Though US soap operas like Days of Our Lives and General Hospital have been running for fifty years or longer, they don’t hold nearly the same level of attention in the US popular culture consciousness as telenovelas do in countless other countries in the world, perhaps most notably in Latin America. Whereas American pop culture treats soap operas with a heaping load of derision or mockery (even using comparisons to them as a way to demean a film or TV show relies too much on melodrama), other cultures have massive followings for their telenovelas, and it looks like American pop culture is finally ready to stop purely lampooning it and emulating it as well. CW’s Jane the Virgin takes the telenovela format mainstream with an absurd premise that features all the usual staples: love, affairs, love affairs, murder, schemes, amnesia, unexpected pregnancy, betrayal, and, of course, amnesia.
Unlike US soap operas, however, it uses these devices with loads of wit and in such a way that skewers their melodramatic nature so that Jane the Virgin is fun to watch from start to finish.
To give credit where it’s due, the two true stand-outs of the series are its lead, Gina Rodriguez (as Jane) and its narrator, Anthony Mendez, who takes Ron Howard’s work in Arrested Development and gives it a swarthy Latin flavor while maintaining a lot of the dry, omniscient humor. Even if the narrator might get more laughs, and yes, the part is written in such a way to get plenty, the heaviest lifting is done by Rodriguez who works hard to imbue her character with all the earnest innocence necessary so she never seems petty or childish as she deals with her indecision over exactly how she wants her life to be after learning of her new situation.
That situation being Jane’s unlikely pregnancy, despite maintaining her virginity in an effort to make her live-in grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) proud and have a better chance at a happy future than her own mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who herself got pregnant as a teenager and had to raise Jane with Alba’s help. Unfortunately, the best laid plans are no match for a hungover doctor (Yara Martinez) who mistakenly uses the sperm of Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni), her brother and son of hotel magnate Emilio Solano (Carlo Rota), to artificially inseminate Jane instead of Rafael’s wife Petra (Yael Grobglas). Had nothing come to be, it wouldn’t have been too serious, but sure enough the pregnancy takes and soon Jane finds herself thrust into the complicated world of the Solano family, much to the chagrin of her loyal and virtuous cop boyfriend Michael (Brett Dier).
If that wasn’t already kind of twisted, Jane and Rafael develop feelings for one another, people get killed, people are not who they seem, a drug kingpin uses the Solano family hotel as a surgical center to change their identity, and Jane’s father, a major telenovela star named Rogelio (Jaime Camil), comes back into her life and reignites Jane’s lifelong hopes to become a writer. It’s all the over-the-top kind of plot devices you’d expect from a telenovela handled in a lovingly straight but satirical fashion so as to subvert and exploit them.
The strength of the writing and the cast shines through in how Jane the Virgin manages to keep the audience drawn in even when things get ridiculous. Gina Rodriguez is so likable from her very first moments on-screen that it would take a very sharp character shift for the audience to turn on her, and we're never given that reason. Her charms are supplemented by the superb narration as well as the supporting cast, especially Jaime Camil who plays the hilariously self-involved soap actor spectacularly, even as the season takes his character to some pretty humiliating places. The writing balances the characters perfectly without ever betraying the telenovela feel or the show's satirical look at the genre.
Creating an entire series that has its tongue planted firmly in its cheek is not uncommon, but when the subject being lampooned is itself an embellishment of reality (which is what telenovelas are—romantic drama taken to an extreme) it becomes hard to find the line between satire and emulation. At times, Jane the Virgin certainly seems like it gets lost in the very thing it’s sending up, but then it unleashes a couple of telenovela tropes at just the right time and in such rapid succession so as to remind us that it’s taking the already extreme reality of its source material and making it even more extreme, but with a soft and sensitive touch so as never to seem bitter or vicious.
DVD Bonus Features
Extras cover the creation of the show and its cast, and also include a gag reel and deleted scenes.
"Jane the Virgin: The Complete First Season" is on sale September 29, 2015 and is not rated. Comedy, Drama, Romance. Directed by Brad Silberling, Edward Ornelas. Written by Jennie Snyder Urman, Josh Reims, David S. Rosenthal. Starring Justin Baldoni, Gina Rodriguez.