If you spend as much time scrolling through Netflix as I do (and god help you if that’s the case) you’ll no doubt have noticed that a handful of TV shows keep seeping into the streaming platform’s ‘most popular’ list.
No, I’m not talking about nostalgic favourites like Friends, The Fresh Prince Of Bel Air, and Gilmore Girls – although they’re there. Of course they’re there. Even when the oceans begin bubbling over, the earth is 90% desert, and the sun has finally burnt itself out, they’ll still be there.
Instead, I’m talking about a new(ish) batch of dramas that seem to be effortlessly hooking themselves entire shoals of new fans on a weekly basis.
There’s Virgin River, Chesapeake Shores, and Sweet Magnolias. There’s Heartland, too, and Good Witch. And When Calls The Heart keeps popping its head up into the ‘trending’ list as well, like a meerkat peeking up from its burrow.
What do all these shows have in common? Not a lot, on the surface.
Good Witch is – you guessed it – a supernatural comedy about charming suburban sorceress Cassie Nightingale (Catherine Bell). When Calls The Heart, meanwhile, tells the tale of Elizabeth Thatcher (Erin Krakow), a young teacher who experiences a culture shock when she lands her first classroom assignment in a small mining town named Coal Valley.
Virgin River, of course, sees a recently widowed big-city nurse (Alexandra Breckenridge) move to the redwood forests of northern California and meet an intriguing man. And Heartland follows young Amy Fleming (Amber Marshall) as she slowly discovers she possesses her now-deceased mother’s ability to aid injured horses.
Anyone who’s seen Chesapeake Shores – and I know you’re out there, the Netflix algorithm doesn’t lie – will already know that it tells the tale of Abby O’Brien Winters (Meghan Ory), a high-flying career woman who leaves NYC to help keep her sister’s rural inn afloat.
And Sweet Magnolias is, as previously reported by Stylist, all about the bonds of friendship between chef Dana Sue (Brooke Elliott), lawyer Helen (Heather Headley), and events planner Maddie (Joanna Garcia Swisher).
These shows all tell different stories. They’re all about different women. They’re sometimes even set in different time periods. What they all have in common, though, is their penchant for gorgeous panoramas of rural life, well-scrubbed Hallmark-esque characters, and low-stakes drama.
What do I mean by the latter, you ask? Well, think spiky family dinners, fleeting glances with a cute barista, supermarket run-ins with an ex, and gossipy brunches with friends. A stolen bottle of whiskey here, an argument with a bratty sister there. Lots of accidental hand grazes, and misread moments, and inexplicably angry bosses.
You know, the sort of down-to-earth, mundane struggles that we all used to endure (albeit in a far less glossy setting) back in the pre-Covid world.
It’s the TV equivalent of beans on toast. Because, much like everyone’s favourite easy meal, you know what you’re getting when you stick one of these shows on. Something comforting, simple, and enjoyable. Something irresistibly gentle. Something non-challenging. And something that, above all else, reminds you of simpler times.
Considering everything that’s happened, it’s no wonder that so many of us are steering clear of hard-hitting dramas and thrillers in favour of something softer and sweeter. Especially now, as we slowly continue our release from lockdown and attempt to navigate the pandemic-altered world. Because, as we’ve said before, these shows are set in towns where the storefronts are impossibly pretty, the houses are luxuriously large, the parks well-manicured, the trees lushly leafy. Everyone knows each other. There is no coronavirus to watch out for, there is no dramatic soundtrack to make you feel uncomfortable. When people have too much to drink, they have perfectly ordinary hangovers. When friends argue, they reconcile within a few scenes. And, when a character is upset, it is usually because someone phrased something in a clumsy manner.
Indeed, all emotional upheaval is often forgotten by the time the credits roll.
Granted, they’re often lacking in diversity – which is more than a little frustrating. Sure, they usually tend to focus on a single heterosexual woman (usually divorced and inexplicably wealthy) in her 30s – which, as we know, isn’t anywhere near as representative of all women as we’d expect of new programmes. And, yeah, they don’t have the highest ratings on Rotten Tomatoes.
That being said, though, there’s something oddly compelling about these TV shows. They warm you up, from the top of your head to the tips of your toes, and make you feel good about the world again, because they strip away all of life’s overwhelming complexities and give you something which is far easier to swallow than reality. They are, to put it bluntly, novocaine for the soul.
And so, if you’re having a bad (or even a mediocre) day, we fully recommend you make yourself a hearty helping of actual beans on toast and serve it up alongside one of these popular series.
You won’t regret it.
Kayleigh Dray is Stylist’s digital editor-at-large. Her specialist topics include comic books, films, TV and feminism. On a weekend, you can usually find her drinking copious amounts of tea and playing boardgames with her friends.