Jane the Virgin is a show about a 23-year-old virgin who accidentally becomes pregnant via artificial insemination. It’s based upon the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, and when I heard about it in May at the television upfronts I thought that the premise was utterly ridiculous. When I heard early reviews from American television critics however, I was intrigued. Critics whose opinions I respect seemed to be enjoying it, so I looked forward to its premiere on Foxtel last night. Brad Newsome, who reviews Foxtel shows for The Green Guide, however, couldn’t seem to move beyond the apparent superficiality of the premise (scroll down to find the review)
Here’s the pitch: a sweet 23-year-old virgin goes in for a pap smear but her hysterical lesbian gynaecologist accidentally impregnates her with the last drops of sperm from a rich hotelier who has been rendered infertile by cancer. Oh, and it’s a romantic dramedy based on a Venezuelan telenovela. And there’s a narrator with a Latin accent and an arch tone to explain the myriad connections between said virgin (Gina Rodriguez), her libidinous mother, her super-religious grandmother and a bunch of other characters. If you’d green-light that you’ll series link it.
I’d been looking forward to this show since it premiered in the United States two months ago, so I found this review disappointing. The tone is obnoxious and grating, so it’s almost as if Aaron Sorkin wrote it, especially given that the female characters are described as “hysterical” and “libidinous” (no one would look twice if it was Jane’s single father who enjoyed sex a lot). Jane’s grandmother is incredibly religious, but I find that this show treats her faith with respect. I can understand that this show might not be this reviewer’s cup of tea but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its place – not every show has to be Breaking Bad. (I also found the voiceover to be incredibly charming).
There are a few things I liked about the show. Despite the somewhat absurd premise, Luisa the gynaecologist was already in danger of losing her medical licence, so it’s not completely outside the realm of possibility that she would make such a mistake. What makes a show like Jane the Virgin work is believable characters and relationships, and this show has them in abundance. Not all the characters have depth at this stage, but we’re talking about the pilot, so I’ll give it a pass for that. The three central characters of the show are Jane, her mother Xiomara (Andrea Navado) and her grandmother Alba (Ivone Coll, as great here as she is in Switched at Birth). Jane’s decision to remain a virgin is borne from the fact that she was born out of wedlock to a mother she believes didn’t want her, as well as her grandmother’s faith, and she’s desperate to not make the same mistakes. Alba’s faith is treated with respect, and what she wants for her granddaughter is to make decisions that will lead to a positive future, which is what all parental figures want for their (grand)children. This faith is also not as rigid as the audience and Jane were led to believe. Jane also has a boyfriend, Michael (Brett Dier), who is a policeman and respects her decision to wait until she’s married while also admitting that he’d really like to have sex.
The plot for the pilot, after the insemination fiasco, is focused on Jane’s decision whether or not to keep her child. Her mother, grandmother and boyfriend all have opinions on what should happen, and some of those opinions are unexpected. In the end Jane’s decision (though I’m not revealing it, it should be easy to figure out given the show’s title) is her own, and the others accept it, which is refreshing in a television show. Jane and her mother discuss abortion as a legitimate option, even as Jane worried about what Alba would think.
Another fantastic aspect of the show is that there aren’t that many television programmes with predominantly Latin American casts on English speaking television. The only other US network show (that I’m aware of) with Latina characters in its main cast is Fox’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine. Miami is a perfect setting for the show, where 70% of the city’s population is Hispanic (2010 United States Census). In addition, Alba only speaks in Spanish because she wants to remain connected to her roots even though she can understand English. Her dialogue is subtitled, and it’s interesting to watch conversations where Jane speaks English and Alba speaks Spanish (I have seen this happen in real life with English and Polish).
Jane the Virgin isn’t Breaking Bad, but I don’t need it to be. A year and a half after Bunheads was cancelled, I think I’ve found a show that can partially fill the Bunheads shaped hole in my heart. Television doesn’t need to make you think; Suits is an incredibly enjoyable show about lawyers that doesn’t have nearly the depth of The Good Wife, but as long as I keep enjoying it, I’ll keep watching it. Brad Newsome thinks Jane the Virgin is superficial, but it really isn’t. It has characters with depth and strong relationships at its centre, focuses on Latin American families in the United States, respects its characters’ faith, and Jane herself is a young woman (around my age) who tries to do the right thing. I can’t ask any more from television than that.