‘Jane the Virgin’ Is The CW’s Best Show Ever
By introducing telenovela culture, Jane the Virgin allows itself to be taken as satire, even as it genuinely milks outlandish plot points and overblown romantic narratives.
Fall’s best new TV show, Jane the Virgin, is about a 23-year-old virgin whose gynecologist accidentally inseminated her with her boss’ sperm. Unbelievable? Now try to fathom that this genuinely funny, sweet, smart, and wholly original series is a CW production—a network that previously relied exclusively on super sexy supernaturals and an inexplicable Rachel Bilson vehicle in which the adorable actress wears tailored short ensembles to work in a small town Southern medical practice.
Adapted from the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgin, Jane the Virgin has already managed to shine as a jewel in The CW’s pantheon of polished turds by offering diversity—not diversity of species or degree of ab development, but actual diversity.
As befitting its telenovela origins, Jane the Virgin (produced by Electus, owned by IAC, which also owns The Daily Beast) is the story of a Hispanic family living in Miami. More specifically, it’s the story of Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), a type A goody two shoes who works as a waitress while getting her teaching degree. Jane was raised in a matriarchal family by her hyper-religious grandma and young, aspiring singer single mother. She’s been dating Michael Cordero (Brett), a detective, for two years. She occasionally has to dress up as a mermaid for her gig at a fancy Miami hotel. She wears adorable sundresses, has cute text exchanges with her boyfriend, and loves to eat grilled cheeses and watch telenovelas with her family. As you can surely imagine, our sweet, perfectionist protagonist has no idea that her own life is about to descend into telenovela-style madness (cue suspenseful music and cut to commercial break).
Faster than you can say an Ave Maria, Jane’s gynecologist (who’s also her future baby-daddy’s sister, and who’s currently distracted because she walked in on her wife cheating on her the night before—yeah, that escalated quickly) has accidentally inseminated her with the sperm that was meant for her brother Rafael Solano’s (Justin Baldoni) wife.
The insemination scene is blessedly fast-paced, because ain’t nobody got time for that nonsense—thankfully someone at The CW understood that if you’re going to base your entire series on such an absurd plot point, you should at least make the explanatory scene short enough that your audience can skip the whole thing with just one leisurely bathroom break. Now the whole cast of crazies is in play, including Rafael’s wife Petra Solano (Yael Grobglas), a character so incredible, her on-screen descriptor is “man-eater”—because everyone on Jane the Virgin is introduced by an all-knowing, fairly sarcastic and oft-opining off-screen narrator. Did I mention that this show has a lot going on?
Jane the virgin, who probably doesn’t really like that nickname, is obviously surprised when her pregnancy test results are positive. Her mother immediately gets on her knees and begins to pray when she realizes that her daughter’s concepción is of the inmaculada variety. Little does she know that Jane has actually been inseminated with the seed of Rafael, a young (old?) Justin Bieber with a party boy reputation and a substantial body of sexts available for Googling. Petra, on the other hand, is elated by Jane’s pregnancy, and plans to adopt the baby, thus bolstering her failing marriage, outlasting her pre-nup, and ensuring she’ll get a lofty divorce settlement when Rafael finally manages to leave her cheating ass. Oh yea, Petra is cheating on Rafael with his best friend, who ends up straight impaled on a fancy ice sculpture of a wizard at the end of episode two, thus allowing for the fantastic voice-over line: “On the bright side, Jane’s quinceañera was no longer the worst party she’d ever been to.” Well played, sassy narrator, well played.
(Also, Jane’s estranged father turns out to be a telenovela star named El Presidente, who occasionally winks at her from bus advertisements. Just in case you were wondering.)
For a show that’s predicated on a definitely pretty impossible medical scenario, Jane the Virgin is surprisingly smart. By initially introducing the concept of telenovela culture, the series allows itself to be taken as satire, even as it genuinely milks outlandish plot points and overblown romantic narratives. We know that girl-next-door Jane’s foray into the telenovela playbook is a deviation from the norm, and so we can feel just as sassy and sarcastic as our protagonist, rolling our eyes at every ludicrous turn—even as we swoon over Jane and Rafael’s mid-sonogram meet cute, or gasp at the dramatic murder by Merlin. By embracing its own parody potential, Jane the Virgin absolves itself of its most ridiculous elements, and absolves the viewer of feeling like an idiot for watching a show about a 21st century immaculate conception.
In addition to being better than all CW teen dramas ever, and better than a lot of its current TV competition, Jane the Virgin’s non-tokenizing take on a Hispanic family makes it even more exceptional. Of course, this is not the first American TV show to tackle a Hispanic character or clan—Ugly Betty and The George Lopez Show obviously deserve a shout out. But it’s notable that these characters don’t appear to be tacked on to denote diversity, or presented as caricatures for an extra laugh or two. Jane, along with her friends and family, are influenced by their ethnicity and their heritage in crucial ways, ways that the show neither over-emphasizes nor ignores.
The intelligence of the telenovela invocations re-emerges here; by casting the Villanueva family in contrast to the clans they watch on TV, we are constantly reminded that this is a real family, not a constructed ethnic entity or a telenovela fantasy. As Rodriguez noted, “For once, I was reading a script where they weren’t talking about my ethnicity. They weren’t putting a Puerto Rican flag on my shoulder. They weren’t putting a taco in my hand.”
For such an exceptional show, Jane the Virgin’s true strength might be its talent for de-exceptionalization. After all, a series that seeks to normalize virgin pregnancies has to have a penchant for making the unordinary seem positively mundane. The virtue of the Immaculate Conception plotline isn’t that this show pulls it off (because trust me, it really doesn’t)—it’s that, despite this outlandish premise, we actually believe every character on this show. Their circumstances might be ridiculous, but their personalities are more fully nuanced and relatable than those of any teen vampire or ANTM contestant.
Through gifted characterization, Jane the Virgin builds a fully realized protagonist—a young Hispanic woman who we can all empathize with. By making Jane an actual human, as opposed to a stereotype or the butt of a joke, the series begins to normalize the notion of a female, Hispanic lead on a mainstream television program—not to mention demystifying and de-stigmatizing voluntary abstinence. But the de-exceptionalization doesn’t stop there!
In addition to demanding that true diversity be presented as the standard, Jane the Virgin also normalizes virginity, single motherhood, and homosexuality. Sure, every part of this show is overblown and, in its own way, absurd, but by presenting every plot point as exceptional, we begin to forget that not every show features hot lesbian make outs, or a teen mom success story. Between the gay sex, the lack of medical accuracy, and the bevy of diverse, relatable, almost-achievably attractive characters, its feels like The CW has taken a much needed vacation to Shondaland—and we’re not complaining.