“What are examples of positive representation on TV right now?” Professor Elizabeth Hoover asks her Intro to Ethnic Studies class. “Black-ish!” one student yells. Silence. “Fresh Off the Boat!” shouts another. A few murmurs. “Jane the Virgin!” someone cries out. Immediately, the packed lecture room fills up with the sounds of hoots, claps, and classic Brunonian snaps.
Talking about Jane during class isn’t a rare occurrence. Throughout shopping period, the show was mentioned in five out of the thirteen classes I visited.
Jane is, according to Wikipedia, a “satirical romantic comedy-drama telenovela” that airs on the CW network. You remember The CW. It’s the mastermind network behind hit series like Gossip Girl, The Vampire Diaries, Supernatural, Gilmore Girls, Smallville, One Tree Hill, and Veronica Mars, amongst many, many others. Starring Gina Rodriguez as the titular character, Jane the Virgin focuses on the lives of three Latina women living in Miami, Florida. The premise of the show is nearly inconceivable (pun half intended): Jane Villanueva, who as a devout Catholic promised at a young age to abstain from sex until marriage, is accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine OB-GYN visit. The sperm belongs to Rafael, a rich hotel owner who also happens to be the man Jane once shared a wildly romantic (sexless) afternoon with, years before the insemination. Jane’s pregnancy occurs at an inopportune time. She is (recently) engaged to Michael, a sweet detective who accepts the whole incident quite graciously. Jane still lives with her very young mother Xiomara, an aspiring singer, and her very devout Catholic grandmother Alba, an undocumented Venezuelan immigrant.
That’s not even the half of it.
Amongst this already complex plot, Jane is brimming with absolutely stellar secondary characters. A fan favorite is Rogelio, Jane’s estranged father, who also happens to be a successful international telenovela star. Then there’s Luisa, Rafael’s sister, and the doctor who impregnated Jane. There’s Petra, Rafael’s ex-wife, whose character is one for the books. Jane’s friend Lina, played by Diane Guerrero from Orange Is the New Black, provides great comic relief. And then there’s a multiplicity of international drug lords who may or may not be running operations from Rafael’s hotel, The Marvella.
Jane has it all—comedy, romance, mystery, irony, and, yes, representation.
Last year, Gina Rodriguez won the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy Series, beating out Lena Dunham (Girls), Edie Falco (Nurse Jackie), Julia Louis-Dreyfus (Veep), and Taylor Schilling (Orange is the New Black). In her speech, which went viral, she said the prestigious award was “so much more” than herself and that “it represents a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.” Latinx media sites spread the quote like wildfire, and since then, Rodriguez has become the icon for young Latinas. Jennifer Lopez, Salma Hayek, Sofia Vergara, and America Ferrera seem like the predecessors to Rodriguez. The torch has passed on. And currently, there are few who share the Latinx spotlight with the woman who made Jane come to life.
But the show is not just about one Latina star. The whole cast is unapologetically Latinx. Though Jane is our contact point into the Villanuevas’ sunshiny Miami world, the story focuses just as much on her older counterparts. The viewer cares deeply about Xiomara, who got pregnant with Jane as a teenager and never really grew up or out of her haphazard ways. We cheer Xo on as she teaches dance to young children while pursuing a singing career on the side. Alba, on the other hand, has been conservative most of her life. Only now is she trying to make some lifestyle changes after years of being a widow in mourning and living a fear-filled life as an undocumented immigrant.
The rest of the ensemble is also clearly meant to be Latinx; if not in real life, they are at least in the Jane canon. Jaime Camil, the actor who plays Jane’s father, is a real life international telenovela star from Mexico. Rafael, though not Latino in real life, is definitely Latino in the show. Even white-passing characters such as Jane’s fiance Michael are presented as Latinx, sporting last names like Cordero or De La Vega.
This is not to say that the pan-Latinx vibes alienate anyone. On the contrary, perhaps most of the people I know who watch Jane do not identify as Latinx. This is more than likely because of the amazing writers behind the show, who make Jane a truly special TV event. Wikipedia is not wrong when it chooses five genres to describe this show. The satire is hilarious and spot-on. The romance, breathtaking. The comedy is energetic and entertaining, while the drama is hair-raising. And the telenovela—well, that’s where Jane becomes unique.
Previous Latinx shows like George Lopez and Ugly Betty molded well with other mainstream TV genres. Lopez was a classic sitcom, its style rendered not unlike Seinfeld, Everybody Loves Raymond, or Roseanne. Ugly Betty, on the other hand, read much more like other shows on ABC, the network on which it aired. It’s not difficult, for example, to imagine some sort of crossover episode between Betty and Modern Family. These shows grew—and excelled—within their genres.
Jane is making its own. And people are enjoying it.
Most critiques of Jane are based off of one thing: it’s ridiculous. Note: SPOILERS SECTION AHEAD.
Every single plot twist on this show is absolutely absurd, starting with Jane’s insemination. But there are also murders galore, including one death caused by ice impalement and another by entrapment in cement. There are evil twins all around. Babies being kidnapped. Drug lords having eerily convincing masks to fool people FOR ENTIRE SEASONS that they are the good guy. Russian mobsters. Mothers who fake paralysis for years. Stalkers who kidnap international telenovela stars’ estranged fathers. And then there’s the fact that even though she’s had so many opportunities to sleep with really, really attractive men, Jane hasn’t had sex. (OK, so that’s not absurd, but it also kind of is, because have you seen the cast?)
OK, SPOILERS OVER.
This ridiculousness is all intrinsic to the nature of the telenovela genre, something most American viewers are still not used to seeing. And though the show spends a good portion of its time making fun of telenovela tropes, it also uses the storytelling techniques of the genre to create an addicting, interesting, and charming story. So yes, these things are ludicrous and would never happen in real life. But suspension of disbelief can take you a long way, folks. Once you get into Jane, it’s hard to believe you ever restrained from watching it because you thought of it as silly. You end up loving it because it’s silly.
The problem now is that, as Jane prepares for its third season, it’s difficult to imagine where else the plot can go. The stakes, we can imagine, can’t get too much higher without being too erratic. So many crazy things have happened on the show, and viewers have accepted it all. But is it possible that the telenovela narrative could begin to get old for viewers whose first and only telenovela experience is Jane? And, on the flip side, can Jane keep up a compelling storyline while staying true to its Latinx and telenovela roots?
Personally, I think the writers will slow down in terms of pushing the boundaries of premise in the upcoming season. Seasons 1 and 2 were built on enough crazy premises. To name a few: a virgin gets pregnant by the (millionaire) owner of the hotel where she works (a hottie she also happened to have crushed on once), his hotel may or may not be a giant drug front, and the pregnant virgin’s estranged father is somehow revealed to be the star of her favorite telenovela. That’s enough to last a whole standard ten seasons. (Okay maybe not, but it is a lot!) It may be time to begin to gradually decrease the once-booming expansion of this crazy universe in which anything can happen and to try to start pulling loose ends so we don’t have an unsatisfying series finale à la How I Met Your Mother. That being said, it is crucial to the series’ identity that the fun, quirky telenovela trope stay centric to the show as a whole, and it just so happens that a crazy premise is thus imperative in this regard.
I trust the writers can find a good balance in all of this, because the best part about Jane for many, including yours truly, is that no matter how nuts it all gets, the characters always ring true. They’re real. And that’s what makes for good TV. If we can see these characters face the newest wild situations they are in with the complexity they have always shown, then I don’t see why Season 3 will be any less successful than its predecessors, and I don’t see what would stop Jane from joining the ranks of The CW’s greatest hits.