A 'Virgin River' splash: Netflix greenlights two more seasons, cozies up to 'comfort' genre

Erin Jensen
USA TODAY

Netflix and soothe. 

The world's largest streaming service is giving a warm embrace to a genre it's dubbed "comfort" content. Think programs like "Virgin River," centered on a widowed nurse practitioner who starts over in a picturesque (fictitious) northern California town; the mother-daughter dramedy "Ginny & Georgia"; and "Firefly Lane," starring Katherine Heigl and Sarah Chalke as lifelong besties dealing with life's challenges.

They're shows that don't require laser focus: You don't have to press pause if the laundry buzzes or you're hit with a hankering for a snack or glass of wine. It's feel-good, wholesome, low-stakes programming that might remind audiences of another network that evokes the same feeling of a cozy throw.

"Been bingeing on 'Virgin River.' It feels like the longest Hallmark movie without a holiday," Timi Rudd writes in USA TODAY's Yes, I'm Still Watching Facebook group. Group member Tamara Jackson agrees: "I was looking for a way to describe it and you've nailed it. It's the longest Hallmark move ever."

There's a reason Netflix would be eyeing Hallmark Channel's turf: The cable network last year ranked second among entertainment networks, and is especially popular with women 35 and older, the sweet spot for this programming. Compared to other streaming services, Netflix is competing most aggressively for Hallmark's crown.

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Alexandra Breckenridge portrays Melinda Monroe in Netflix's "Virgin River," a nurse practitioner and love interest of Jack Sheridan (played by Martin Henderson).

Jinny Howe, vice president of original series at Netflix, says the platform's success with the comfort-content genre has sparked further investment. The latest seasons of series "Virgin River," "Firefly Lane," "Ginny & Georgia," "Sweet Magnolias" and the films "Blue Miracle" and "Resort to Love" all spent time on the service's Top 10 list within four weeks of their debut in more than 50 countries.

And comfort content isn't limited to scripted TV shows: The genre also includes design and cooking shows, and movies like this month's "Afterlife of the Party," in which Victoria Justice's fun-loving Cassie tries to correct her Earthly mistakes after her sudden death.

With “everything that's been going on in the world, people more and more (are) looking for, not just that comfort, but also that feeling of hope and that feeling of community," Howe says. "All of that really came together in a way that was really organic, and I think this was more of a proof point that this is a really vital area of programming for us.”

Netflix has already renewed "Firefly Lane," "Ginny & Georgia" and "Sweet Magnolias," which follows a trio of best friends since childhood living in a quaint South Carolina town, for sophomore seasons. Fans of the sparks between Mel Monroe (Alexandra Breckenridge) and Jack Sheridan (Martin Henderson) on "Virgin River" will be happy to know that the series has received the green light for a fourth and fifth season, USA TODAY can exclusively reveal. A multi-season renewal is a rare move for Netflix and shocked the series' stars.

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"Firefly Lane" chronicles the longtime friendship of Tully Hart (Katherine Heigl) and Kate Mularkey (Sarah Chalke).

"We didn't know whether a show like this would find a huge audience," Henderson admits. "We knew that there was clearly an in-built audience with the success of the novels" by Robyn Carr, from which the series was adapted. "So we had a feeling we'll get maybe half of the people that read the books watching and pick up a few people here and there. But I don't think anybody anticipated it to have as wide of appeal as it did."

"My response to the popularity after the first season and the second season was really that I thought it's set in a beautiful location," says Breckenridge. "You have this lovely sense of community that most people don't have where they live. There is a sense of connection and intimacy that you have on the show that people crave in their own relationships. During the pandemic, you're not experiencing that as much, and so that connection became something people were craving." 

Season 3 of "Virgin River" made Netflix's Top 10 list in 81 countries within the month following its July release, the service says, and stayed there in the U.S. Howe notes the worldwide appeal of romances, led by "Bridgerton," an outlier in the genre thanks to its risqué love scenes. Similarly, "Virgin River" creator Sue Tenney believes its themes of love entice a global audience.

"I think that romance is always hopeful," she says. "Love is hope. Finding a connection, making your way through life with the person who's your soul mate, that's all super hopeful stuff. And I think we have a different way of doing it. We combine comedy and crime with our romance elements." 

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Netflix has renewed "Virgin River" for Seasons 4 and 5.

Howe says Netflix will expand upon the comfort genre with scripted and unscripted series. "Coming out of the times we're coming out of, I think people are yearning for this hope-filled, more wholesome content," she says. 

Ali Novak's "My Life With the Walter Boys," chronicling how Type A New York teenager Jackie adjusts to chaotic life in Colorado with new guardians after her parents die in a car accident, is being made into a series. Tembi Locke's memoir "From Scratch" is also being adapted for Netflix, and is currently filming in Italy. The series will focus on the love story between a Black woman and a chef from Sicily, who becomes stricken with cancer.

Baking shows are also on the rise in the unscripted area of the comfort content genre, joining the likes of "Sparking Joy with Marie Kondo," "Get Organized with The Home Edit," "Dream Home Makeover," "Nailed It!" and "The Great British Baking Show." Confectioners are pushed to the limit in "Baking Impossible" (due Oct. 6) in which participants, teamed with engineers, construct edible boats and tasty miniature golf courses. "School of Chocolate" also arrives this fall, following eight competitors skilled at pastry and chocolate as they learn from chef Amaury Guichon.

Upcoming holiday films further beef up Netflix's assortment, including "The Princess Switch 3" and "A Castle For Christmas," slated for November.

Kat Graham, who starred in Netflix's "Operation Christmas Drop" and "The Holiday Calendar," will star in "Love in the Villa" due next year. 

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Kat Graham, star of Netflix's upcoming "Love in the Villa," previously starred in the streaming service's 2020 holiday film, "Operation Christmas Drop" with Alexander Ludwig.

Graham describes her character Julie as "the ultimate planner. Everything is laminated, organized, everything has an itinerary. She loves a list and a bullet point." But her plans for a romantic vacation in Verona, Italy, are thwarted when her boyfriend breaks up with her ahead of the trip and she finds her vacation home has been double-booked by a cynical man named Charlie (Tom Hopper), Julie's "polar opposite."

"They go to war over this villa and wind up finding love," Graham says of the characters. "I don't remember the last time I laughed and cried so much while reading a script. I had such a great time."

Graham says she wanted to do the movie written and directed by Mark Steven Johnson to give viewers (and herself) a sense of optimism.

"This is a really difficult time in the world," she says. "Every time you turn on the news, there's just heartbreak left and right. And I wanted to do something that felt hopeful and would not just give the world hope, but make me feel more hopeful about the world and love and the magic that can exist when you might actually be in the right place at the right time, even if it feels like your life is falling apart." 

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