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

A clever telenovela that knows it's a telenovela

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.