One part telenovela, one part family drama, one part addictive love story. Sam Brooks reviews Jane the Virgin, the great show with an unfortunate name that should be your next Netflix binge.
The following piece contains very mild spoilers for Jane the Virgin.
While watching the last season of Jane the Virgin, one of my friends lamented that something which had grown to irk him about the show was that every conversation felt like the platonic ideal of meaningful, direct and healthy communication. When that’s one of your primary complaints about a show, or even your only complaint, you know you’ve got something special.
For five seasons and exactly one hundred episodes – the show ended its run earlier this month – Jane the Virgin has been one of television’s most rewarding viewing experiences.
Don’t believe me? I get it. Scepticism about Jane the Virgin is a little bit warranted. One, it has a title that inspires more of a chuckle and an eye roll than a serious look. Two, the premise sounds a bit schlocky: a virgin finds herself pregnant when it turns out she’s been artificially inseminated by mistake. And three, the show comes straight from the teen-focused network The CW, best-known as the former home of The OC and Gossip Girl, and current home of Riverdale. It doesn’t exactly make Jane the Virgin sound like an HBO-style heavy-hitter.
The show is so much more than that absurd premise, though. It’s the story of the Villanueva family, three generations of Venezuelan immigrants – Jane (Gina Rodriguez), Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) and Alba (Ivonne Coll) – staying afloat, personally and financially, in Miami. It’s the story of Jane building a relationship with her long lost father, the telenovela star and caps-lock HAM Rogelio (Jaime Camil). It’s a love triangle between Jane and her early-twenties sweetheart Michael (Brett Dier) and the man whose baby she’s accidentally pregnant with, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who also happens to own the hotel Jane works at and is the brother of the doctor who accidentally inseminated Jane.
Keeping up? Great! Because while all that’s happening, there’s also an ongoing plot with a shady crimelord, Sin Rostro, who wants control of Rafael’s hotel and may also be tied up in criminal dealings with Petra (Yael Grobglas), Rafael’s fiance who sits on that telenovelistic fence between ‘shady’ and ‘misunderstood’. Also, her mother Magda has an eyepatch and eventually a hook for a hand. As one does.
One of the best things about the show is its complete lack of irony, which is even more impressive when you consider just how meta it is. The narrator doesn’t just guide us through the show, he gives helpful plot reminders when we desperately need those and is there to give alternately shady and fawning commentary when it’s required – saying ‘just like in a telenovela, right?’ multiple times an episode. But the meta style doesn’t distance with the audience, like it often risks doing in shows like Community. In Jane the Virgin, the meta-ness is less a knowing wink, more a knowing hug. It’s not about being in on the joke, it’s about being in on all the love.
But for all that, Jane the Virgin wouldn’t work if the performances weren’t as good as they are. Gina Rodriguez (who you can see in Netflix Originals Annihilation and Someone Great), in a performance that went chronically unrewarded during the show’s five-season run, has the heaviest lifting to do here. Not only does she have to carry most of the emotional weight of the show, but she has to keep Jane a believable human being regardless of where the tone goes – high-wire melodrama, wacky comedy, natural realism – all while being the emotional thread that ties the show together. When shit gets real, and it gets real on Jane the Virgin more often than you might think, it’s Rodriguez who makes it land. Complex processes like grief, the loss of love, or even writer’s block (a subject so often mishandled on other, lesser shows) become understandable and authentic in her capable hands.
The rest of the cast doesn’t disappoint either. Over five seasons, they’ve had the chance to play pretty much every note on the emotional register; when the show asks them to go big, they go believably big, and when they’re asked to play real, they go real. To pick one actor out of the lineup depends on how you’re feeling about the character that day, but I’d have to give specific props to Yael Grobglas as Petra, who has one of the most truly ludicrous character arcs – Czech immigrant scheming to steal Rafael’s money but who also might be in love with him – but manages to make her human, believable and even relatable as the show goes on. She essentially has to do everything Gina Rodriguez does, without the benefit of being the show’s main focus.
But what’s maybe most valuable and special about the show is how well it reaches into difficult places that television is often afraid, or simply unwilling, to go. Some of these are not entirely unexpected (it’s a bleak reality that a Latinx family living in Florida will likely, at some stage, have to deal with racism and immigration woes) but others come as surprises. The way the show handles religious faith, for example, and the varying degrees of devoutness practiced by its characters, is remarkably even-handed and elegant. It would be easy to treat Alba’s intense faith like a joke or even demonise her for it, but instead, the show gives it as much respect and time as it gives everything else. Faith is a huge part of the Villaneuva household, and the ways in which it reaches into every other part of their lives is realistic.
So it’s not just the way in which the show depicts complex issues – class, race, sexuality – but the way in which all those issues intersect with one another on a daily basis to make up a life. Early in the third season, Jane’s forty-something-year-old mother Xiomara finds herself dealing with an unexpected pregnancy. After careful, considered thought, she makes the decision to terminate it. Her own mother, Alba, disagrees with the decision, vocally, but eventually settles on a resolution, tying it to a bizarre metaphor introduced earlier in the episode: some wallpaper that Xiomara and Jane like just fine, and which Alba had shrugged about and acquiesced until they found her ripping it down.
The reasoning? “I was stubborn and I didn’t want to admit that I hate this wallpaper,” Alba says, “but I do, so I’m taking it down and moving on. Which is what I want us to do. Move on. I don’t agree with your decision, but it’s your decision. We’re different. The end.”
Meaningful, direct, clear communication! Revolutionary. The show is full of moments like this, and if it’s not your thing to see people who love each other communicating and acting upon that love, then can I suggest Sharp Objects instead?
After five seasons and a hundred episodes of television, perhaps the best thing I can say about Jane the Virgin is that not once does it ever punish you for being a fan. It rewards the emotional investment you put into it. There are more twists than a French braid, but you’re never punished for loving a character or investing in a certain relationship (Jane/Rafael forever, though). This extends to the structure of the show, which seems almost quaintly old-fashioned, with its full seasons of 20 episodes, each strictly 44 minutes each. But there’s no such thing as a filler episode in the world of Jane the Virgin. Each episode serves a purpose, moving the plot forward at a pace that can often seem breakneck but never feels punishingly so – it’s just a good use of time!
We’re still living in an era of television that equates darkness with depth, misery with quality. Shows that look like Jane the Virgin, with its technicolour palette, don’t generally attract the attention of critics and audiences en masse. Even more crucially, Jane the Virgin didn’t come with the assumed quality that attaches itself to so many shows in this era of Peak TV. Jennie Snyder Urman, the show’s creator, is no Jean Marc-Vallee (the aforementioned director of Sharp Objects and Big Little Lies) in terms of the prestige she brings to the show. Marc-Vallee’s name on a project is essentially a name written on awards ballots already, but the creator of Emily Owens MD? Not so much. Snobbery abounds.
Combine that with an unknown cast, potentially niche subject matter – though I’d suggest that the plight of the characters on Jane the Virgin is more relatable than oh, say, Big Little Lies – and it’s no wonder that it never became one of the shows that caught on in New Zealand. But if you’re willing to look past all that, what you’ll get is one of the fullest, most beautiful and goddamned rewarding viewing experiences available anywhere. It’s not just like a telenovela, it is one, and it’s the best hundred episodes you’ll watch this year, I promise.
You can watch the first four seasons of Jane the Virgin on Netflix.
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