How ‘Jane the Virgin’ goes beyond the telenovela.
Last summer I spent nearly every evening watching at least one episode of Jane the Virgin on Netflix. The CW series had received critical acclaim when it debuted in the fall of 2014 but had consistently been shut out of major award nominations. Watching those first three seasons, I was struck by the brilliance of the writing and acting and how the writers took a peculiar high concept and turned it into one of the most deeply felt, funny and enlightening series on television. In an era when nearly 500 original television series are produced every year, it’s easy to understand why some series are overshadowed, but Jane the Virgin deserves its place in the upper echelon of series of the 21st century, not only because it is well written and acted but also because of its homage to telenovelas, its simple representation of a traditionally marginalized group, and its sensitive, empathetic handling of issues that affect them.
As the series winds down in its upcoming fifth season, Jane the Virgin deserves every accolade sent its way and, frankly, even more.
Developed by Jennie Snyder Urman, Jane the Virgin is loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen created by Perla Farías. Set in Miami, it is the story of Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a young, engaged devout virgin who is accidentally artificially inseminated. The series features an unnamed, humorous, self-aware narrator who guides us through Jane’s life both in the past and present, utilizing telenovela tropes in a humorous, yet not mocking, way.
Telenovelas are generally considered to be the Latin American equivalent to North American soap operas, which was true through the 1970s, as they aired primarily during weekdays with housewives as the prime audience targets, but later, telenovelas moved to prime time and became tremendously popular worldwide. Some main differences between telenovelas and soap operas, however, are that telenovelas are primarily limited-run dramas with one self-contained story that can last often less than a year, in a dozen or so episodes. They’re longer than miniseries, but they have a definitive end that comes relatively quickly. Telenovelas also come in very specific subgenres, which include the working-class melodrama involving a rags-to-riches story, a historical romance, the mystery/thriller, and narco shows about the drug trade — all with rich, melodramatic flair that prevents any of their characters from being happy too long.
Jane the Virgin employs many of the tropes of the telenovela genres in a very self-aware way that plays with the form with deft humor that doesn’t descend too deeply into the kind of smug parody or metacommentary that can afflict series like this. Jane and her mother, Xiomara, and grandmother Alba bond over telenovelas, and Jane’s father Rogelio is a charming, egocentric telenovela superstar. The series also deals with class in a significant way: The biological father of Jane’s baby is Rafael, a wealthy hotel magnate, and much of the series deals with Jane and Rafael’s conflict over whether to raise their child Mateo (born at the end of season one) as a working-class child or spoiled heir (as Jane sees it). Jane the Virgin also deals with mystery/thriller and narco drama genres, as Jane’s fiancé, Michael, is a cop investigating Sin Rostro, a drug lord who has a surprising connection to Rafael and his sister, Dr. Luise Alver, the woman who accidentally artificially inseminated Jane instead of Rafael’s wife, Petra.
Petra, meanwhile, has a dark past all her own, involving her former life in Czechoslovakia and complicated relationships with a twin sister and an evil mother.
Getting lost yet? Remarkably, the series is easy enough to follow thanks to the metacommentary by our unseen narrator. It helps, too, with four seasons now under its belt, that Jane the Virgin has already lasted much longer than a traditional telenovela and given us a chance to get to know our characters so well. More importantly, Jennie Snyder Urman and her writers have created dynamic, interesting characters that transcend the melodramatic basis of the series.
Gina Rodriguez as Jane is one of few Latinx leads of network television series. What Jane the Virgin gives its viewers is a glimpse into the real, everyday struggles in the Latinx community, regardless of region, all approached with great empathy, humor and sensitivity. Among those struggles, beyond the conflicts between the working class and upper class, are the outer and inner struggles with the Catholic faith and the divisive issue of immigration.
Much of what makes Jane, her mother and her grandmother so three-dimensional is their faith. Jane is often caught between the pious Catholic world of her grandmother and her more earthbound desires.
Jane’s virginity is quickly established in the pilot episode as the result of a lecture in childhood by her grandmother Alba, a glimpse into the world of Catholics, and how every person struggles with their own preconceptions about right and wrong. Jane wants sex but feels bound to her promise to wait until marriage, and her struggle is not portrayed as an anti-faith struggle. Jane herself, despite her doubts, is a devout Catholic. Even Alba, who could easily be portrayed as a tyrant of faith, is portrayed as a woman who has her own struggles. As an aging widow who is now dating for the first time in decades, she deals with her desires vs. the promises she kept to her faith.
Overall, the center of the series is the relationship between the three generations of women. Their struggles are all rooted in real-world issues that are far from melodramatic. Even though Jane is immersed in a love triangle with Michael and Rafael, it’s her family that forms the spine of the series. Specifically, it’s the relationship between Jane, her mother, and her grandmother. Her mother, Xiomara, deals with the relationship between herself and Jane’s father, Rogelio, as well as what to do with her life as someone who has always dreamed of being a professional dancer and what it means to her to be in her 40s and confront the possible end of that dream.
Alba’s arc throughout the series is established early on as she reveals she has been an undocumented immigrant for decades. Her journey to becoming an American citizen lacks the lecturing tone that hampers some other creative works in attempting sociopolitical commentary. Here, everything is rooted in character. Alba is a woman who loves America and doesn’t want to remain scared of being deported. She is a kind, thoughtful compassionate human being with a family who just wants a chance to be free. While the story line could be seen as one tinged with tragedy, even Alba’s difficulties are handled with a joy for life, optimism, love and humor.
And it is humor, in the end, that really caps the greatness of Jane the Virgin. Even with all the melodrama and the serious issues with which the series deals, it’s a very, very funny show. Honorable mention must go to Jaime Camil, who plays Rogelio de la Vega, Jane’s famous father. His comic timing and ability to create an egocentric character with a giant heart are unmatched, and he’s one of my favorite characters on television right now.
Perhaps the humor of the show is why it hasn’t quite won the critical raves or attention it truly deserves, as too many critics equate misery with excellence. It does not fit snugly into the category of comedy or drama. But it’s an extraordinary series, and I’ll miss it when it’s gone.
Jane the Virgin’s first four seasons are available on Netflix, and the fifth and final season premieres on the CW Network in midseason.