodbye.
The series is one of the best examples of what makes television special, which is the amount of time you get to spend with characters. In this case, 106 episodes cover decades of the most pivotal moments in their lives — including Jack’s death when the Big 3 were teens (a mystery big enough to be revealed in a post-Super Bowl episode) — and show how events big and small informed who they are today.
The viewer’s investment in powerful and rewarding, particularly as famous actor Kevin’s childhood sweetheart Sophie (Virgin River’s Breckenridge) keeps reentering the picture to mark his growth, and Randall forms a relationship with his biological father, William (the late Ron Cephas Jones, who won two Emmys for his soulful performance). The two-part series finale will break your heart and fill it up again. Anyone who’s said goodbye to a parent in hospice will feel as if their final moments were captured on film and hope that Rebecca’s final journey is one that awaits us all.
Watch on Hulu
Hart of Dixie
Just like Mel is met by a boss (Tim Matheson) who believes he doesn’t need her and locals who consider her an outsider, Dr. Zoe Hart (Rachel Bilson), the heroine of this 2011-15 CW charmer, has some folks to win over. Zoe reluctantly trades New York City for Bluebell, Alabama, where she plans to spend a year as a general practioner and acquire the bedside manner needed to score her dream cardiothoracic surgery fellowship. She’s inherited half of a medical practice, but the remaining partner, prickly Dr. Brick Breeland (also Matheson), wants her out. Luckily she has two gentlemen in her corner, retired NFL great turned mayor Lavon Hayes (Cress Williams) and attorney George Tucker (Scott Porter), because Brick’s belle daughter, Lemon (Jaime King), aka George’s fiancée, also considers Zoe her sworn enemy.
Expect plenty of bayou humor — Lavon has a pet alligator named Burt Reynolds — and some good ol’ fashioned love triangles: Zoe is torn between pining for George and denying her attraction to her himbo neighbor, Wade Kinsella (Wilson Bethel), and it’s clear that Lemon has a history with Lavon. Bless her heart.
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This 1990-95 CBS dramedy, from the creators of St. Elsewhere, takes its fish-out-of-water storyline to the extreme. Needing help paying for med school, New York City mensch Dr. Joel Fleischman (Rob Morrow) accepted financial aid from the state of Alaska in exchange for agreeing to work in The Last Frontier for four years. He expected to at least be in Anchorage, but instead, he’s sent to remote Cicely where early patients include a beaver and a man who’s been shot, then later stabbed, by his wife.
Joel’s entertaining neuroticism may be somewhat predictable but here’s what’s refreshing: The locals are actually happy to have him! And even if Joel won’t initially admit it, he finds them, their drama, and their traditions fascinating. Bush pilot Maggie O’Connell (Janine Turner) has a love life that may be cursed. Bar owner Holling Vincoeur (John Cullum) and astronaut turned town visionary Maurice Minnifield (Barry Corbin) haven’t talked since Holling stole the heart of beauty queen Shelly Tambo (Cynthia Geary), a woman 40 years his junior. Local disc jockey Chris Stevens (John Corbett) is an ex-con philosopher. Native Alaskans Marilyn Whirlwind (Elaine Miles), Joel’s unflappable, self-appointed office manager, and Ed Chigliak (Darren E. Burrows), a budding filmmaker, defy stereotypes.
The series, lauded for its “magical realism” and disarming poeticism, won an Outstanding Drama Series Emmy and two consecutive Peabody Awards. Season 3 is particularly strong with the town’s moving origin story “Cicely,” the Christmas episode “Seoul Mates,” and the memorable “A-Hunting We Will Go” (Joel tries to save the grouse he shot, Ed gives an unexpected birthday present to septuagenarian shopkeeper Ruth-Anne Miller, played by Peg Phillips).
Few things are as perfect as the casting of Treat Williams in this heartfelt 2002-06 WB family drama. Created by Greg Berlanti, it centers on Dr. Andy Brown, a famous New York City neurosurgeon, who moves his teen son Ephram (Gregory Smith) and eight-year-old daughter Delia (Vivien Cardone) to the picturesque mountain town of Everwood, Colorado after their mother dies in a car accident. His children and the town think he’s gone crazy, but Andy wants to be the kind of doctor and father his wife had always hoped he’d be, in the town she considered “heaven.”
Both goals prove more difficult than Andy anticipates: Everwood’s longtime GP, Dr. Harold Abbott (Tom Amandes), resents his presence and Harold’s daughter, Amy (Emily VanCamp), befriends an instantly smitten Ephram because she wants Andy to put back on his cape and operate on her coma-stricken boyfriend. Ephram, meanwhile, isn’t ready to forgive his former workaholic pop for all the life moments he missed while he was off saving lives.
The pilot alone will have you welling up, as you watch Williams make Andy’s grief and desire to honor his wife’s memory feel real. After four seasons, the series gives both Andy and Ephram happy endings, but along the way there’s a secret pregnancy, an affair, more loss, and a slew of noteworthy recurring and guest stars (including Marcia Cross, Scott Wolf, Anne Heche, Betty White and an Emmy-nominated James Earl Jones). Bonus tip: For more of the late Williams, check out Hallmark Channel’s 2016-22 drama Chesapeake Shores, based on Sherryl Woods’ book series about the complicated O’Brien clan, of which Williams’ Mick is the patriarch.
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You’re going to want to binge this poignant HBO gem set in rural Manhattan, Kansas, so set aside seven hours now. Bridget Everett stars as Sam, a woman stuck in the grief of losing her terminally ill sister Holly, and, effectively, parts of herself. She begins to come back to life when she befriends Joel (Jeff Hiller), a fellow former high school show choir member who remembers when Sam used to shine and wants to see her do it again. Their platonic friendship is the heart of the Peabody Award-nominated dramedy, which may remind you of Schitt’s Creek even though the tone is somber at times (that said, Joel and Sam’s Season 2 food poisoning is funnier than David and Stevie’s bout!).
The show — which also sees Sam mending a tense relationship with her sister Tricia (Mary Catherine Garrison) and the girls dealing with their mother Mary Jo’s (Jane Brody) alcoholism — is a beautiful reminder that you can find like-minded people even in the smallest of towns when you open yourself up enough to look. That when you feel joyless as an adult one lifeline could be revisiting the interest that made you happiest when you were younger. And that the Peter Gabriel song “Don’t Give Up” featuring Kate Bush is still amazing. A third season has been ordered.
Watch on Max
It’s better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all. Hold on to that thought when you watch this Netflix tearjerker inspired by actress Tembi Locke’s bestselling memoir of her passionate romance with her late husband, Saro. In the eight-episode 2022 limited series, Zoe Saldaña plays Texan Amy Wheeler, who meets Sicilian chef Lino Ortolano (Eugenio Mastrandrea) while studying art abroad in Florence. As he’s already estranged from his disapproving father, and therefore the rest of his people, Lino eventually follows her to America where he struggles to find a job worthy of his talent and to feel at home with her family (led by Keith David as Amy’s father, Hershel, and Danielle Deadwyler as her sister, Zora).
But whether Amy and Lino are kissing in the rain in Italy or slow-dancing in a Los Angeles parking lot, their devotion is breathtaking. As Amy says, “I know that we have dreams, but I don’t care if we never get to them, or if we never go past the block from where we started, as long as I’m with you.” Saldaña and Mastrandrea make you believe in that kind of love — grounded and epic at the same time. (It also doesn’t hurt that Saldaña, who’s married to an Italian artist in real life, is fluent in the language.)
After Lino is diagnosed with a rare cancer, both families rally around the couple in ways that will stay with you. Just know that the final hour leaves a grieving Amy in a hopeful place, surrounded by loved ones and Lino’s memory. Tembi and her sister, Attica Locke, who co-created the series with such honesty and affection, wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Watch on Netflix