It should be noted that when I first started watching Jane the Virgin I wasn’t sure if I liked it. I was concerned it was some kind of moralistic show, pushing religious Christian values (totally fine if that’s what you’re looking for, but I am not). It should also be noted that I was a complete dumbass.
Now, having finished the fifth and final season and rewatched some of season one, I’m utterly confused as to how I could have ever had that concern because it’s such a good balance of frothy romance, comedy, drama fantastical scenarios, and grounded plot lines. I mean, in the first two episodes alone it points out that same sex marriage is only legal in some states (the show first aired in 2014), talks openly and honestly about sex in general and women’s sexual pleasure specifically, talks about immigration, mentions abortion as a choice, and sucks you right into a complicated plot filled with passion, tension, and intrigue. And need I remind you, this is all happening on the CW, not HBO! But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Loosely based on a Venezuelan telenovela, Jane the Virgin begins with the very organized heroine, twenty-three year old Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez)—whose life is perfectly on-track with a soon-to-be-completed degree (though she has secret aspirations to become a writer), a patient, loving boyfriend named Michael (Brett Dier), and a long-held vow to her abuela to remain a virgin until marriage—getting accidentally inseminated.
How exactly does one get accidentally artificially knocked up? In this case it happens when Dr. Luisa Alver (Yara Martinez), the sister of the ultra-wealthy playboy hotelier, Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni), is doing a very poor job of keeping her personal life out of her professional life, and instead of giving Jane a routine pap smear, squirts her full of Rafael’s recently unfrozen sperm, which had been meant for the uterus of his somewhat conniving wife (but really so much more complicated and nuanced than just that), Petra Solano (beautifully played by Yael Grobglas who deserves all the recognition), who, in an effort to save their strained marriage, was going to surprise him with a pregnancy. (Always a fail-safe plan.)
Hang on. Let me catch my breath. So, pretty straightforward so far, right? At this point if you, like one very frustrated IMDB reviewer, are hung up on the fact that it’s highly unrealistic for an artificial insemination to happen during a routine pap smear, please know that this is absolutely not the show for you and you don’t get to have opinions on it. Shut down your computer and walk away. Because this is only the beginning of highly fantastical (and wonderful) plot twists that swirl and shimmer around the more grounded core of the show.
Still with me? Then let’s dive in. Jane lives with her mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), an aspiring singer who got pregnant with Jane when she was only sixteen, enjoys men and sex, and is perhaps the only human (aside from a five-year-old boy I know) who can make a fitted cold shoulder shirt look good, and her grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll), an old-school Venezuelan Catholic immigrant who only speaks English when absolutely necessary (she speaks mostly in subtitled Spanish, which is still pretty fucking subversive for a primetime show), believes in God, chastity, hard work, and telenovelas. They all seem to live in some equilibrium until Jane gets pregnant (and may I add for the killjoy IMDB reviewer who may still be in the back of the class that it is mentioned multiple times that there is only a 20% chance of the pregnancy taking. Boom. Factual reality type things.) and her carefully laid plans (Jane loves to plan) are turned upside down. Should she continue the pregnancy? Who will keep the baby? Is she developing feelings for Rafael and his muscles, which always show clearly through the fitted sleeves of his shirts (thank you wardrobe department).
You did know that there would be a love triangle, right? Of course you did. We know when Jane starts to have feelings, perhaps before she does, because her heart glows a pulsing red underneath her shirt. When I describe it the whole things sounds cheesy, and perhaps it is, but in the context of this show it totally works. If you don’t feel a heaving sadness when love runs its course (sometimes only temporarily because this, after all, a telenovela) and the light in someone’s heart dims to nothing, then I’m pretty sure your own heart is made of stone.
As an aside to all my asides, to me there was only one choice of man for Jane. Both of these men have physical and emotional pros and cons, so this isn’t a Rom-Com trope of one choice being clearly superior. That said, there was one choice that was—in my mind—clearly superior. I disliked one of these characters so strongly that I again had to consider whether I could continue watching the show. Seriously, I can’t believe there were people who were #TeamTheGuyIDidn’tLike. I won’t tell you which one, but watch it all and text me and we’ll compare notes. Because have I got notes! (Also, sometimes Jane got on my nerves, but never as much as the guy I didn’t like.) As a further aside, the choice was about so much more than a man. And as one last aside, the show was about so much more than just which man she ends up with. Still, #TeamTheManIPreferred4Eva.
Anyway, in the midst of all this Jane’s father, who she didn’t know existed, shows up and desperately wants to be in Jane’s life and Xiomara’s pants (in no particular order). He is Rogelio de la Vega, a vain and beautiful telenovela star with Olympic level name-dropping skills and a habit of bestowing upon his one-night-stands elaborate gift baskets filled with Rolegio de la Vega branded products. He is trying to crossover into the American television market, and is expertly played by Jaime Camil (a telenovela star trying to cross over into the American market, which is something the show leans into again and again). Rogelio de la Vega is a character made so outrageous and yet realistic, vain and yet generous, earnest and yet completely hilarious that I loved him almost most of all. You could watch the show just to hear Jaime Camil say the words “Twitter” and “ridiculous” and for the pure appeal of the way he says “Xiomara” and I wouldn’t judge you. You could watch it for the scenes when he and Alba speak to each other in Spanish. (I swoon.) You could watch it to see the look of pure longing on his genetically blessed face that can just as easily give way to utter goofiness. #TeamRogelioForeverButObviouslyNotForJane.
Holding all of these many moving parts together (and honestly, I haven’t even given you all the parts) is the smooth voice of the benevolent and often judgy narrator, played by Anthony Mendez. He introduces scenes and characters, recaps plot points, foreshadows, teases, and explains. When Jane and Michael get stuck in an elevator he helpfully explains that this is a “classic telenovela trope.” He also interjects with excited outbursts of “OMG!” and “I know! Just like in a telenovela, right?!?” My favorite moments might be his deadpan judgements, like when he patiently explains, “It is important to note that Michael Cordero, Jr. is not a virgin. Well, it’s important to him. I don’t really care about it too much.” A man after my own snarky heart, for sure.
The narrator is further helped by explanatory captions that are typed on the screen letter by letter and are accompanied by satisfying keyboard clicks. When Rogelio shows up with a swag bag from an award show, the captions type out: “Swag Bag = Free Gifts for Rich Celebrities.” A pause and then, “(Who Don’t Need Free Gifts).” All shows could do with more opinionated caption asides. It was in fact the captions that made me a complete devotee of show when, during a scene discussing the possibility of a character being reported to ICE and deported directly from the hospital, they wrote: “Yes, this really happens. Look it up. #ImmigrationReform!” Does your more critically acclaimed show do that? (I mean, maybe it does. It’s not a competition.) We also see people’s text exchanges on the screen, which for a nosy woman like me is very satisfying, but beyond just being a gag it also allows us an intimate look inside characters’ thoughts and states of mind as they type, erase, retype and sometimes decide not to send. It’s often a very poignant experience.
And then there is the backdrop against which the show itself happens, which is a character in and of itself. Many sets and costumes are done in saturated blues, yellows, and pinks that evoke a kind upscale Miami Vice feel (which I mean as a compliment). Often scenes take place in front of an actual telenovela sets (or the actually made up telenovela happening inside this show). In one such scene, Jane and Rogelio sit talking in front of an almost lurid sunset until, at a key moment, it is rolled away to reveal all the people working behind the scenes on the fictional set.
If you’re tempted to refer to Jane the Virgin as a guilty pleasure, I’ll gently remind you we don’t use that kind of condescending language around here. Guilty pleasure is often coded language for things women like and therefore aren’t considered important. It’s a way to dismiss women’s voices, women’s pleasure, and women’s stories. Less of a parody of romance and telenovelas and more an homage to them, Jane the Virgin elevates the genres through gentle humor and inside jokes, all without being saccharine or pandering. Often the show lets its characters to explain (without seeming like an after school special) why these kinds of genres and the stories they tell matter. I, personally, came away with a deeper respect for telenovelas, a genre I have only dipped my toes into watching.
At its heart what this show is doing on its many levels, through its comedy and its drama, is to tell the stories these Latina women (with the exception of Petra, who is white, but still an immigrant). Over the course of five seasons Jane, her abuela, her mother, and Petra (especially Petra) adapt, change, and grow in some very unexpected and gratifying ways that I am dying to give you all the spoilers on, but I will refrain. They grapple with sex and sexuality, with pregnancy (wanted and unwanted), postpartum depression, and motherhood (from several different angles), rejection, loss, and the meaning of success, all while also coping with comas, evil twins, kidnappings, murder by ice sculpture, people returning from the dead, and mastermind drug lords (among other things).
And let’s be honest, the world often thinks of even these very serious topics (not the murder by ice sculpture, evil twins, people returning from the dead, and kidnappings, obviously I mean the other stuff) as fluff and unnecessary. Women feel guilty talking about their struggles with breastfeeding, their enjoyment (or lack there of) of sex, their needs, wants, and desires. As much as the show is a sweeping romance spanning several years and generations, it is the story of women’s relationships with themselves, their families, and their friends. Jane the Virgin takes on all of that while also advocating for the very kind of storytelling that so often gets written off as fluff, like romance novels and telenovelas. Early on in the first season Michael is invited to family meeting with the Villanueva women. After being introduced he says, “Happy to be here. Proud to represent the male point of view.” Xiomara and Alba give somewhat scandalized looks before Jane offers, “Oh, see, I wouldn’t lead with that because that’s not going to do well in our meetings.” Michael, realizing his mistake, adds, “Mostly here to watch and observe.” To which they all smile, nod, and move on with the business at hand.
Overall Rating on the Chronically Streaming Pain Scale:
A Somewhat Unrelated (But Also Definitely Related) Footnote
Since writing this review I have learned that Gina Rodriguez, who is of Puerto Rican descent and grew up in Chicago, has said some really dumb shit. Specifically, she’s been called out on several occasions for seeming to overlook black women (both African American and Afro Latina) when advocating for the Latinx community, and then giving tone-deaf non-apologies in response to criticism. Around the time of the release of Black Panther she tweeted, “Marvel and DC are killing it in inclusion and women but where are the Latinos?! Asking for a friend…” (There are a least two Afro Latinas who have large roles in the Marvel franchise.) Then, during an interview, when her black costar, Yara Shahidi, was asked about being a role model for young black women, Rodriguez interrupted to say, “So many women.” People were unimpressed, feeling that her response once again missed the specific importance of role models, in this case Shahidi, specifically for the African American community. She also hosted a power lunch for Latinas where people noted a dearth of Afro Latinas, and again, and with very good reason, people found her response troubling. And she erroneously said that Black women earn more than Latina women. Most recently, she posted a video of herself saying the N-word while singing along with the Fugees. She then posted a very, very non-apology, saying she was sorry if people were offended by her singing along to a group she has loved since she was a kid, which, of course, entirely misses what people were upset about. Whether this should directly influence how you watch Jane the Virgin, or if you watch it all is, of course, up to you, but I thought it only fair to give you the facts.
Fortunately, as far as know, Jaime Camil is still doing just fine.
Just fine, indeed.