As some of you may know, I graduated from college last month. Since then, all I’ve done has been to make plans – what jobs I’m planning on applying to, how much writing I’ll get done now that I don’t have to worry about homework or papers…But, of course, all I’ve actually done since I graduated has been to lay in my bed and watching a lot of TV. Jobs are for losers.
There’s been a lot of Netflix time over the past few weeks, but despite my ever-growing list of shows I need to marathon from the beginning, I’ve only done one so far: Jane the Virgin, a new comedy on the CW. Jane the Virgin, a Golden Globe nominee for Best Comedy Series, is about Jane, a 23-year-old studying to be a teacher, who is accidentally inseminated and becomes pregnant, all thanks to a screw-up by her OB-GYN. The show is based on a Venezuelan telenovela, which, as you can imagine, makes the show a little hard to summarize in just a few sentences. So I’ll try to be succinct, and only stick to the main plot (that very quickly gets complicated, then those complications get resolved, then new complications flare up): Jane’s OB-GYN is the sister of the man whose sperm was used to inseminate Jane, and it turns out that he owns the hotel Jane works at. Oh, and they met like five years ago and Jane had a huge crush on him and they totally kissed. So as if things weren’t already awkward enough, you know, that kissing thing kind of makes it a little worse. Oh, and then there’s the fact that Jane has a boyfriend and Rafael’s married, and his wife is a suspect in an investigation being worked by Jane’s boyfriend. Like I said – a lot of complications.
But what makes Jane the Virgin so great is that it’s not just piling on drama for the sake of drama. They’re not being punished just for existing, which is the case on so many dramas on TV. The conflicts that constantly crop up here are staples of the genre; they enhance, rather than hide, the humor and sweetness that make up the true heart of the show. Within the first episode, you can’t help but fall in love with Jane and feel invested in her situation. So then, when conflicts keep popping up and adding onto the already long list of problems that these characters need to solve, they have genuine stakes. You want these characters to overcome all of these obstacles because you can’t help but love them. Because, after all, every character on this show possesses a mixture of humor and warmth, with some self-absorption and pride thrown in – in other words, they’re all redeemable and lovable, while still being hugely flawed. They’re real. And they’re what makes this show so great, and what makes it one of the best new shows this season.
Jane the Virgin returns from its winter hiatus this week with new episodes, but before its midseason premiere, I wanted to look at a few elements that make this show so great. These ten items (though, believe me, there are way more) are what make Jane so special, and if you haven’t caught this show yet, then consider this a list of ten reasons to give it a try. If you have watched, then consider this a long love letter to one of the most refreshing shows on television.
1. The Running Commentary
Every episode of Jane the Virgin is narrated by someone dubbed the Latin Lover Narrator – a (at least so far) nameless, faceless entity who has an omniscient view over these characters’ lives. He provides a recap at the beginning of each episode to help the audience keep track of the incredibly complicated plot details, and chimes in throughout the episode to give us backstory, or let us know what a character’s thinking during a particular moment. Using a narrator might be the only way a show like this is possible; otherwise, keeping track of a character’s motive at any given moment, or keeping up as episodes jump in and out of flashbacks, could get way too confusing. Having this narrator preside over all serves so many important functions: for one thing, by tasking him with keeping the audience up-to-date and remembering all of the twists and turns the show takes, it frees up the plot. Scenes don’t have to be clogged up with exposition to remind us of what’s happened. So if there’s a scene of Michael and Rafael talking, neither of them wastes valuable time by bringing up prior conversations, so that the audience knows what the tone of this particular conversation and their relationship is. The narrator can do that for them, which strengthens the complexities of these characters’ dynamics in a way that just wouldn’t be possible without the Latin Lover Narrator.
But then because the narrator’s the one to keep us remembering every necessary previous detail, he also creates a sense of drama that might not be there otherwise. For example, a scene of Jane talking to her mom Xiomara might lose its significance if the narrator wasn’t there to point out that Xiomara is thinking about Jane’s father during the entire conversation. That’s not a cue the audience would have necessarily been able to figure out on their own. Mostly he’s there for humor – he provides an outside look at this situation, and sympathizes with the audience. He’ll point out when things are getting really dramatic, or when events are very obviously mimicking a telenovela. Having that voice keeps the show grounded; it can’t get too far from reality, or at least from realistic consequences, when it knows that it’s being ridiculous. It keeps one toe on the ground at all times.
But the true greatness of the Latin Lover Narrator comes from the fact that he’s not just this layer added over, just to provide humor and keep the audience following the plot. The show’s executive producer, Jennie Urman, has stated that the Latin Lover Narrator is a real person – he’s somehow connected to the characters on the show, and to the events unfolding. Urman doesn’t know when or how the narrator’s identity will be revealed, but the important thing is that he has an identity. This additional aspect to the show is built in – sure, an additional comedic element is always great, but when that element can actually be used to build the show, it just proves how much planning and dedication has gone into every aspect of what we’re seeing onscreen.
2. Jane Gloriana Villanueva
You know that thing that happens sometimes where a show is built entirely around one character, but that one character is kind of the worst? And you love every other element of that show, but the main character, the person who’s supposed to be the greatest person the world has ever seen, is just so annoying?
Luckily, that’s not the case here, at all. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. Jane (Gina Rodriguez, who just won a Golden Globe for her portrayal) is everything – she’s charming, she’s sweet, she’s opinionated. She’s the focal point of the show, and with her at the center, every other aspect of the show is elevated. What’s so great about Jane is that she’s flawed – she’s wrong sometimes, or she’s selfish, or demanding. But for one thing, she knows it. That was one of her biggest struggles early on, soon after finding out she was pregnant. She had to learn how to be selfish to make the next nine months as uncomplicated as possible. The writers have managed to strike a balance that seems to be impossible to find on television – normally, it seems like “nice” characters take quickly to getting to be “bad”. It’s a trope, I guess – watch the good girl be bad for an episode. It happened on Buffy, so it’s a thing. But Jane doesn’t do that. Her moments of self-absorption aren’t about watching her go crazy for a few minutes. They’re coming from a very real, very necessary place.
But the biggest surprise in this balance struck between Jane’s positive and negative qualities is the attitude the show takes toward them. She’s not condemned for them (and the show’s refusal to condemn characters for their defining traits is something I’m going to talk about at length later). And she doesn’t suddenly develop these traits for the sake of a joke. They’re part of who she already is, and who she’s been all along. Take for example the episode where Michael wants Jane to quit her job because he doesn’t want her so close to Rafael. This is also the episode where Jane realizes she needs to be selfish, and that’s exactly what she does – she tells Michael she knows that it makes him uncomfortable, but she refuses to leave her job because she can’t handle another change in her life. It’s selfish, but it’s not mean. Because that’s who Jane is: fundamentally, she cares deeply about the people in her life, and that aspect of her personality is constantly on display. With this as a guiding trait, both in terms of how she acts and how she’s written, you can’t help but fall in love with her. Jane is so consistent; she doesn’t change depending on what scene she’s in or who she’s interacting with. She is always, always the same Jane the audience has gotten to know and love, and is the source of the energetic spirit the show radiates. Because of that, every scene, no matter how dramatic or emotional, feels important and exciting. Every part of the show feels like Jane.
3. The Drama
It seems like a given – of course any show based on a telenovela is going to be full of drama, and that drama is going to be a key element of the show. Now, I’m certainly not an expert on telenovelas, or even drama, so I can’t necessarily speak to this show’s status as a telenovela, or the influence the genre has on the show. But when I can talk about is, like with the Latin Lover Narrator, how intrinsic the dramatic moments and tension are to each character. Even though it’s a telenovela, which necessarily dictates that the stakes be upped on a weekly basis, and that constant complications are going to arise, the show isn’t really dramatic for the sake of being dramatic. Every new problem that pops up serves a real threat to one of the characters, whether it’s a problem that’s resolved within the same episode or throughout the course of the season. These conflicts have real stakes, and often what’s being threatened is the status of somebody’s relationship. And while romance is a big aspect of the show, it’s not really a factor here. The relationships being threatened by the biggest arcs on the show are Jane’s closeness with her mother, or her ability to trust the father of her child. The stakes are a lot higher than simply, “Who will Jane end up with?” or “When will this person stop being angry?” Elements of that are there, of course – you need to have conflicts of varying size to keep things from getting too heavy or too light. But no matter what happens to these characters, it has weight. You feel concerned for them, and you feel the effects of their decisions; partnered with the emotion you can’t help but feel for everyone, it serves as a vehicle to keep the show moving forward, while providing constant opportunities for the show to grow and expand beyond its initial concept.
One of the most compelling motifs of the show is how Jane’s pregnancy parallels her mother’s. Both unexpectedly got pregnant at a young age and had to make the best of the situation that was suddenly thrust upon them. Of course, the two situations aren’t totally the same – Xiomara was much younger when she got pregnant than Jane, Jane’s was the result of a medical mistake…But the important parts line up, enough that Xiomara is able to understand exactly what Jane is going through. And that’s exactly how Jane, her mother, and her abuela get through everything: they may not always agree with each other, but no matter what, they love and support each other.
As someone in their early twenties who’s living at home, I know that living your life around your family creates an extra layer of complication. Even if your family is open and sometimes more outgoing than you are, like Xiomara, the fact remains, they’re always around, and they always have some input they want to give you. But the difference here is that Jane actually wants their input – she wants her abuela’s advice to give her guidance, and wants to know when her mother is worried about her. It’s a really great way to keep Jane’s storyline tied to her abuela and mother; this way, everyone stays connected to everything that’s happening. Plus, it adds so much depth; the audience knows exactly what Xiomara thinks of Rafael, for example, because we see Jane tell her mother about him. So whenever Xiomara and Rafael interact, it’s so much more complex than simply a grandmother-to-be interacting with the father-to-be.
But I think the most important effect of the vitality of family on the show is that no matter what happens to Jane, you feel like she’ll be okay. She has these two people – really three, now that Rogelio’s in her life – who love her unconditionally, no matter what, and who are going to love her baby no matter what. And no matter how difficult her life gets, or how complicated it is to deal with Michael and/or Rafael, the audience can rest easy knowing that at the end of the day, Jane can return home, which has remained a neutral place, free of this drama, and get away from it, even if just for a night.
This goes hand-in-hand with the show’s use of drama in a lot of ways, and a lot of my discussion of the show’s dramatic elements apply here. As with any telenovela, the need for surprise is huge. There have already been a few big ones, but it seems like these nine episodes have been stacked to make future reveals – the identity of Sin Rostro, the truth behind Rafael’s safe – even more shocking. And the longer the show goes on, the more surprising these reveals are. What’s amazing is that, for as well as we’ve gotten to know these characters, every new revelation (and they come often) makes it clear that we really don’t know them as well as we thought we did. There’s so much history behind all of them, most of which hasn’t even been hinted at yet. Every new surprising answer we get to one of the thousands of questions that have come up is so surprising because it makes it obvious that we can’t really be too sure about anything. The audience is always on their toes, waiting to see what new twist is going to come along and grab us out of nowhere.
6. Rafael Solano
Let me start this section with a warning: I’m not sure how analytical or objective this section is going to be. I love Rafael. I love Rafael a lot. I want Rafael and Jane to run off and have their baby and get married and be happier than anyone has ever been. So, with that warning out there, let’s talk about Rafael Solano.
When we first saw Rafael, he wasn’t the amazing man of my (er, Jane’s) dreams that we now know him to be. He was simply the suave owner of the hotel Jane works at, married to a woman he’s fallen out of love with. A former playboy who turned his life around after battling cancer, Rafael Solano is not supposed to be a threat to Jane and Michael’s relationship.
What’s so wonderful about Rafael (besides, like, everything) is how quickly he adjusts to the news that he’s going to be a father, and his overwhelming happiness about Jane’s pregnancy. Jane was inseminated with Rafael’s only sperm sample (taken pre-chemo), so this is the only biological child he’s ever going to have. But his attachment to Jane and the baby goes deeper than that. His excitement, even at first, before he develops romantic feelings for Jane, isn’t just because this is the only chance he’s ever going to get; his excitement is simply because it’s happening.
Over the course of the nine episodes that have already aired, we get to see more and more of Rafael. The rich business-savvy man we see in the pilot soon turns into a guy who fist bumps the mother of his child, who makes grand romantic gestures at the first opening. One of my favorite Rafael moments was when he told Jane he had feelings for her – in the sixth episode, essentially the moment she told him she and Michael were having problems. It was such a bold move, both for the show and for Rafael’s character. But he’s so sure of his feelings for Jane, and so sure that there’s something real and important between them, that he went for it. And as soon as he knew his feelings were reciprocated, he went into full romancing mode: sending her flowers, staying up all night talking to her…
But of course the worst thing (and by that I mean the best thing) about Rafael is his devotion to his unborn child. Since I watched the show, I have not been able to stop thinking about the moment when he texted Jane and told her that they need to be a team from now on, “for [their] peach”. He cares about Jane and her role as the mother of his child so much that he’s the one who demands their relationship take on that role. He’s the one who insists that they be united and handle things maturely – because they need to be as strong as they can possibly be for their baby.
I know, it’s terrible, right (and you’ll note I made no mention of Rafael’s overwhelming excitement when he realized that Jane was showing. That’s because that moment was awful and terrible and I still haven’t stopped crying about it)?
7. Sense of Humor
Look, I don’t say this lightly: this is one of the funniest shows on television. The characters are funny, the situations they find themselves in are funny, and the show itself has such a good sense of humor about itself and what goes on. It’s just so light-hearted that no matter how complicated the conflicts become, and for as invested as the audience can become, there’s a sense of safety. Nothing too bad can happen on a show with a snarky narrator, right?
The most exciting way humor is used is that every single character gets to be funny. They also all get to be sad, or angry, or confused. There isn’t one token character whose presence is always supposed to make us laugh. Jane can be hilarious, or she can make you mildly chuckle; the same goes for Rafael, Michael, even Petra. The light-heartedness swims in and out of every single storyline on the show, taking the edge off just often enough that things don’t become overbearing. But of course, you can’t talk about humor on Jane the Virgin without mentioning someone specific – Rogelio de la Vega.
8. Rogelio de la Vega
An important note here is that I fully believe Rogelio de la Vega is the best character ever created, but that’s neither here nor there.
The greatness of Rogelio comes from his unabashed vanity and ego. It’s not that he’s trying to tear other people down by constantly boasting about his own greatness; it’s just that he genuinely thinks he is that great. One of my favorite storylines over these nine episodes has been watching Rogelio embrace his role as a father – and, like the star actor he is, he very much approaches it as a role. There are extra complications in that his daughter is an adult – and, you know, pregnant – when he comes into her life, so already, the balance between how to adapt his larger-than-life personality to a paternal role is thrown out of whack. He wants to be a good father to Jane, so much that he messes up quite a bit. He tries way too hard because that’s what he’s always done.
But really, I don’t even want to spend too much time looking objectively at Rogelio because he’s a character who defies categorization. He is so beautifully aware of his station in life and of the power his fame gives him, and so unafraid to exert that power. He’s a joy, and the beautiful lack of self-awareness around his character helps create that light-hearted atmosphere that surrounds the show – because he’s not an asshole, or annoying. His lack of self-awareness isn’t problematic because Rogelio isn’t problematic. He’s just this guy who’s basically experiencing real, deep emotions for the first time, and all you can do is sit back, laugh, and watch this ray of light within this already blinding series.
#RogelioMyBrogelio #GoRo #VivaDeLaVega
9. The Relationships
Even though Jane the Virgin puts a huge amount of focus on the characters’ platonic relationships, romance is still a huge part of the show. After all, it’s about a girl with a boyfriend who gets pregnant with the baby of a married man; things are necessarily complicated. Obviously, there’s a love triangle between Jane, Michael, and Rafael – she’s been with Michael for two years, but she’s carrying Rafael’s baby, which is extra awkward considering that she met him five years earlier and had a huge crush on him.
In a lot of ways, Rafael has an advantage over Michael. I mean, again, Jane is literally carrying his child. That’s, you know, not a minor factor in her relationship with either man. And to me, it’s obvious that Jane and Rafael are going to end up together (note that this isn’t based on spoilers, or even necessarily her current status with Rafael and Michael. I just really, really like Jane and Rafael together). But that doesn’t mean that this triangle is simple, or that it’s something you can necessarily see the show growing past. I mean, I don’t think that Jane will be torn between the two of them for the entire run of the show – what I mean is that her history with Michael, and her feelings for Rafael, aren’t things that are easily resolved. I don’t see it as something that can only exist in the beginning of the show that eventually gets completely resolved. If she ends up with Rafael (or gets serious with him prior to the end of the show), she still has a deep connection with Michael. If she ends up with Michael, she’s still going to have Rafael in her life because of the baby. This is one of the few love triangles I’ve ever liked, simply because it’s about so much more than who Jane’s going to choose. It’s about friendship and intimacy and – rather importantly – the baby.
Another really interesting aspect to the triangle is what Michael’s role on the show has become. Again, to me, Jane and Rafael are endgame, and the fact that they’re having a baby together maybe gives him a slight edge over Michael. So in a lot of ways, it could be easy to look at Michael and write him off, or for the writers to put him in a position where he loses importance in Jane’s life. But that’s not the case. For as misguided as some of Michael’s decisions have been on the show, he’s still incredibly important to Jane. Their relationship was extremely solid and well-developed even in the pilot. There’s a huge amount of history between the two of them, and even without knowing the full extent of that history, we can feel it. It could have been so easy to make Michael, well, unimportant – make him completely selfish, or completely blind to what Jane’s feelings. But that’s not the case. He loves Jane deeply; every decision he’s made, no matter how misguided, has been for her.
I want to go back to the example I cited earlier, of Michael asking Jane to quit her job, because it’s so telling of how the show handles their dynamic, and of Michael’s longevity on the show. It would have been so easy to villainize Michael: Jane could have become furious that he asked her to quit her job, or he could have taken her refusal as a sign that she was choosing Rafael over him. Any number of factors could have gone wrong and either caused a huge divide between them, or split them up entirely. But that wasn’t the case. Jane’s decision isn’t what Michael wanted, but he still supports her. It’s mature and it’s loving – just like their relationship. As we see so often on this show, it raises the stakes dramatically. Jane’s feelings for Rafael are even more confusing when you consider that her relationship with Michael isn’t something she can easily walk away from.
And then there’s Rafael, the most recent love of my life. I’ve already talked at great length about Rafael, but the relevant aspect of his character to this topic is how different he is from Jane. Michael, too – neither of them are necessarily, at face value, a perfect fit for Jane. But what’s so wonderful about Rafael is that he doesn’t notice things like that. Jane’s list of reasons they shouldn’t be together are things that hadn’t even occurred to him as problems, and he’s able to immediately reassure her that every single obstacle is, in fact, not an issue. He wants to be with Jane, end of story. And it’s not just because she’s carrying their baby – I think that fact is what initially caused him to notice his feelings for her were deeper than maybe they might have normally been, and what caused him to be more cautious about it, but his feelings for Jane come simply from his complete and total adoration of her. And on a show that spends so much time talking about destiny and love and what’s meant to be, anyone convinced that he and Jane belong together is clearly not something to discount.
10. Celebration of Characters
One of my absolute favorite aspects of the show is how each character has incredibly strong convictions that they hold onto. Jane’s abuela is religious; Petra is self-preserving; Jane is realistic but still hopeful. Now, to some degree, every show needs to involve its characters going on a journey of self-discovery, and there has to be some element of change. But when it’s done well, and compellingly, the characters aren’t changing from who they were into someone completely different. They become a more evolved, more experienced version of themselves.
What I love about Jane the Virgin is that its characters aren’t always necessarily right. It’s not that they’re wrong, either – for example, Jane’s abuela’s sense of morality isn’t necessarily portrayed as the right thing to do, or as being severely misguided. The point is that she has this sense of morality that she uses to shape her life. And the show doesn’t seem too concerned with making every character’s guiding philosophy gel with all the other guiding philosophies. What makes a character on this show tick is very, very specific to that character; it’s not leading them into trouble, it’s not showering them with rewards, it’s just getting them through life. What’s important is that these characters’ constitutions are consistent – they’re sticking to them because they’re a huge part of who these people are. The show isn’t about them shedding their former identities. It allows all of these people to co-exist, and it refuses to condemn any character for what they believe or how they act.
One of my favorite examples of this is how much Jane believes in fate. It was used heavily in episode 6, to look at the beginning of her relationship with Michael vs. her relationship with Rafael. A flashback shows Jane and Michael, on the first night they met, watching a telenovela together. On the show, it begins to snow just as two characters kiss; when he leaves that night, he kisses her goodbye and it begins to snow (well, it’s plaster from the ceiling falling down, but bear with me). Later in the episode, back in present day, white petals fall, giving off the illusion of snow, as Rafael and Jane share their first kiss. I think the tendency of TV shows nowadays is to give the illusion of fate – have characters share what appears to be a fated moment, then later have them realize that fate doesn’t exist, and beautiful moments sometimes just occur, but the real magic comes in fighting to keep the relationship alive, blah blah blah. And while that’s not wrong, it’s just not necessarily the path I see Jane the Virgin taking. I can totally see Jane and Rafael fully accepting that they were meant to be, and holding onto that throughout their relationship. Because if that’s what they believe, and if it’s something important to them, the show will not discredit it. It won’t say they’re wrong or silly or immature; this show is all about the balance between those two sides, between realism and idealism, between searching for what you want and finding what you need.
All gifs in this post are from http://janethevirgin-gifs.tumblr.com