Really, who among us, at the beginning of the TV season, anticipated that the year’s critical darling would be a soap opera about a 23-year-old pregnant virgin Latina? Yet here comes “Jane the Virgin” to show that TV still has a few surprises left in the tank.
“Jane the Virgin” is the most original scripted TV show since “Glee.” Both shows adapted previously unexplored genres (the telenovela and the Broadway musical, respectively) to mainstream TV, both seemed aimed at a younger female audience, and given their remarkably unique sensibilities it’s unlikely that either will be copied.
“Jane the Virgin,” which is loosely based on the Venezuelan telenovela called “Juana La Virgen,” is a slightly campy, densely plotted story about a young middle-class woman (aka the eponymous virgin) who is artificially inseminated with the sperm of her wealthy boss by the boss’s lesbian OB-GYN sister, who’s upset that her lover has cheated on her. And from there story gets really complicated! There are plot twists, murders, love triangles, glamorous hotels, back-stabbings, intergenerational conflict, fraternal rivalry, and deep uncertainty about the course of true love.
At the core, though, this is a story about the consequences of a collision between two families, one rich, glamorous and ambitious, and the other middle class, hardworking and respectable. The power dynamic between these two families is not what you’d expect, though, because as long as Jane is pregnant with her boss’ baby, she holds all the cards.
Here are five things that make the show unusual.
- The virgin. In the slutty world of 21st Century television, Jane stands out as one of the few female characters outside a convent to eschew pre-marital sex. She’s not a prude, she just wants to avoid the fate of her mother, whose ambitions were derailed when she got pregnant at 16.
- The Latino setting. Set in Miami, about two-thirds of the characters are Latino/Hispanic, but the show is not about being Hispanic in America. The characters are not stereotypes (drug dealers, sexy and heavily accented wives, etc.) but are regular people going about regular lives. Jane’s grandmother only speaks Spanish, but it’s no big deal. Nor is it a big deal that Jane’s oh-so-patient fiancé is Anglo.
- The lack of a message. Unlike “Glee,” which has crusaded for gay rights and done shows about bullying, school violence, religious intolerance and teen drinking, “Jane the Virgin” does not go in for politics. The plot is moving too fast to provide a “message” on immigration, discrimination, class conflict, voter suppression or whatever other notion might be rattling around in the heads of the showrunners.
- The omniscient narrator. Given the heavy amount of story-telling that takes place each episode, the show deploys a narrator to move things along and clarify some points. The narrator is frequently used for ironic effect, driving home a subtle point about motivation or character.
- Fairness to the characters. This is possibly the most revolutionary aspect of the show. At first glance, the series is full of good guys and bad guys, but it soon becomes apparent that behind every supposed character flaw there’s an explanation. The way people first seem are not really who they really are. As in real life, the characters are alternately selfish and sacrificing, vain and humble, arrogant and frightened. We’re not exactly at a “Mad Men” level of character complexity, but more than on most shows the characters are rounded and driven by a mixture of good and bad motivations.
“Jane the Virgin” is primarily a comedy, and viewers can feel confident that no matter how many murders and double crosses there are, they will not be deeply distressed. And yet beneath the tongue-in-cheek plot twists, there’s a real humanity to the characters. In almost every episode there’s a scene that gets you a little bit choked up by characters who are exposing their emotional vulnerability and being honest with each other.
My main concern about “Jane the Virgin” is that it will suffer the same fate as “Glee,” which could not come up with enough credible plots to keep the story internally consistent. Technically, “Jane the Virgin” is not a telenovela, because true telenovelas have a set end point; the producers know how the story will wrap up from the beginning “Jane the Virgin” faces the same challenge as other serial dramas going back to “Twin Peaks” and “Lost.” It’s already been renewed for a second season so the story will not conclude at the logical place: the birth of the baby. Where it goes after the baby is born is anyone’s guess – including the creators.
But whatever the future of the series is, “Jane the Virgin” is fun for now. In some respects, it’s television at its best: pure undemanding entertainment that’s not an insult to your intelligence or sensibilities. That’s pretty rare on TV in the year 2014.