Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Jane The Virgin’s first season mocked melodrama without losing its emotion

Image for article titled Jane The Virgin’s first season mocked melodrama without losing its emotion

It should be noted that Jane The Virgin has perhaps the greatest assortment of mouths on television. Start with the star, Gina Rodriguez, with her prominent top-row of teeth, frequently revealed when her character Jane Villanueva breaks into a broad, unselfconscious grin, or when she gets astonished by some crazy new plot twist. Rodriguez is well-matched by Justin Baldoni’s Rafael Solano (his swollen lips framed by a perpetual five o’clock shadow), Brett Dier’s Detective Michael Cordero Jr. (his mouth a long, flat line, literally underscoring the character’s appealing evenness), and Yael Grobglas’ Petra (whose crooked smirk is magnified by lips that look they were loosely inked-in by a 1950s pin-up artist). The casting for Jane The Virgin was savvily done. These actors are attractive without coming across as blandly pretty. They have faces.

And then there’s Jane’s best mouth, heard but not seen: The Latin Lover Narrator, voiced by Anthony Mendez. Ask any fan what makes this show such a joy, and some will point to the cast, or the colorful look, or the playful visual style, or the way the writers are able to spoof the conventions of the telenovela while taking advantage of the genre’s sensationalism. But everybody loves The Narrator, who really embodies—or disembodies, as it were—all of Jane’s best qualities. He’s both self-aware and infectiously enthusiastic. And he’s very, very funny.

Given how strong The CW’s programming has been over the past two years, it wasn’t that big of a surprise that the network could take Perla Farías’ 2002 Venezuelan telenovela about a pregnant virgin and very loosely adapt it into an endearing comic melodrama. But it’s been a minor miracle just how good Jane The Virgin has been. Heading into tonight’s finale, the show has aired 21 hour-long episodes without a single clunker. Moreover, a writing team led by producer Jennie Snyder Urman (who previously worked on the somewhat unfairly maligned final season of Gilmore Girls, along with Men In Trees, 90210, and Emily Owens M.D.) has continued to find new, creative approaches to what easily could’ve been a limited premise.

A weaker version of Jane The Virgin might’ve gotten mired in plot—of which there’s quite a bit. From the first episode, the heroine’s accidental artificial insemination sets in motion a chain of events that involves multiple criminal organizations, all circling around one Miami hotel. And while control of that hotel passes back and forth between Rafael and his estranged wife Petra, Jane herself passes between Rafael (her unrequited childhood crush, and the father of her unborn child) and Michael (who’s investigating the Solanos’ ties to the underworld). Meanwhile, Jane’s single mother Xiomara is belatedly reconnecting with Jane’s father Rogelio, a vain telenovela superstar. The stakes, very often, are high.

If there’s a knock against Jane The Virgin, it’s that it falls into the pattern of so many other TV dramas and comedies that are primarily about relationships (as opposed to the “cases” that dominate procedurals). Characters overcome frequently contrived obstacles to get together; then a few episodes later, something fairly piddling pushes them apart again, and the whole process starts over.

But Jane doesn’t exactly suffer from this, for two reasons. First off, the show is uncommonly deft and clever in the way it illustrates conflict. One week, Jane and Rafael will be in couples’ counseling, surrounded by the ghosts of all their former selves. Another week, a pro-wrestling exhibition turns into a fantasy sequence of characters squaring off against each other in the ring. In season one’s penultimate episode, Jane goes to her high school reunion, and her name-tag photo talks to her, giving advice on how to tell her classmates that she’s happy to be unemployed, unmarried, and pregnant. Frequently in Jane The Virgin, the heroine’s imagination—or her memory of her past—is contrasted with where she is now, and the gap between hope and reality provides the show with some of its most poignant moments. (Plus, Rodriguez seems to be having an absolute ball playing the alternate Janes.)

The show’s outsized life-and-death/cops-and-robbers arcs play out side-by-side with stories about Jane getting a job, or arguing with her mother, or trying to get to know Rafael better, or working toward becoming a writer. Just as the original concept of a pregnant virgin has led to real-world concerns about how to be a good parent (not to mention how Jane deals with the mini-cult of true believers who think she’s magic), a lot of Jane The Virgin has been about how mundane everyday life plans get scotched when Petra’s evil mother pushes Jane’s grandmother down the stairs, or when one of Rafael’s shady friends is impaled by an ice sculpture. That balance of the overtly ridiculous and the heartfelt is a tough tone to finesse, but Urman and company have managed it well, in the same way that Jane’s heroes and villains find ways to live and work together week after week.


The ability to thread the needle between goofy and sincere is due in large part to the actors, and how fully they’re invested in fleshing out characters that could’ve been mere cartoons. For example, when he’s off in his own plotlines, Rafael can come off as something of a drip. But when Rafael’s with Jane, Baldoni and Rodriguez have a real chemistry together—ribbing each other and nestling contentedly into each other’s arms—that gives the characters’ relationship a necessary plausibility. Everyone on this show brings something a little offbeat when they hit their marks, whether it’s Ivonne Coll sounding dour notes as Jane’s ultra-religious, stubbornly Spanish-speaking abuela, or Jaime Camil bringing gusto to his sweetly dim Rogelio.

It would’ve been easy for Jane The Virgin to lean too heavily on Rogelio, both because he’s so hilarious and because his telenovela career serves as an ongoing wink to the audience—a reminder that this is all just TV, not meant to be taken too seriously. Instead, he’s another flavor to sprinkle in: a little deadpan absurdity and inside-showbiz satire to contrast and complement the potboiler action and the quieter, more intimate drama.


The obvious affection that the writers have for Rogelio also signals a genuine love for the world he represents. Jane The Virgin exudes this kind of positivity, even when the stories take a turn toward death, deceit, and heartbreak. The exuberance is there in the actors’ wide range of facial expressions, and in the comments by The Latin Lover Narrator, who doesn’t just keep the audience up to date on the plot, but also expresses genuine delight and surprise whenever something unexpected happens. And when The Narrator is so obviously a fan of the story he’s telling, it’s hard not to follow right along.