On the surface, Jane The Virgin sounds absurd. A woman is accidentally artificially inseminated during what should be a routine pap smear, and the ensuing pregnancy throws her life into a state of chaos resembling the telenovelas she loves to watch with her mother and grandmother. Yet despite the far-fetched concept (very loosely adapted from the Venezuelan telenovela Juana La Virgen), the new CW dramedy has established itself as one of the season’s most grounded new series, staying rooted in emotional reality while the plot veers in increasingly ridiculous directions.
And make no mistake: this show is ridiculous. But in the best way possible.
The “Previously On…” segment at the start of this week’s episode of Jane The Virgin details the tangled web of love triangles and personal deceptions that has developed over just three chapters, and tonight’s story resolves a good chunk of that material while setting up even more turbulence in the future. Jane (the luminous Gina Rodriguez) is caught between her love for her fiancé, Michael (Brett Dier), and her undeniable attraction to her accidental child’s father, Rafael (Justin Baldoni). Michael is helping Rafael’s wife, Petra (Yael Grobglas), cover up her affair with Rafael’s recently murdered best friend so that he doesn’t end up raising another man’s child. And Jane’s father, Rogelio (Jaime Camil), is a telenovela superstar that is hooking up with her mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), but keeping his identity secret from his daughter, who he is stalking at her work. Secrets are revealed across all three of those plots in “Chapter Four,” but the revelations don’t necessarily make things better for the characters.
The plot is fairly complicated, but the series makes it as accessible as possible thanks to an omniscient narrator and handy on-screen text that provides exposition while also typing out the unspoken thoughts of the characters. In a season full of new series with unnecessary voiceover narration, Jane The Virgin makes its narrator an essential part of the show by casting him as a wise, welcoming observer that stands out as a distinct character without actually being the voice of any of the people in the plot. Credited as the “Latin Lover Narrator,” Anthony Mendez is giving one of this show’s many excellent performances, easing the viewer into the jam-packed narrative with helpful story insights and a playful sense of humor. From his opening “Hola, it’s me again!”, Mendez sets a tone that is immensely inviting, establishing a sense of familiarity that bleeds into the rest of the episode.
After three episodes, this series has done remarkable work creating multi-dimensional characters that feel like real people who just happen to exist in a soap-opera setting. There’s a strong connection between the cast and its audience thanks to these layered performances, with the narrator serving as the person that facilitates those bonds between viewers and characters. Working in conjunction with the on-screen text, the narrator gets inside the characters’ heads and reveals information in a way that is especially active, providing exposition while also expounding on the personal qualities of the ensemble’s individual members.
Up to this point, it’s felt like this show has been pushing the Jane/Rafael relationship, which makes sense considering the palpable chemistry between Rodriguez and Baldoni. He has that smoldering former bad boy thing down pat, and you can see her melting with affection whenever she’s near him. Kevin Kiner’s tender, romantic guitar music accentuates that magnetic attraction, along with stylized visual flourishes like Jane’s radiating heart in last week’s episode and the golden glow around Rafael in “Chapter Four.”
By contrast, Jane’s relationship with Michael hasn’t resonated as strongly. Not until this week. The two have had some cute, emotional moments in the last three episodes, but Michael’s overwhelming fear of being a father has caused him to act irrationally, and his aggressive push to get married has given the impression that he’s more interested in the sex rather than the emotional commitment of marriage. Thankfully, the events of this week’s episode force him to reevaluate his priorities, making him a more lovable character as a result.
Jane is becoming less comfortable with the idea of a hasty marriage now that she’s experiencing sex dreams starring a man who isn’t her fiancé, and even though Xiomara tells her daughter not to confess her fantasies, Jane can’t keep it a secret when it becomes a topic of discussion during her Pre-Cana counseling session with Michael. He overreacts after learning of Jane’s physical attraction for the man whose baby she is carrying, and when he discovers Rafael and Jane being flirty in the hotel pool, he considers calling off the wedding. Jane understands where Michael’s frustration is coming from, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to just stand by and watch her relationship disintegrate because of it.
After a mix-up puts an erotic letter intended for Michael in Rafael’s hands, Jane learns that the subject of her current lust views her as a sister, effectively putting an end to her attraction as the glow around Raphael dissipates. Her fantasy was just that, and she needs to fix the reality of her relationship with Michael after the stress of the last few weeks. One of Jane’s most admirable qualities is her honesty, a character trait that only becomes more impressive as we learn all the secrets being kept by the people surrounding her. Jane’s willingness to be open and truthful about her feelings pushes the story’s momentum forward; rather than keeping secrets and dragging out plotlines like her attraction for Raphael, Jane speaks up about her current problems and incites action as a result. Sometimes that action is negative, but more often than not it’s positive.
Once her fantasy of Raphael has been deflated, Jane confronts Michael about her issues with their relationship since the pregnancy, telling him that she’s felt disconnected from him since this whole mess started. It doesn’t feel like they’re overcoming these obstacles together, and she needs that to happen if they’re going to get married. It’s the exact thing Michael needs to hear, and after another fraught conversation with Petra, Michael decides to put his own personal fears of fatherhood to the side in order to make his relationship with Jane work.
In the midst of all the Jane/Michael/Rafael drama, there’s plenty of action happening with the supporting cast. We learn that Petra was previously engaged to Lachlan (Michael Rady), Raphael’s father’s whipping boy, and Lachlan reenters the picture this week so that he can be a victim of some corporate sabotage courtesy of Rafael and Petra, who work together to betray their old acquaintance. After a successful team-up, Rafael asks his wife how long she had been sleeping with his best friend and officially announces the end of their marriage, but he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with. No one does, because Petra has been keeping her real identity a secret: her real name is Natalia, she speaks fluent Czech, and she’s being blackmailed by a mysterious man for unknown reasons. (I told you this show was ridiculous.)
While Petra is gathering more secrets, Xiomara finally unloads her big one at the end of “Chapter Four” when Rogelio shows up at Jane’s wedding-dress fitting, forcing Xiomara to come clean to her daughter about the identity of her father. The scenes earlier in the episode between Xiomara and her own mother Alba (Ivonne Coll) establish the high stakes of this moment by showing Xiomara’s intense fear that her daughter will hate her after learning that she had been lied to her entire life, and while it’s unlikely that Jane is feeling straight-up hatred, it’s clear that she feels deeply betrayed by this revelation. Andrea Navedo and Gina Rodriguez (along with the actresses playing Jane at different ages) have developed a very strong bond between the mother and daughter, and the sting of this event for both parties comes through with painful clarity.
Any directors on this show have a challenge ahead of them, as the show requires a delicate balance of exaggeration and subtlety that isn’t easy to achieve. (I come to Jane The Virgin after reviewing the first six episodes of Gotham, a show that requires a similar balance and has yet to find it.) Director Debbie Allen—yes, the Debbie Allen of Fame fame—has a theatrical sensibility that is a perfect fit for the comedy in this series, but she really excels with the quieter dramatic moments. I love the staging of the conversation between Jane and Michael after he storms out of their Pre-Cana, a talk that occurs in the middle of the church with a crucified Jesus looming between them in the background. It’s a visual reminder that there’s a fourth man influencing Jane’s behavior in her love triangle, and being in the house of God forces her to be completely honest about her current romantic troubles.
I don’t know what Allen does to get so much raw emotion out of Rodriguez and Dier when Michael comes to the bridal shop to apologize and pledge his devotion to his fiancée, but she definitely does something right because it’s the scene where their relationship finally clicks into place. That’s especially impressive considering the two characters are back-to-back for their entire conversation; they never make eye contact, and that forces the actors to push themselves to reach those emotional heights. Michael confesses that he was afraid of a worst-case scenario where Jane keeps the baby and he’s forced to be a father to another man’s child, but he now realizes now that the worst-case scenario is losing Jane. If she wants to keep the baby, he’s all in, and the tears in Dier’s eyes show that he really means these words.
There’s a wonderful tension in this scene that comes from Jane and Michael’s inability to look at each other, and you can feel the characters’ desire to turn around and kiss each other once that romantic guitar music starts playing. The CW doesn’t get very much attention during awards season, but Rodriguez deserves major recognition for her beautifully textured work on this series. She’s able to switch from pure, relieved joy in the scene with Michael to comic confusion when Rogelio appears in the bridal shop to devastating heartbreak when she learns that her mother lied about not knowing who her real father was, and she does it all without skipping a beat. It’s brilliant work, and this show wouldn’t be the success it is without Rodriguez’s impeccable central performance.
With witty dialogue, a wildly twisting plot, a fully formed aesthetic, and a diverse cast of talented actors, Jane The Virgin isn’t just one of the season’s best new shows, it’s one of the best things on TV all year. The writers have approached the high concept with total confidence, and they understand that the exaggerated elements of the script don’t work without creating a strong foundation in real human emotion. Combining the telenovela-inspired soap opera of Ugly Betty with the heightened aesthetic of Pushing Daisies and the intergenerational family comedy of Gilmore Girls, Jane The Virgin is a series unlike anything else on network television, and it’s only getting better with each new episode.
- Other developments this week that don’t necessarily merit extended discussion: Rogelio used to be married to the woman that still serves as his manager. One of the hotel’s bellboys may have been responsible for Zaz’s murder. Luisa has disappeared and she needs to show up for her pre-trial motion in two weeks or Jane will get a default judgment, meaning Rafael loses his share in the hotel.
- This week features a guest appearance by Tony Plana, who played Betty’s father Ignacio on Ugly Betty. I hope they bring his character Father Ortega back, because I think there’s a lot of potential for humor in a priest trying to connect with a younger generation, but having no understanding of what the younger generation needs in terms of guidance. ATVs are cool, right?
- Abuela Alba’s gleeful facial expression whenever she sees Rogelio says everything you need to know about their dynamic. She’s hopelessly, totally enamored with him because she can’t look past his onscreen persona, and it reads all over her face.
- I love how the onscreen text is used to tell jokes. My favorite example in this week’s episode is the definition of the Pre-Cana: “Pre-Cana: Catholic marriage counseling led by a priest.* *Who has never been married.” The timing of that asterisk plays a big part in making the joke land, showing just how finely tuned this show’s visual elements are.
- The zoomed out side-view of Jane’s awkward fist bump with Raphael is some damn good framing. It highlights the distance Jane has forced between them, and really captures the uncomfortable speed with which Jane bumps her fist.
- Rogelio’s self-satisfied permagrin makes me laugh every time he’s on screen. He also gets the best one-liners.
- Xiomara: “Listen To Your Heart.” Jane: “What?” Xiomara: “The power ballad by Roxette. That’s what I wanna sing at the reception.”
- Father Ortega: “See? Just because I’m a priest doesn’t mean I don’t get it.” Narrator: “That was a line they suggested he use.”
- “You know I can stand, right?”
- “She thinks her father is some soldier and not this critically acclaimed international superstar!”
- “Jane was a virgin, but not a saint.”
- “Xiomara, you’re very special to me. You’re the mother of my only child…that I know of.”
- “Foursquare. You check in everywhere.”
- “You’re not gonna kidnap me and hold me for ransom in a cave quickly filling with water, are you?”