Jane the Virgin: never has a TV show been so wonderfully bonkers and yet so genuinely moving

Based on a Venezuelan telenovela, this soap opera-style romcom anchors its zaniness in deep character authenticity while laughing with its genre, never at it

• Jane the Virgin is streaming in Australia on Stan. For more recommendations of what to stream in Australia, click here

It’s impossible not to fall for Jane the Virgin, a romantic comedy series with the convoluted plot and larger-than-life characters of a soap opera. Or, to be more precise, a Latin American telenovela. In fact, the show, set in Miami and revolving around a bilingual household of three generations of women, is a telenovela (loosely based on the Venezuelan Juana La Virgen), doubling as a loving satire.

The opening scenes of the show set up the zaniness to come when the titular Jane (a brilliant, multilayered, breakout star performance by Gina Rodriguez) – who has been dutifully saving herself for marriage – is accidentally artificially inseminated at a routine gynaecology appointment. The owner of the rogue sperm? Not her handsome police officer boyfriend and soon-to-be fiance Michael (Brett Dier) but rather the dishy, impossibly tight-shirted owner of the hotel where she she works, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), with whom Jane just happened to have locked lips five years earlier.

So there’s your love triangle: Jane, her blond, solidly conventional boyfriend and the smouldering Latino father of her baby. Adorable meet-cutes, moments of genuine connection and meant-to-be signs from the universe are attached to both men, so much so that the viewer is kept guessing as the full five seasons unfold.

Jane the Virgin is high romance, complete with glowing hearts and literal sparks, while the plot is driven along by grand criminal conspiracies, nemeses, evil twins and at least one character who returns from the dead. But like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, its musical romcom stablemate at The CW, its home network in the US, Jane the Virgin simultaneously revels in its genre tropes while deftly deconstructing them.

A narrator, Anthony Mendez, introduces each episode with the voice of a Latin lover and provides commentary; his mellifluous voiceover is embellished by bursts of tongue-in-cheek explanatory text. His trademark exclamation – “just like a telenovela!” – winks broadly at the more over-the-top twists and tropes.

Justin Baldoni as Rafael and Gina Rodriguez as Jane
Justin Baldoni as Rafael and Gina Rodriguez as Jane are two-thirds of the love triangle that drives much of Jane the Virgin’s plot. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy

The show’s beating heart is Jane’s relationship with her single mother Xiomara, or Xo (Andrea Navedo), an aspiring singer initially costumed in plunging necklines, peekaboo shoulders and glitter, and her undocumented Venezuelan Catholic grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll). While Jane’s virginity is the direct result of a pledge extracted from her by Alba, it’s also a strategy (along with her type A addiction to plans and schedules) not to end up like Xo, who became pregnant with Jane at 16.

The final piece of the family puzzle, and an absolute joy to watch, is Jane’s long-lost father, Rogelio (Jaime Camil). A preening international telenovela star with a lavender fetish and a social media following he wields like an all-purpose Swiss Army knife (“I’ll tweet my 65 million Twitter followers!” he declares when Jane briefly goes missing), Rogelio soon reveals hidden depths and becomes Jane’s most passionate admirer and champion … and Xo’s love interest.

One of the best things about Jane the Virgin is its dual nature: knowing and wildly playful; seemingly chaotic yet fitting within precise structural boundaries. Similarly, its satire coexists with a deep authenticity. The show laughs with its genre, never at it. While its characters’ life trajectories are frequently implausible, their defining characteristics are deeply authentic. So are their relationships and emotional journeys.

It’s also a show that doesn’t perform diversity but inhabits it naturally. The cast is largely Latino. The Spanish-speaking characters speak Spanish when together, subtitled for non-speakers. In particular, the complexities of Alba’s undocumented immigrant status are brilliantly and heartrendingly captured, showing how deeply she makes herself invisible for fear of being deported.

Initially, Jane is focused on one true path to happiness. But after the grenade of her accidental pregnancy and a subsequent fusillade of life events she’s forced to consider that there may be more than one genuine path – that the “right” choice may not exist, and the secret to life may not be meticulous planning but responding authentically to change. What better – and more fun – series to binge watch when the world is in a state of constant chaos?

Contributor

Jo Case

The GuardianTramp

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