The proverbial project that seemed to come out of nowhere, even though it was based on another show, a Venezuelan telenovela. The title role went to Gina Rodriguez, who had a fairly low profile prior to this. The only person in the cast I recognized was Priscilla Barnes, Suzanne Somers’ replacement on Three’s Company, and she has a minor role. It was created by Jennie Snyder Urman, who as far as I can tell still doesn’t have a Wikipedia page, and whose only previous series was Emily Owens, M.D., which ran for 13 episodes. And it airs on The CW … I can’t say anything about the quality of shows on The CW, because I don’t think I’ve watched one since the network emerged from the ashes of the WB and UPN.
Then there was the premise: a young woman who is a virgin is accidentally artificially inseminated.
But a lot of good reviews convinced me to give Jane the Virgin a chance. And now I’m hooked.
The most obvious comparison would be to Ugly Betty, another series based on a South-American telenovela. Ugly Betty ran four seasons, and I stuck with it for quite awhile, although I didn’t last to the end. Ugly Betty also had a vibrant star in the title role, in that case, America Ferrara. It was larger than life, which superficially lent a telenovela tone to the show, but I felt it soon moved past its influences, for better or worse.
Through nine episodes, Jane the Virgin shows no sign of abandoning its roots. The plot twists are fantastical. They even work a telenovela into the show: one of the characters is the star of a telenovela that all of the other characters in the show watch. What makes things loony is the way the numerous plot threads become entangled, such that the “previously on” segments are marvels of compression. The best friend of one character is sleeping with the friend’s wife. The wife has a mysterious, Eastern-European background. Jane’s boyfriend, a policeman, learns about this affair when doing a stakeout looking for information about an international drug kingpin. The wife is the person who was supposed to receive the artificial insemination that ended up in Jane. Her cuckolded husband is thus the father to Jane’s baby. In the midst of all this, Jane learns the identity of her own supposedly long-dead father, and he is … well, enough with the spoilers.
What makes this all work is the effective blend of goofy and grounded characters. The telenovela star in real life acts like his character in the TV series. Patricia Barnes plays the mother of the vaguely-European wife; she’s in a wheelchair and she has an acid-scarred face and a personality to match. Meanwhile, Jane is a rock who maneuvers through all the craziness without becoming crazy herself. Many of the actors play stereotypical characters, yet between their performances and the solid writing, those characters become real to us, no matter how wildly the plots swing. You care what happens next because you care about Jane, and since there’s a telenovela feel to it all, there is always something happening next. Often, it’s what you least expected, although at this point, I’ve come to expect the unexpected.
And I haven't even mentioned the narration, which works like a charm.
The CW has availed itself of that new habit of splitting a season in two, so Jane the Virgin is off until mid-January. That gives you plenty of time to catch up! Of course, once you catch up, you’ll want to see the next episode long before mid-January rolls around … you can only imagine how many cliffhangers there were at the end of the last episode.
Things could go bad in a hurry, but I don’t imagine that will be any time soon. Meanwhile, take advantage of the opportunity to see Gina Rodriguez in one of the top acting jobs of the year. Grade for first half of Season One: A-.