Toronto Star ePaper

Spirited end

‘Virgin River’ closes out its fifth season the holiday way


‘‘ It feels like we really embraced it and explored it as much as we could, that I don’t know if it’s something to do again.


Spoiler alert: This story contains spoilers for Season 5 of “Virgin River.”

A picturesque small town with cosy weather, charming cottages and wood-frame cabins, sweeping panoramic views of the mountains and neighbours who know everyone’s business. With this setting, it was only a matter of time before “Virgin River” joined the stampede of holiday programming that rushes in during the final months of the year.

Based on the 24-novel series from author Robyn Carr, Netflix’s wholesome romance drama follows the journey of Mel (Alexandra Breckenridge), a widowed nurse practitioner who moves from Los Angeles to the remote town of Virgin River to start a new job and restart her life. As she settles into smalltown life, she falls in love with Jack (Martin Henderson), a military veteran and owner of the local watering hole.

The show returns Thursday to close out its fifth season with two Christmas episodes. (The first part of the season consisted of 10 episodes that premiered last month.) It’s the series’ first attempt at ringing in the Yuletide.

Dismiss them all you want, but schmaltzy holiday movies are a booming business that continues to grow every year. And holidaythemed TV episodes are a timehonoured tradition — although this year, they are in shorter supply because of the dual labour strikes that shut down Hollywood for months. The idea to bring the season’s greetings to the fictional small town of Virgin River had been swirling for some time, partly because Carr wrote several holiday instalments in the book series.

“It was a thought that had come up that they had been floating for a couple of seasons, but hadn’t really come to fruition,” said showrunner Patrick Sean Smith. “But also it just feels like a natural extension of the show, given its feel-good sensibility and all those things you want for the holidays that the show manages to do year-round.”

The new episodes are not a standalone instalment that borrow from Carr’s holiday books. Smith and the show’s writers opted to introduce a time-jump — going from Labour Day to Christmastime — for the first time and continue to pull at the storyline threads of Season 5. For the show where time moves slowly but the drama doesn’t — one character, Charmaine (Lauren Hammersley), has been pregnant for multiple seasons — Smith felt the storytelling device was well-earned after a season that included a devastating wildfire, a sting operation to catch a major drug supplier and Mel’s miscarriage.

Part 1 of the quaint drama’s fifth season left viewers with as many cliffhangers as its mountain backdrop could handle: It was revealed that the father of Charmaine’s twins is bad guy Calvin (David Cubitt). But will she finally give birth? The baby talk didn’t end there because Lizzie (Sarah Dugdale) revealed she’s pregnant.

And then there’s Brady (Ben Hollingsworth), who is unknowingly being conned by his new girlfriend. But the closing moments of the season dropped a new bombshell: Mel’s sister Joey (Jenny Cooper) called to say she found a hidden stack of postcards that seemed to suggest their mom had an affair with a man in Virgin River and that mystery man may be Mel’s father.

“It was as close to the end of like a Marvel movie as you could get with just sort of an Easter egg of a scene,” Smith said. “But one that’s throwing you into experiencing ‘Virgin River’ for the holidays and getting to see what that looks like and what that feels like — and luring you there with a cliffhanger.

“In the beginning we were thinking of breaking it as a holiday movie,” Smith continued, “but because there’s so much fluidity between the episodes that ended on cliffhangers and the show is so serialized, we knew we wanted to answer some of the questions from the season. So it felt substantive and wasn’t just only good holiday fun — that’s still there, but we wanted to give the audience some answers … Mel and Jack spend the first half together on this task of finding her biological father, which kind of evolves into this Virgin River scavenger hunt.”

Smith said he wanted the episodes to feel lighter in tone after the heaviness of the season’s first 10 episodes: “Martin has a scene where he’s eating peppermint bark … he went through about 10 pounds of it.” For Smith, figuring out just how to Christmas-fy “Virgin River” meant thinking about what he would want to see in a promotional trailer.

“Tons of decorated Christmas trees, Muriel (Teryl Rothery) dancing in a holiday performance,” Smith said. “There’s always some event that the town is doing, so it was kind of easy to consider what would be the annual competition that we could throw Doc and Hope into and see them be competitive. It was a little bit of just visual wish fulfilment of what I would want to see that still felt within the parameters of the show.”

Virgin River takes the holidays seriously. There’s an ice-skating rink, Santa’s Village, a Christmas tree decorating contest, a Christmas market and a playhouse where the town’s staging of a holiday musical unfolds. The bigger question that needed answering, Smith said, was whether he wanted it to look like a Hallmark movie.

“I wanted it to feel like Virgin River perfection,” he said. “I wanted it to feel true to the characters but still have that aspirational, idyllic part of it. Gotta have hot cocoa, we have to have mulled wine, we have to have the lights and snow-capped mountains and the fires going. It’s not quite so over the top.”

Because when there are hundreds of programs capturing the spirit of Christmas across Hallmark, Lifetime, Netflix, and other networks and platforms, they can start to look a bit like paint-by-number.

“We completely achieved the opposite of a cookie-cutter Christmas,” said Mecca Thornhill, the show’s assistant set decorator. “There’s all these really amazing layers for every single character. We didn’t go to the same store and decorate the houses the same over and over again. For a lot of us, we’ve done Christmas shows before. I did a famous Christmas movie many years ago.”

Hope and Doc’s home is heavy on the kitsch and vintage pieces. Brie’s modern space is more minimal, with a subdued colour palette. At Doc’s medical practice, the vibe was “what he would have had shoved in a closet for years and years and years like it’s nothing,” Thornhill said.

The work to acquire festive decor began in September 2022. An extra buyer was brought in to dedicate all their time to getting Christmas items until the schedule of Thornhill and her team allowed more time to delve into prep before shooting began. (They had been in the middle of filming the season’s other big event: the show’s Labour Day carnival.)

“It was very challenging to sort of switch gears,” Thornhill said. “Christmas is made up of a million little things; you have to get layers and layers and layers to make all the sets come alive for the holidays.”

But the timing was also a Christmas miracle, Thornhill said. “I think that Christmas decor now starts coming out, I’m not kidding, on Sept. 30; earlier and earlier every year. We went to a lot of wholesalers in town, but they didn’t actually have a lot of the stuff because it was dedicated to some of the retail stores.”

As a result, Thornhill and her team sourced some of the holiday decor from local event rentals, online retailers, thrift stores, as well as Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace. And when her team couldn’t find something, they had it made, like the giant Santa hat that tops the bear statue in Jack’s bar: “It’s hard to find a really giant Santa hat, so I had one of my dressers make one with a pompom topper; there’s all these little tiny, little details everywhere.”

Thornhill’s favourite finds include the vintage, teardrop-shaped glass ornaments that are seen on Hope’s tree, which were found on Marketplace, and a tiny log cabin that’s almost an exact replica of Mel’s that hangs on her tree.

But for all the holiday joy viewers may get out of the episodes, Smith said they shouldn’t expect more of it in the forthcoming sixth season.

“It feels like we really embraced it and explored it as much as we could, that I don’t know if it’s something to do again,” he said. “But if we could have a Thanksgiving episode or a Halloween episode, something beyond the Christmas holiday, then I think that could be an opportunity.”

Bah, humbug!





Toronto Star Newspapers Limited