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October 17, 2014

Review: Jane the Virgin 1x1 (US: The CW; UK: E4)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Jane The Virgin

In the US: Mondays, 9/8c, The CW
In the UK: Acquired by E4. Will air in 2015

As I mentioned in my earlier review today of ABC’s Cristela, there’s a right way and a wrong way to make TV more diverse. The wrong way is simply to stick minority characters in any old rubbish, stack it full of obvious stereotypes that can be easily knocked down, and assume that’s enough to make people watch and root for the hero or heroine.

That doesn’t work.

The right way is to do something clever. Now telenovelas are one of the big successes of Spanish-language TV in both North and South America. In their purest definition, they are merely stories told over a fixed number of episodes, with a fixed beginning, middle and end. No eternal renewals for these boys and girls.

But most telenovelas are more than this basic definition and are more like soap operas, but insane, crazy soap operas crossed with poetry with mysterious identical twins, crazed half-brothers, and romances sometimes almost literally written among the stars. We’re talking “heightened reality” here.

While there have been some efforts to create English-language versions of some of the most popular telenovelas, few of them have actually got anywhere, with Ugly Betty being the only truly notable adaptation so far, with the likes of The Black Widow, Rubí, Killer Women and all the ones planned by the BBC a few years ago either stuck in development hell or just being dreadful.

This looks set to change with the EW’s Jane The Virgin, an adaptation of Venezuela’s Juana La Virgen. Incorporating all the heightened reality and standard tropes of telenovelas, it features Gina Rodriguez (The Bold and the Beautiful) as a Jane Villanueva, a young Latina raised by her grandmother to prize her virginity and only to lose it with the man she marries - unlike her mother (Andrea Navedo), who still won’t reveal who Jane’s real father is.

Fortunately, Jane has a loving cop boyfriend (Brett Dier) who’s willing to wait. Unfortunately, she has a doctor whose wife cheats on her the day before Jane’s check-up, distracting her so much that she confuses her with a patient coming in for artificial insemination. The result? Jane is still a virgin, yet pregnant.

Since this is telenovela territory, things still aren’t complicated or implausible enough yet. The woman who was supposed to be impregnated (Yael Grobglas) was doing so using her husband’s only remaining sperm sample, frozen from before he had treatment for cancer. She was only doing that because he (Justin Baldoni) was about to divorce her and she figured that if they had a child together, he would stay with her. Even more complicated is the fact that Jane has a crush on Baldoni and kissed him once.

Phew. That’s a lot, isn’t it? And I’ve not even started on who Jane’s father is - you don’t want everything to be spoiled, do you?

What lifts the show above the regular telenovela and telenovela adaptation is that it knows what it is and is happy to subvert it and use it. Throughout the show, Jane - an avid telenovela fan - constantly compares her life to telenovelas and seeks inspiration from the telenovelas she adores. The narration also makes frequent comparison and reference to the nature of the situation and its implausibility, and how much like a telenovela it is. Jane even gets dream sequence in-story advice from characters from her favourite telenovela, something even more complicated by the arrival at the end of the first episode of the main actor in that telenovela.

It’s also braver than a lot of shows. While Jane eventually decides to keep the baby, something without which the show wouldn’t have much of a premise, she nevertheless does consider an abortion and there’s even a discussion about the possibility by the main characters - an area few American shows would dare to address. It’s also happy to have about 25% of the show in subtitled Spanish (and in the US at least, you can watch the whole show in Spanish if you want), with some characters only speaking Spanish, even if Jane does have the slightly odd habit of replying in English to them, despite understanding them perfectly.

At the end of the day, this is still a telenovela and whether you’ll enjoy it or not comes down to whether you like telenovelas. But Jane the Virgin is at the top end of telenovelas, being charming, funny and smart, and at least on a par with Ugly Betty. If they’re you’re thing, you’ll love Jane the Virgin.

October 17, 2014

Review: Cristela 1x1 (US: ABC)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Cristala

In the US: Fridays, 8.30/7.30c, ABC

Latinos make up 17% of the US population and 47% of the population of California, but if you watched network US TV, you’d be hard-pressed to see that fact represented on-screen. There’s a token character here and there sometimes, but largely shows are resolutely white and when there is decent representation of minorities, it’s almost always black characters who get the look in.

This season, however, some networks are trying to improve this lack of representation. Over on The CW, we have Jane The Virgin (review coming up later today) while on ABC - which is really pushing diversity this season with shows including black-ish and How To Get Away With Murder - we have Cristela, starring up and coming Latina comedienne Cristela Alonzo. Based on her own life, Cristela sees the eponymous Cristela dreaming of becoming a lawyer as she enters her sixth year of law school, while simultaneously trying to juggle her family responsibilities and jobs. In particular, she’s moved in with her sister (Maria Canals-Barrera), something that doesn’t please her brother-in-law (Carlos Ponce from Couples Retreat) one bit, and none of her family are that happy with her doing anything but getting married and being subservient to men - not even helping the young daughter to play soccer.

All of the home life scenes are cringe-worthy and clumsy but the show does better when it goes to the law firm where Cristela ends up interning. Rather than sexism, here other isms are examined, with pasty blonde posh girl Justine Lupe (Harry’s Law) taking on the main piñata role necessary for this, first assuming Cristela is a cleaner before realising her mistake and asking her to validate parking. Boss Sam McMurray treads a slightly subtler line, being a blunt good old boy who says outrageous things that it’s unclear whether he truly means or is only saying as a bit of ‘banter’, since he clearly esteems new hire Cristela. And would get an epic law suit if he really meant them.

Meanwhile, the rather sweet Andrew Leeds (best known as serial killer Chirstopher Pelant on Bones) gets to be both competition at the firm, as well as a sounding board and sympathetic ear to Cristela, and its in Alonzo's interactions with McMurray and Leeds that the show actually finds some lines and moments of intelligence and comedy that transcend its general humour vacuum.

Based in Dallas, Texas (Latino population: 42% - something not entirely obvious from Dallas), the show’s efforts to persuade that it’s filmed anywhere but a studio in Los Angeles largely fail, despite copious references to Dallas football and having Sam McMurray deploy a Texan accent while all around him sound resolutely midwestern. It’s not entirely clear why Canals-Barrera walks around in a cocktail dress all day, either.

However, some aspects of it have a degree of authenticity and it’s even happy to have unsubtitled Spanish dialogue at times, assuming that the audience will probably understand what’s being said. Alonzo’s not being a size-zero inevitably means that the show follows a The Mindy Project line, making her the butt of numerous size jokes as well, although she gives as good as she gets and is similarly self-deprecating. She’s also clearly having a lot of fun and while the writing messes around with Latino and Latina stereotypes, a lot of it relies on her ebullient and winning performance to defuse potentially abrasive situations and reduce serious discussions down to more comedic exchanges.

A multi-camera comedy, the show suffers from an audience that will laugh and go ‘Ah!’ without the slightest provocation from the script. The plotting is basic and predictable, with Alonzo’s family inevitably coming round to accepting her unpaid legal internship by the end of the episode (cue of ‘Ah!’ from the audience following generic affirming statements from Alonzo’s previously antagonistic mother).

It’s not a great show. It’s not an innovative show, beyond its casting: the jokes are obvious, the characters basic and the plotting pedestrian. Anything to do with the main character’s family is horrendous.

So while it’s good to see a show like it on TV, Cristela nonetheless highlights that as well as diversity in casting, there needs to be quality in the writing or else no one will end up watching. And if you don’t believe me on that, allow me to point you in the direction of Rob Schneider’s Rob.

October 17, 2014

Review: Marry Me 1x1 (US: NBC; UK: E4)

Posted on October 17, 2014 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

Marry Me

In the US: Tuesdays, 9/8c, NBC
In the UK: Acquired by E4. Will air late 2014/early 2015

And let the Fall 2014 rom-com trend continue! Hot on the heels of Marriage, You're The Worst, Selfie and Manhattan Love Story, here comes NBC’s Marry Me, a companion piece to the network's other new rom-com, A to Z, which rather than showing us a couple meeting and doing the whole “will they, won’t they” thing for six seasons instead starts off six years into the relationship with the couple still unmarried and not even living together. Which is at least novel for an American show and indeed relationship, which normally follows the six months/one year move in, one year to two years proposal/get married, two to four years to first child rule with iron-clad inevitability.

However, both do want to get married. The trouble is that while the man (Ken Marino from the much-missed Party Down) is relatively stable and normal, the woman (Casey Wilson from the much-missed Happy Endings) is something of a ditz who causes the worst possible things in the world to happen - much of the first episode revolves around Wilson comprehensive cocking up of both Marino’s and her marriage proposals, lives, friendships, etc, while flashing back to those first six years of equally epic cock-ups.

It’s no real spoiler to say that by the end of the episode, the happy couple are eventually engaged, with the rest of the series set to be about their next, inevitably bumpy journey - this time towards actually getting married. But the show’s real theme is a questioning of the standard rom-com trope of ‘the sign’: with that many disasters occurring to the proposal, is it a ‘sign' they aren’t supposed to be together or is the fact they still end up together and do get engaged a sign that they are supposed to be together?

As you might expect from the fact Marry Me is from the creator of Happy Endings David Caspe - who based this show’s premise on his recent marriage to Wilson - the writing’s a notch above the usual and is both quite ‘meta’ and literary, with characters frequently stopping to analyse their situation and to subvert their own language. The show’s also set in Chicago and has a suitable degree of diversity, with Wilson’s character being the progeny of two gay dads, one white, one black, both called Kevin, and a lesbian surrogate. And the show’s largely all about Wilson, with much of the fun stemming from her character’s “being in the moment” and generally putting her foot in her mouth, not being that graceful (a yoga class is particularly entertaining, with its instructor continually damning her with faint praise) and making a mess of things.

Marino’s role, by contrast, is explicitly duller, he being the conventional rock that stabilises her dementedness, almost the Desi Arnaz to Wilson’s Lucille Ball. He makes the best of it, but ultimately he’s not thrown much by way of a bone throughout the first episode.

Certainly, of the network rom-coms, while not a patch on You’re The Worst, it’s the best by far of the bunch, being not only smarter and funnier but also having engaging, likeable characters you want to see do well. However, in common with a lot of NBC comedies, it’s more wry funny than laugh out loud funny - you admire the cleverness of the writing rather than actually roll about on the floor giggling a lot of the time, and as with the show's first five-minute long marriage proposal scene, it really tries to milk every moment for all its worth, way past the point where there’s anything left.

So while it’s certainly one to at least try, I’ll be surprised if it acquires more than a cult following. Of course, I’ll hang around until episode three to see if much changes now the marriage proposals are out the way and Marino gets something decent to do. But largely this is a show that’s there, rather than having any real need to exist or anything truly unique to add to the rom-com mix.

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