And now, a humble request from a TV fanatic: don’t be a Jane the Virgin virgin.
In an era when the term “prestige television” means dark antihero dramas and niche single-camera sitcoms, Jane the Virgin stands out. This loving parody of and homage to Spanish-language telenovelas is a complex, character-driven show with a specific point of view, an eye towards diverse perspectives and an array of colorful performances. Watching the pilot, I was overwhelmed by the seemingly unsustainable tangle of plot threads. And yet, by some miracle, the show has sustained those threads and deepened beyond them.
Television shows often falter when they start from a high-concept point and then repeatedly up the ante until the stakes are so absurd that the show collapses. Jane the Virgin takes the opposite approach. The pilot is nutty, but subsequent episodes explore the meanings and consequences of that nuttiness. Instead of piling crazy upon more crazy, Jane the Virgin takes time for the characters to figure themselves out. In the pilot, the title character (Golden Globe winner Gina Rodriguez) is poised to marry her longtime boyfriend Michael when an absurd series of circumstances leads to a doctor artificially inseminating her with the sperm of local hotel owner Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni). When she becomes the first woman to ever get pregnant without having sex, she’s forced to choose between keeping the baby for herself or allowing Rafael and his scheming wife Petra (Yael Grobglas) to adopt it. Naturally, it’s not that simple, especially when Jane’s police detective fiance discovers illegal activity in Rafael’s hotel, Jane develops feelings for Rafael, Jane’s absent father Rogelio de la Vega (Jaume Camil, glorious) reveals himself for the first time, and more complications ensue.
This show, with its tangled plot threads and complicated backstories, doesn’t work on paper, but describing the plot is as difficult as watching it unfold is pleasurable. The show burns through story quickly but rarely loses sight of the characters’ emotions and thought processes. No one on the show is purely good or evil – even Jane makes questionable decisions, and even Petra seems like a human being once in a while.
Stylistically, the show makes frequent reference to the format and tropes of the telenovela, from the music that augments a passionate kissing scene to the absurdity of disparate characters crossing paths at unexpected moments. Perhaps the most effective of these references is the liberal use of voiceover and onscreen commentary from an omniscient narrator who comments on the action in ways that are both funny and pointed. (My girlfriend Nikita pointed out that the show’s subtitles attribute the narrator’s lines to a “Latin Lover Voice.” Perfect.) When hospital staff threatened to deport Jane’s wise abuela on a recent episode, the narrator flashed the phrase “#ImmigrationReform” on the screen. It’s an amusing moment that makes subtext into text, but it also speaks to this show’s unfortunately singular perspective – could that hashtag appear on any other current TV show without feeling shoehorned in?
Indeed, in terms of diversity of all kinds, Jane the Virgin is the sort of show that ought to be a priority for networks going forward. The female characters have agency and make most of their decisions independent from the need to satisfy the men in their lives. They are portrayed as having a range of sexual desires, and the show doesn’t judge its characters for atypical-for-television decisions like virginity or overt spirituality. Jane doesn’t always make the right decision because she’s not the saintly hero that a show of this ilk would seem to require. Her flaws make her human – though Gina Rodriguez’ winning smile and wry line deliveries certainly don’t hurt. The show is teeming with women of color, characters with different sexual orientations and socioeconomic backgrounds – even the objectifiable soap opera star has layers. Like Orange is the New Black, another series hailed for its diversity, Jane the Virgin operates from a fundamentally optimistic and open-hearted worldview, one in which anyone might be worthy of the spotlight, regardless of what he looks like or how he thinks. (It helps to have lots of women behind the scenes as well.)
And true to form, tonight’s episode had one fine Jane the Virgin-y attribute after another: scenes in which characters had reasonable conversations about things that would be the engine for sitcom contrivance on lesser shows; genuinely surprising plot twists; Rogelio’s insatiable infatuation with himself; Gina Rodriguez being awesome. The notion that shows must be serious in order to be good is outdated. Don’t let Jane the Virgin be a victim of an antiquated critical credo. The CW has already renewed the show for a second season. You still have time to get in on the action. Enjoy, #brogelios.