From its opening moments, Jane The Virgin knows exactly the show it wants to be. The series, an adaptation of Venezuelan telenovela Juana La Virgen, tells the story of Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a kind and dedicated young woman whose life takes a turn for the dramatic after a fateful visit to the gynecologist. With on-screen text, a chapter book structure, and a warm, third-person omniscient narrator (Anthony Mendez), Jane The Virgin welcomes viewers to its world and invites them to sit down and hear Jane’s extraordinary tale. Voice-over narration is almost never a positive addition to a television series, but here it works, countering the show’s more heightened elements with calm reassurance, and effectively streamlining its complicated narrative.
In the pilot, Jane’s life is turned upside down, but rather than jump in with this, the show takes its time introducing her and her family. Jane lives with her mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), and grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), has a long-term boyfriend, Michael (Brett Dier), and works at a hotel to pay for her schooling—she’s studying to be a teacher. Rodriguez is fantastic in the lead role, making Jane funny and relatable. It’s refreshing to see an unabashedly good person at the center of an hour-long series. Jane is considerate, thoughtful, intelligent, and hard-working. She puts others before herself without a second thought, and yet it never feels like she’s a doormat. This should be a star-making turn for Rodriguez, who handles Jane’s broadly comedic moments as confidently as she does her quietly dramatic ones, and her performance in the role is enough of a reason to tune in by itself.
Hers isn’t the only strong performance. Navedo and Coll play off each other well and have an easy rapport with Rodriguez, giving the Villanueva family instant chemistry and a comfortable, lived-in quality that makes it easy to imagine their years together before the pilot’s instigating event. Adding to this is the series’ wise decision to have Alba speak in Spanish, with subtitles translating her speech for the audience. This gives the show a touch of realism and demonstrates respect for the audience. Like Rodriguez, Navedo and Coll are great at both their comedic and dramatic beats. While their characters could have easily become stereotypes, the writers add unexpected layers to both of them, making them more interesting than they initially seem. Xiomara and Alba balance each other, with Alba’s strict demeanor counterpointed by Xiomara’s vivacity, and Jane feels very much like the product of her two parental figures.
The final main presence in Jane’s life is her boyfriend, Michael. The two are downright adorable together, and Rodriguez and Dier do a good job of keeping a few potentially painful, overly cutesy moments on the right side of sincere. Complicating things, though not immediately, is Rafael (Justin Baldoni), whom Jane had a crush on years prior. When his company buys the hotel Jane works at, the two meet again and they become inextricably linked, through a series of circumstances explored in the pilot. Rafael’s wife, Petra (Yael Grobglas), is the villain of the piece and works in that capacity, but her character remains rather unexplored at this point. A few other characters have hints of darkness, but the pilot is unwilling to commit to them, focusing instead on the plot mechanics necessary for the series’ instigating factor.
Part of the fun of the pilot is discovering its twists and turns on one’s own, and while the biggest of these is, on paper, utterly ridiculous, the series does a surprisingly good job making it seem less so in context. Jane is presented with a dilemma and even those who struggle with its believability will appreciate the nuanced and honest reactions of everyone around her. There is no easy answer for Jane and the biggest strength of the pilot is the respect it pays not only to its heroine, but its many protagonists. Each perspective is given equal weight, with Jane eventually making her choice. Beneath its soapy exterior, this is a series about decent people trying to do their best in a difficult situation, one that will likely lead to future complications and lots of drama.
There’s also bound to be plenty of comedy, and the playful tone lent the series by its score, editing, and stylized elements goes a long way towards keeping the family drama from becoming self-serious. By itself, the show’s style and comedy would make for an enjoyable but lightweight viewing experience. Without them, it could quickly become overwrought. Instead, the series finds just the right balance, creating a unique place for itself among the current network fare. With its down-to-earth lead character and self-aware, but not self-parodying approach, Jane The Virgin is a breath of fresh air that will hopefully find a strong and loyal fan base.