Like most things aimed primarily at women, the romance genre, no matter the medium, has traditionally been overlooked, dismissed as inferior—or even unfairly mocked as being a horny housewife’s guilty pleasure. But romance is a large and extremely profitable industry: sales of romance ebooks actually increased 17 percent during the first few months of the pandemic. It’s a shame mainstream audiences have been so quick to judge and so slow to accept and enjoy.
Luckily, that seems to be changing. With the overwhelming success of Netflix’s adaptations of Bridgerton and Virgin River, and the warm embrace of Hulu’s Normal People, streaming services are cluing into romance’s sizable and largely untapped viewing audience, and so the genre has slowly started to enter the mainstream.
This is a triumph for several reasons, but first and foremost, it means that fans hungry for heartwarming declarations of love and swoon-worthy moments of passion like those in heady, heart-thumping romantic dramas have more viewing options than ever before. So if you’ve found yourself yearning for a sweeping romance to warm your heart during the coldest months of the year, these are the best romantic TV shows to keep you cozy this winter.
Watch on Netflix
Based on Julia Quinn’s novels, this new series hails from Shondaland alum Chris Van Dusen and is best described as Jane Austen by way of Gossip Girl. Set during the Regency era in England, the favored period of many a historical romance, the luxurious new series—which features a number of steamy sex scenes (don’t watch this with your mom!)—follows the eight Bridgerton siblings as they search for true love and attempt to remain in the good graces of Lady Whistledown, an anonymous gossip writer voiced by Julie Andrews who spills the secrets and scandals of the aristocratic Bridgertons and the rest of London’s high society in her regular column.
Although all of the Bridgerton siblings appear during the show’s eight episodes, the first season focuses primarily on eldest daughter Daphne (Phoebe Dynevor) as she enters society and attempts to secure a marriage proposal. Initially the talk of the town, her standing falls with the arrival of a beautiful newcomer, so to escape a loveless marriage with an unsavory man chosen for her by her eldest brother, Daphne strikes a deal with the extremely handsome and newly titled Duke of Hastings (Regé-Jean Page), a committed bachelor with twice the bodice-ripping hero energy any one man should possess. In a classic fake-dating scenario, the Duke pretends to court Daphne in order to raise her value in the marriage market, while their agreement keeps women from throwing themselves at him. It’s a win-win situation … until the two develop real feelings for one another, of course.
Watch on Hulu
A faithful adaptation of Sally Rooney’s best-selling novel of the same name, Normal People tells the tender but complicated love story of Marianne (Daisy Edgar-Jones) and Connell (Paul Mescal), two Irish teens from different backgrounds drawn together by their inherent loneliness. Beginning at the end of high school and carrying on through college, the series is a surprisingly honest and heartbreaking depiction of love and friendship, with a central relationship that is defined by periods of emotional and sexual intimacy that give way to long stretches of little to no communication, as fluctuating power dynamics threaten to destroy the deep bonds that connect them. This might not be your typical romance, but you’ll fall in love with it all the same.
Watch on Amazon Prime
Watch on PBS Passport
If you’re looking for a swoon-worthy historical romance to transport you to another time and place, look no further than Poldark, the five-season British drama based on the books of Winston Graham and starring Aidan Turner as the handsome former soldier Ross Poldark. Returning home to Cornwall after the American Revolutionary War, Ross finds that his father has died and his estate is in ruins. And if that is not bad enough, his first love, Elizabeth (Heida Reed), has become engaged to his cousin. Luckily for Ross (and for the audience), he finds true love where he was least expecting it: with his scullery maid, Demelza (Eleanor Tomlinson). Although their relationship initially shocks their friends and neighbors, the couple’s love and devotion to one another is guaranteed to sweep viewers right off their feet and into the beautiful sunsets of the Cornwall coast.
Watch on Hulu
You’ll have to read subtitles for this 2016 K-drama that follows the love story of an elite soldier and the trauma surgeon who’s stolen his heart, but I promise it is worth it! Set against the backdrop of life-and-death situations, Descendants of the Sun is a military drama with a well-placed sense of humor that stars Song Joong Ki as Yoo Shi Jin, a captain in a special forces unit who falls in love with the beautiful and talented Kang Mo Yeon (Song Hye Kyo), an emergency room doctor seeking a professorship, despite their differing philosophies on life—he believes death is sometimes necessary to protect others, while she values life above all else. Having given up hope of making a relationship work because of the nature of their lives and the secrecy of his profession, fate brings the two together once more when Shi Jin is deployed to a war-torn country and Mo Yeon joins a group of humanitarian aid workers there. A fated romance that will at times leave you breathless, Descendants of the Sun is a must-watch series for romance fans and a perfect introduction to K-dramas, if you’ve yet to experience them.
Watch on Netflix
Virgin River is a story about second chances. Based on a series of novels by Robyn Carr, the heartwarming medical romance, which was just renewed for a third season, follows Melinda “Mel” Monroe (Alexandra Breckenridge), a skilled nurse practitioner and midwife who packs up her life in L.A. to move to a remote mountain town in Northern California to start over after a series of traumatic heartbreaks. With a cranky new boss (Tim Matheson) who wants nothing to do with her, and a dumpy cabin that fits the definition of an Airbnb scam, Mel questions whether she made the wrong choice to give up her life in L.A. But a warm friendship with Jack (Martin Henderson), a former Marine and current owner of the only restaurant in town, helps Mel put the traumas of her past in the rearview mirror. As their friendship quickly turns romantic, it allows Mel to turn the page and begin a new chapter.
Watch on Amazon Prime
Watch on PBS Passport
Nothing pairs quite like romance and royalty, and Victoria is clear proof of that. An enchanting historical drama filled with old-fashioned romance, the ITV series chronicles the early years of Queen Victoria (Jenna Coleman). Because she is young and unwed at the beginning of her reign, she is pressured by many to marry. This naturally makes her unwilling to do so, until she meets and falls in love with Prince Albert (Tom Hughes), a development that leads to a beautiful and heartwarming proposal fairly early in the show’s run. Because the series doesn’t waste time throwing unnecessary roadblocks in the way of Victoria and Albert’s happiness, viewers are treated to an all-encompassing love story and one of the most unabashedly romantic dramas on TV.
Watch on Sundance Now
Television may have fallen a bit out of love with vampires, but if you’re still drawn to supernatural romances full of forbidden love, A Discovery of Witches will be right up your alley. Based on the All Souls trilogy by Deborah Harkness, this romantic fantasy series stars Teresa Palmer as Diana Bishop, a historian and reluctant witch who discovers a long-lost manuscript during her research that is said to contain the origin stories of witches, vampires, and daemons. To protect herself from those who seek the book and wish to do her harm, Diana rethinks her stance on magic and begins to embrace her powers with the aid of a sexy and powerful vampire known as Matthew Clairmont (Matthew Goode). A steamy romance soon blossoms between the two, but because an ancient covenant meant to protect supernatural beings from humans states they cannot fraternize outside of their kind, Diana and Matthew’s desperate love is a forbidden affair, which only serves to make things hotter. The second season debuts Saturday, Jan. 9, so now is the perfect time to fall in love with this escapist fantasy.
Watch on Hallmark
Based on a series of novels by Sherryl Woods, Chesapeake Shores is part romance, part family drama. Meghan Ory stars as Abby, a successful single mother who moves back home to the small coastal town of Chesapeake Shores, Maryland, to be closer to her family. By a twist of fate, her one-time flame Trace (Jesse Metcalfe), a rising country music star, has also returned to the picturesque seaside hamlet, and it does not take long for things to heat up between the two. But it’s not just Abby and Trace who experience love at the shore; the Hallmark series is an ensemble drama, with Abby’s siblings all getting their own love stories throughout the relatively chaste but emotionally fulfilling series.
Watch on Starz
Watch on Netflix
If by chance you’ve yet to experience the timeless, heart-stopping romance that drives the bulk of Outlander, you’re in for a treat. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s books, the series stars Caitriona Balfe as Claire Randall, a former World War II nurse who travels through time to 1743 while on vacation with her husband (Tobias Menzies) and ends up falling in love with a rugged Highlander named Jamie Fraser (Sam Heughan). Full of time travel, steamy sex, and historical adventures, Outlander is a one-of-a-kind series anchored by a passionate romance for the ages, as Claire and Jamie’s love is regularly tested by forces outside their control but is thankfully never defeated.
Watch on Netflix
Dripping with Southern charm, Sweet Magnolias is as refreshing as sweet tea on a hot summer day. Based on a series of books by romance author Sherryl Woods, the series follows Maddie (Joanna Garcia Swisher), a mother of three who attempts to pick up the pieces of her once picture-perfect life in a small town after her husband (Chris Klein) has a very public affair. Although she wasn’t looking for it, Maddie finds love again in the arms of Cal (Justin Bruening), a hunky former Major Leaguer who now coaches her eldest son in baseball. But while there is plenty of romance at the heart of Sweet Magnolias, the show is also a story about female friendship, with a lot of time devoted to Maddie’s relationships with her two best friends (Heather Headley and Brooke Elliott), each of whom gets their own personal and romantic arcs as well.
Kaitlin Thomas is an entertainment journalist and TV critic. Her work has appeared in TV Guide, Salon, and TV.com, among other places. You can find her tweets about TV, sports, and Walton Goggins @thekaitling or read more of her work at kaitlinthomas.com.
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