THE OVERLOOKED

Jane the Virgin

It has all the tropes of a telenovela, but this show is an American original. Too bad more Americans aren’t watching it.
  • Gina Rodriguez stars in Jane the Virgin (The CW)
    Gina Rodriguez stars in Jane the Virgin (The CW)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart catches you up on the shows you missed with carefully curated selections you can enjoy in a week or less.

    Jane the Virgin
    Season 3, episodes 15-22
    Watch on Netflix

    One of the phenomena we’ll encounter again and again on The Overlooked is the show that keeps getting better even as its audience keeps getting smaller. There may be no better example of this right now than Jane the Virgin.

    From its origins as an American adaptation of Juana la Virgen, the Spanish-language serial that aired on Venezuela’s RCTV in 2002, Jane the Virgin has spent much of its critically-acclaimed run alternating between embracing the telenovela — the world’s most popular TV genre — and self-consciously spoofing it. This has led some to assert that the show is primarily a spoof. Not true! This is a spoof of the telenovela:

    Like Ugly Betty, the first Americanized and Anglicized telenovela to sustain an audience, the creative team behind Jane have pushed far beyond the original show’s concept. Unlike “Ugly Betty,” Jane has an ingenuity and drive that just won’t quit.

    Every week the show’s handful of core characters move around a small checkerboard of sets while paying continuous homage to the genre: eavesdropping here, changing partners there. Yet after watching more than 20 episodes over four seasons, I continue to find it both funny and fresh.

    Unfortunately, the show’s “live” audience — the viewers who pay the bills by watching Jane and commercial breaks in real time — has dwindled to the point where it is unsustainable, even by the paltry standards of the CW. Despite a big midseason hosanna from The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum last spring, one-quarter of Jane’s season three audience simply vanished. Of the 1.2 million viewers for the season four finale, more than half DVR’d it. The show’s abbreviated fifth season, which began March 27, will be its last.

    I was glad to see that Jane is the most-watched Netflix show in Texas and California, but even this suggests that the show is mainly appreciated by Latinx viewers who grew up on telenovelas. However, just as American viewers did not need prior knowledge of British single-camera comedy to watch the remake of The Office or of reality TV to understand Big Brother (actually, I still don’t understand Big Brother), genre knowledge is not a prerequisite for enjoying Jane.

    Perhaps all this buildup has you intrigued … but a quick look at the “Jane” episode list reveals 81 hours and counting. Or maybe you did watch the show during its first season, when it enjoyed widespread media coverage and an audience three times what it is now, then moved on. Either way, it’s daunting to think about jumping into a show with so much backstory.

    But if you can accept a major spoiler or two, I’d recommend you try dropping the needle at episode 15 of season 3 (aka “Chapter Fifty-Nine”). By this point Jane has gone through a big reset and, I think you’ll agree, is hitting its stride.

    Andrea Navedo, Gina Rodriguez and Ivonne Coll in <i>Jane the Virgin</i> (The CW)

    The setup: Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez) is an ambitious young woman who’s been “saving herself” for marriage, which might seem a stretch for a pretty 23-year-old woman living in Miami except that Jane gets constant reinforcement from her two housemates: mother Xiomara (Andrea Navedo), who had Jane when she was sixteen, and Xo’s pious mother Alba (Ivonne Coll).

    Their plan for Jane is seemingly derailed, however, when an ob-gyn accidentally inseminates her at the clinic. At about the same time, Xo spots the father of her child on TV — Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil), who has become a popular telenovela star. With the birth of baby Mateo and Rogelio suddenly back in their lives, the Villanueva family expands by not one but two.

    Mateo’s father is soon revealed to be Rafael (Justin Baldoni), owner of a popular Miami hotel, who had frozen his seed prior to cancer treatment so that he and his wife Petra (Yael Grobglas), could have a child someday. Petra rashly steals the sperm one day and books an appointment with the ob-gyn, Luisa (Yara Martinez) … who happens to be Rafael’s sister in addition to a hot mess.

    That, and the fact that it’s four years later, are all you really need to know to jump in at my recommended starting point.

    Gina Rodriguez and Justin Louis Baldoni in <i>Jane the Virgin</i> (The CW)

    Jane the Virgin was created by Jennie Snyder Urman, a New Yorker who worked on Gilmore Girls and the 90210 reboot, so the show is all-American, with influences reaching back to Ally McBeal and Sex and the City (which was parodied in an episode). The relationship between Jane and Xo is pure Gilmores.

    But the secret sauce of Jane, as well as its saving grace, is a character unlike any I’ve seen (or heard) before: the narrator. Voiced by Anthony Mendez, the “Latin Lover Narrator,” as the closed captioning calls him, is an all-seeing, mostly all-knowing plot expositor and peanut gallery rolled into one. Maybe it's the fact that we don’t see him, but Mendez manages to dominate the show without hijacking it.

    Mo Ryan once described him this way: “The Narrator is not just a conveyer of information, he’s a personality in his own right; a witty pal who roots for the characters even as he wryly describes their missteps, confusion and conflicts. … Jane has managed to turn one of the ‘eat your vegetables’ aspects of television storytelling into a candy-coated treat.”

    Another way Jane stands out among American TV shows is below the line. It has placed more women of color in the director’s chair than whole networks do. If telenovelas really are a form of global soft power, then Jane the Virgin is an expression of American values that Netflix ought to be exporting around the world.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Jane the Virgin, The CW, Netflix, Andrea Navedo, Anthony Mendez, Gina Rodriguez, Ivonne Coll, Jaime Camil, Justin Baldoni, Yael Grobglas, Yara Martinez