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The Nice Girl Finishes First

In an era of TV marked by mean, often evil men, ‘Jane the Virgin’—which ends on Wednesday night—spent five seasons honing a brand of sincere, female-led kindness that separated it from the pack and elevated it to being one of the defining shows of the past decade

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If one were to crowd-source a prestige TV show from scratch, it would look nothing like Jane the Virgin. Since the late 1990s, viewers have been trained to expect quality from dozen-episode seasons airing on premium cable; Jane is an old-school broadcast series on the CW, churning out 20-plus episodes a year. “Serious” shows are supposed to be, well, serious; Jane is a lighthearted dramedy based on a Venezuelan telenovela, both cribbing from and commenting on the genre’s many tropes. TV’s current era began with the stories of misbehaving men; Jane is an unabashedly female show, from its cast to its influences, about decent people striving to do good.

And yet Jane concludes a five-season, hundred-episode run on Wednesday as an award-winning, critically acclaimed, emotionally rewarding triumph. In a landscape that prizes novelty as a means to break through the noise, Jane exemplifies one of TV’s most underrated, and deceptively difficult, virtues: consistency. For half a decade, Jane has struck a balance between larger-than-life antics and human-scale storytelling, clever self-awareness and genuine sweetness, affable humor and deep feeling—all while avoiding traditional sources of drama. “Our protagonists on the show are good people,” says creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman. “They’re trying to do the right thing amidst crazy circumstances. And there’s so many conflicts that come from trying to do the right thing when sometimes the wrong thing is easier.” A heroine’s virtue can be just as complex, and just as interesting, as an antihero’s vice.

The first crazy circumstance, and difficult decision, to befall Jane’s namesake heroine was a doozy: a 23-year-old observant Catholic saving herself until marriage, Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) was artificially inseminated on a routine trip to the gynecologist. Her absentminded doctor was the sister of reformed millionaire playboy Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni); the sample she administered was intended for Rafael’s wife, Petra (Yael Grobglas). In the short term, Jane had to decide whether to get an abortion before she’s ever even had sex. In the long term, she was plunged into a classic love triangle between Rafael and Michael (Brett Dier), her steadfast policeman fiancée. To quote the catchphrase of Jane’s voice-over, credited as Latin Lover Narrator (Anthony Mendez): “Straight out of a telenovela, right?”

How Jane and her family—her single mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who had Jane at 16, and her grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll), a Venezuelan immigrant from whom Jane inherited her faith—navigated this crisis set the tone for the rest of the show. “The watershed moment, to me, on how the show could function and how it could sustain itself long term, was in the second episode of the first season,” Urman explains. “We realized that they need a moment for the three women to be sitting on the porch and Jane to really process, emotionally, the earthquake that has come into her life by means of this accidental artificial insemination. It was seeing those three women there, having them process this fantastical turn of events in this very grounded, relatable way, that I think unlocked how the show could function.”

Over five seasons, this tendency to respond to larger-than-life events in a true-to-life way became Jane’s signature M.O. Jane gave birth to a son, while Petra inseminated herself without Rafael’s knowledge and conceived twin girls despite their divorce. What followed was some absurd conflict, but mostly the formation of a sprawling, messy, loving, blended family, complete with weekly brunches and open communication. Jane’s big bad is a drug lord named Sin Rostro, revealed in the first season to be Rafael and Luisa’s stepmother, Rose (Bridget Regan). And while Rose may be a cartoon villain with elaborate disguises and schemes, in the final season, Jane has responded to the threat with therapy and stress-management techniques. Michael married Jane, died, and miraculously came back from the dead in a textbook twist. But less textbook were the insurance fraud allegations Jane had to fight off after his resurrection.

“To me, Jane is really not a telenovela,” says actor Jaime Camil, who plays Jane’s long-lost father Rogelio. “It’s a really well-written single-camera series. But Jennie and her team of writers, they use the telenovela tropes a lot: the evil twins, the triplet, bringing people back from the dead … they do an amazing job at using those elements.” Since its premiere, Jane has taken the components of a soap opera and remixed them as shrewdly, and as lovingly, as The Wire did a police procedural, or Deadwood an American Western. The resulting hybrid is its own beast, equal parts affectionate homage and canny adjustment. Urman and her team wouldn’t make their characters respond to huge telenovela-style twists with an equally huge reaction, but would try to consider how any real human being might respond, with all of the depth that entails. “How would one react if their husband died?” Urman asks, recounting the questions she and her writers would consider. “How would one react if all of a sudden he came back? How would one react if they were accidentally inseminated? How would that feel?”

A telenovela star in his own right, Rogelio embodied Jane’s meta streak, as the writers constantly used him to break the fourth wall to help some of the plot’s more outsize absurdities go down. Jane herself is a budding romance novelist, while Rogelio spent much of the series trying to adapt his starring vehicle for American audiences; passionate defenses of both oft-dismissed genres were thus woven into the show. Camil himself hails from the world of telenovelas, albeit more sitcom-adjacent ones like the Spanish-language version of Ugly Betty, making his very presence a wink at in-the-know audience members. Camil even tells me the self-awareness can take on a life of its own: On the way home from the table read for the series finale, in which Rafael gets pulled over by the police, Baldoni got stopped, too.

Often, irony such as this works as a distancing mechanism, calling so much attention to the structure of a story that a show cannibalizes its own substance. (In Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s Fleabag, the title character gives up her habit of turning to the camera in a symbolic embrace of her raw emotions.) On Jane, however, these self-reflexive qualities weren’t at odds with sincerity. Paradoxically, they bolstered it—an effect Urman says is very much by design: “There’s a certain math that goes into each episode and how we structure them,” she explains. “I can’t go from Jane crying on the porch to a scene with Rose ripping off a mask, because the swing is too wild. But what I can do is go from Jane sitting on the porch and having this grounded, emotional talk with her mom to the telenovela, and using the language of [Rogelio] as a telenovela actor and some of the bigger, crazier things that are going on on set, and then that can take me into our telenovela. It’s being very specific about what scenes are next to each other and how we’re moving reality from the small to the big and then back again.” Jane’s self-consciousness never undercut its drama; instead, it demonstrated how a high-camp crime subplot exists on the same continuum as Jane’s parenting woes.

As exaggerated as Jane’s reality may be, its unusual blend of tones and stakes put it surprisingly close to our own. “Life really is like that,” Grobglas observes. “Nobody lives in the perpetual drama or perpetual comedy. Life is made out of dramatic moments, down-to-earth moments, cute moments, and hysterically funny moments.” That range is part of what drew Urman to the telenovela in the first place, despite an admitted lack of familiarity before she dove into the adaptation. “One of the writers in our room, Carolina Rivera, said early on that the telenovela was a pornography of emotion, which resonated with me,” she says. In retrospect, Urman framed Jane as a dissection of the telenovela—an outsider’s attempt to reverse-engineer, and understand, these shows’ worldwide popularity. “I think it’s because they really juice every moment of the human experience,” she concludes.

Jane’s overlap with real life has sometimes been more literal than emotional realism. The Villanuevas were a Latinx family living through a modified version of a telenovela in 2010s Miami, a part of their identity that informed the show just as much as gender or class or Jane’s artistic voice. The show charted Alba’s journey from undocumented immigrant to naturalized citizen; in later seasons, she married a friend to help with his immigration status, then had to prove the relationship’s authenticity to skeptical authorities. Rogelio’s arc, while less weighty, was also informed by the struggles international performers face when attempting to translate their appeal to the United States, from skittish executives to culture clashes. “Having conversations with Jennie about why some Latin American actors come to this country—to make it, to break into the American market, to cross over—I think that was a big influence for Jennie to write Rogelio,” Camil says. Jane’s master narrative was driven less by issues than the demands of the story, but its diversity couldn’t help but stand out. In her Golden Globes acceptance speech for Best Actress in a TV Comedy in 2015, Rodriguez tearfully paid tribute to “a culture that wants to see themselves as heroes.”

As a white showrunner diving into a culturally specific story, Urman “was aware of that tension right from the beginning, and the difficulty.” She was deliberate about hiring writers, cast, and crew members who could complement her own experience; Rivera, for example, has written for Mexican novelas in the past. But “at the same time,” Urman says, the goal was “making these characters so specific that they’re not representing everyone; they’re representing Jane, who is the daughter of Xo, who is the daughter of Alba. There’s so much that goes into the making of a person. It’s definitely ethnicity, and then there’s socioeconomic positions, and then there’s how religious you are.” Jane made its characters textured enough that they were far more than any single trait, and accessible to fans who may not have shared said traits. Grobglas, who is French and Israeli, has been touched, if not necessarily surprised, by Jane’s resonance with friends overseas: “I really feel like, across the board, any person can relate to this story, because it’s basically a story about family and caring and love and imperfections.”

And yet, Jane’s universality came because of, not despite, its specificity. Urman first envisioned the show as “a story about mothers and daughters,” and the significance of a female-created, female-fronted series is lost on no one—especially in a year that’s also seen the loss of other groundbreaking shows like Broad City, Tuca & Bertie, and Orange Is the New Black. “A show is, from my experience, very much defined by the people on top,” Grobglas says. “The fact that we had a female showrunner, the top two people on the call sheet were women, majority female directors, majority female writers—that, in itself, set a tone for our show.” From larger themes like motherhood to smaller production choices like its pastel color palette, Jane created a matrilineal world that was almost as much an escapist fantasy as Jane’s love life.

It’s not a spoiler to say that Jane’s finale includes a wedding. The entire season has been building up to Jane and Rafael’s tying the knot—and besides, as the narrator reminds us, almost every telenovela ends with a union. But Wednesday’s episode also concludes a mission Urman has had in mind from Jane’s very beginning, down to the very last shot. As with every show, there have been unplanned twists and turns, but “the master plan, like the overall arc, is the same, is what I wanted to tell,” she declares. “A story about a girl who loves telenovelas so much that her life becomes one. The setting up of the rich and famous as the fantasy, and the home being more grounded, and then realizing at the end that that home is the fantasy.” It all adds up to Jane Gloriana Villanueva—daughter, mother, successful novelist—getting a happy ending, one surrounded by TV magic but ultimately built on a more quotidian foundation of family, hard work, and love.

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