5 things I love about this year’s sleeper hit Jane the Virgin

(image via fangirlish (c) CW)
(image via fangirlish (c) CW)

 

* Some minor spoilers contained within (though limited as much as possible) *

On January 2015, a hitherto little-known actress by the name of Gina Rodriguez stepped onto the stage at the Beverly Hilton to receive her Golden Globes award for Best Performance by an actress in a television series – comedy or musical.

If you hadn’t been paying attention to your TV schedule of late, then Rodriguez’s win, impressive given she was up against the likes of Lena Dunham, Edie Falco, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Taylor Schilling, would have been a complete surprise; if however you live and breathe by the new entries on your DVR guide, then the triumph of the actress who plays the Jane in Jane the Virgin would have made perfect sense.

Combining innocence, determination and genuine likeability in her performance, Rodriguez has fashioned the young woman she plays, forced by a distinctly outlandish series of coincidences to carry a baby for a couple even though she is still a virgin, and the show in which she appears, into the runaways hits of the season.

What is so remarkable about Jane the Virgin, loosely based on a 2002 Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen by Perla Faría, is that it has successfully brought together an over the top yet somehow grounded premise, layered characters who exist in a world of greys, comedy and drama, a heroine who is more than capable of looking after herself thank you, and a powerful sense of the importance of family and in a show that is as much light and frothy hilarity as it is gripping drama.

It is a spectacularly successful achievement by the show’s creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman who set out from the start to make sure that the show was more than just a collection of larger-than-life scenarios and characters, that radiated as much humanity as mouth-covering gasps.

And while there is much to like about the show, which was just picked up for a second season despite struggling in the ratings to a degree, here are five things that have particularly struck this viewer as contributing to the show’s success.

 

 

Gina Rodriguez as Jane is a perfectly likeable, absolutely capable heroine

It doesn’t take long to realise, pretty much only the length of the show’s short, punchy trailer to be honest, to realise that Gina Rodriguez is Jane in every possible way – bright, vulnerable, determined, fiercely intelligent, romantic, sweet and able to make hard decisions – a sentiment echoed by Snyder Urman who told Rolling Stone:

“Without her, there’s no way it would work. Gina was the third person who came in to read for the part, and she just made Jane smart, vulnerable, funny and human from the beginning. We auditioned hundreds – but from the first time that I saw her, I knew she was Jane.”

You can see the various elements that Rodriguez brings to the character of Jane in her Golden Globes speech and in subsequent interviews since the unexpected win where you understand what a perfect fit of actress and character this really is.

Jane is the heart and soul of the show, called upon at various times to make us believe she would commit to being a virgin till marriage, then decide to keep the baby she is artificially inseminated with, while juggling relationships with her loving but often emotionally-immature mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), beloved but unflinchingly-religious Abuela (Ivonne Coll), her endlessly-patient police detective boyfriend Michael (Brett Dier), her boss and father of the baby Rafael (Justin Baldoni) and his estranged wife Petra (Yael Grobglas), and her newly-arrived on the scene father Rogelio (Jaime Camil).

She is in practically every scene, at turns smart and sassy, and endearingly vulnerable, the glue that holds this show with the crazy premise together in ways than make you like her more and more every episode, something Hollywood Reporter also recently noted:

“That Rodriguez can skillfully pull off what’s asked of her in this challenging Jane role is also impressive, since telenovelas are not exactly grounded, and it would be easy just to go all-in on one emotion. By the end of the pilot, the writers have put Rodriguez through a number of funny and dramatic and even silly situations, and she nails each one.”

 

 

The narrator is a class act unto himself and essential to the feel of the show

Narration is always a tricky thing to pull off.

Get the wrong person doing it or the wrong person writing it, and it can sound silly, condescending, useless, superfluous; get it superbly, winningly right and you have the narrator in Jane the Virgin who, thanks to smart writing and a love of witty asides and puns, is an essential and thoroughly agreeable part of the appeal of the show.

Less an exposition-heavy snoozefest inducer than an hilarious Master of Ceremonies introducing or commenting on scenes as needed, scenes which by the way can vary from slapstick silly to deeply touching depending on the issue at hand, the narrator in Jane the Virgin, given mischievous life by bilingual Anthony Mendez, is an integral part of the show’s narrative as Salon noted in an article just after it premiered and an example of why it’s so important to get it right, no matter the genre of show:

“This fall TV season, it seemed like a voice-over was popping up in every other pilot, from light half-hour sitcoms like Selfie and A to Z to dramas like the psychological time-jumper The Affair and comic-book thriller Constantine. The majority of the time, the narration exists to explain the story or offer perspective that would be better demonstrated on-screen. But in the case of Jane the Virgin, it’s used as a funny and fascinating tonal tool, the best example of the show’s investment in its style of storytelling.”

Just how funny the narration is can only be truly appreciated when you watch an episode of the show but here are a few examples of its arch, eyebrow-raised, tonally pitch-perfect wit at work:

“When we last left Michael and Nadine, they were in a exciting position. Not that one, you perv!”

“Observe Jane between a rock and a hard place. The rock being a really intrusive telenovela star, the hard place being Rafael’s body.”

“Xiomara had certainly fantasized about her first time in Rogelio’s trailer. The details varied but it always ended with sex in front of the vanity, so they could admire each other’s work from multiple angles.”

 

 

Family is everything even if it does test your patience

Jane is part of a unique female-centric family, close to both her mother Xiomara, who had her daughter when she was a teenager, and her staunchly Catholic mother Alba Gloriana who though loving and kind, is very firm on the fact that things like your virginity aren’t to be treated a slightly expendable, like say, oh I don’t know a crushed flower (which Jane now has hanging framed in her bedroom).

And like any family worth its salt, they are both are as essential to Jane as food and water, always there for each other in ways both emotional and practical, and the bane of her existence, the source of irritations small and large, a minefield of expectations to be dodged.

But ultimately, and this is where Jane the Virgin chooses to expend much of its emotional energy, family is the rock around which all the other many changeable, exasperating, overwhelming, maddening part of life flow and on which there is sanctuary, protection, nurture and  the chance to catch your breath.

Of course with the somewhat erratic though well-intentioned entry of her long-absent father Rogelio, famed telenova star into the picture, family is a somewhat more fluid concept than it used to be, but it remains what formed Jane and her uniquely determined approach to life, and is what will sustain it in the almost constant flux that now seems to typify her life.

 

 

Rogelio is a comic gift that keeps on giving over and over again

Let’s face it, when you think fathers, Rogelio de le Vega, star of the telenovela The Passions of Santos, that binds Jane and her family to their TV set as one each week, is not exactly the first person who springs to mind.

A preening peacock who thinks nothing of ordering the crew on his show to construct a set just so he and Jane, who he is getting to know now that Xiomara has revealed his identity, can spend some quality time together, he is conceited, vain-glorious, and convinced he is a god of acting whom the people of the world need more than life itself.

He is, in other words, a comic goldmine as some of his quotes drawn from Previously TV make clear:

Why is it important to him that Jane know he’s her father? “I want her to have the pleasure of knowing me.”

Why didn’t he get Xiomara’s text to stay away from the house? “I have too many phones. If it’s important, the best way to reach me is through Twitter.”

Why shouldn’t Xiomara abandon her dream of becoming a professional singer? “I became an international star just a few years ago. Imagine what a disservice it would have been to the world if I had given up?”

What’s the most important question for him to ask just before, he thinks, he’s about to meet his daughter for the first time? “How’s my hair?”

In keeping with the ethos of the show however, Rogelio is not simply a cardboard cutout one-trick, one joke pony.

He may not be the brightest bulb in the pack, nor capable of focusing on any person for longer than a nanosecond or so, but he has been allowed to display real tenderness, care and fatherly concern to Jane in just 6-7 episodes, adding a depth to the court jester and making him a more appealing character all round.

 

It may be fantastically over the top but it is all still very real
Over the top premise? Tick! Hyper-absurd situations? Tick! Scenarios that would test the wisdom of Solomon? Tick, tick and tick!

There’s a lot of hyper-realistic stuff going on in Jane the Virgin which showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman admitted to Rolling Stone partially gained it more magical elements from whimsical 2001 French movie Amelie – “[it has a] very stylized magical fantasy element. I wanted Jane to feel more like a fairytale and less like a teen drama” – and yet somehow the show manages to feel grounded and real, as if somehow all of these outrageously over the top could somehow coalesce and make sense in someone’s life.

That intent, to make the show with the Vegas-up-in-lights premise seem as realistic as a daly commute, was there from the beginning as Snyder Urman explained to Huffington Post:

“There’s a level of absurdity right away with the premise. So I knew right away that we had to find a way to embrace that. When you have a show built around a girl who gets artificially inseminated, you’re already on the edge of something. I wanted to find a tone that could fit the inciting incident, so our show could embrace bigger things. Then the premise wouldn’t even be the craziest thing that happened. By the time you got through all of the stories, you would look back and think, “Gosh, out of all the things that happened, that was actually not the craziest.” The way that we balance it is that we always make sure we understand how characters are reacting and that it feels honest to us on an emotional level.”

One of the most enjoyable aspects of the show is that they have managed to seamlessly blend the absurd and the everyday in a way that rings true which is how Jane can be seen riding to work on the bus – many of the scenes take place at the hotel that Rafael owns on South Beach in Miami – and putting in a full day as a wage slave and yet then have to spend her nights and breaks grappling with how her life can accommodate an unexpected baby and father, new possibilities for love and crazy life trajectories.

It shouldn’t work but it does and  spectacularly so, proof that in the right hands even the most outlandish of premises can be grounded and relatable, something that is critically important if a show like Jane the Virgin isn’t going to be consumed by its own bubbling fairy floss insanity and last the distance which I believe this most wonderful, engaging and beguiling of shows has every chance of doing.

As Snyder Urman made clear to Rolling Stone there’s a lot of life left in the concept yet:

“There will always be hard decisions to make and matters of the heart to address, and we can keep throwing in soapy and telenovela-inspired complications, because the show supports that. I feel like we have miles and miles to go.”

 

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