The networks, with their vast new fall schedules, are like a species of sea turtle that lays dozens of eggs to perpetuate the species. Some of the eggs never hatch. Some hatchlings are eaten by sharks. Others scamper to shore and carried off by seagulls. Only a hardy few make it.
Just so, when I see the new network pilots, there are many I know I’m done with after one episode. Others go on a wait-and-see list, but as the weeks pass, I drop one and another off the list, from the truly bad to fine-but-the not-good-enough-to-make-time-for. I’m left with a few survivors on my season pass list: last season, e.g., Sleepy Hollow, Brooklyn 9-9 and Trophy Wife (which, alas, was devoured by the orca of cancellation).
We’re a month into the 2014 season, and so far, Jane the Virgin is my turtle.
The CW series–a comic telenovela about a chaste woman who’s inseminated through a gynecologist’s mistake–had a strong, elegantly constructed pilot, and the luminous Gina Rodriguez was instantly winning as the title character. But a pilot is only a pilot: what’s won me over is that, having seen four episodes (next week’s included), each is as good as or better than the last. Here’s why:
This Show Is Having Fun. There’s a difference between a show being fun, or trying to be–which can sometimes be a forced exercise–and communicating a sense that its makers are having the time of their lives. Jane in its early days has something in common with other fresh, full-of-voice network hours like Scandal and The Good Wife: a sense of play. The rico-suave voiceover and cheeky screen captions bounce commentary off the storylines, and the show gets a particular kick out of visual and dialogue-based twists, as when Jane and her fiance have a conversation seemingly related to having sex for the first time, which takes a weird turn (“I promise it’ll be quick,” he says, “in and out”) until we see he’s accompanied her to an appointment. And the episode-three musical sequence where a guilt-wracked Jane imagines her entire church scolding her for considering losing her virginity–complete with a Clutch Cargo-style solo from a Virgin Mary statue–is one of the great TV moments of 2014.
Jane’s a Virgin, but Not a Saint. Jane has her reasons for waiting until marriage–guilt, family influence (pro and con), a certain personal cautiousness–but the show doesn’t make her a paragon; she’s just a sharp, complex young woman figuring out how she wants her life to go. She’s still a sexual being. She can be “judgey,” she admits, but she’s not a moralizer, and she’s self-aware of her judginess. The show foregrounds her virginity–it’s in the title, after all–but it doesn’t portray it as either a burden or a crusade.
It’s Culturally Specific. And by that, I don’t just mean, “It’s a show about Latino Americans.” It is, and the diversity’s welcome on TV; but it also has a very particular feel for things like Catholic culture in the 21st century, the generational differences in Jane’s family and her place in all of it. It’s the difference between a show that feels like it takes place in the world, and one that feels like it takes place on a TV set.
It’s a Soap Without Soap Opera Villains. Jane the Virgin is pretty plainly not going to skimp on the telenovela twists–beyond the title predicament, we’ve already seen a guy defenestrated and impaled on an ice sculpture–but it plays them out with characters who react genuinely. There isn’t, so far anyway, much mustache-twirling or vampy scheming, even among the antagonists and competing love interests; there’s a sense that on some level, everyone has good intentions, which makes for more interesting conflict. And the multigenerational dynamic among Jane, her mother and her abuelita is really something: Grandma is showing herself to be more than the pious scold you might have guessed from the opening “flower” scene, while Jane’s cautionary tale of a mom seem, at heart, to genuinely want to do right, even when she seems more like the child in the relationship. It all goes a long way toward making the unbelievable believable.
If you’ve been holding off because the show sounded ludicrously soapy, give Jane a shot. And if you didn’t want to commit for fear of getting your heart broken, good news: The CW has decided to carry the show to term, as it were, with a full season order. Whatever your position on virginity itself, Jane is worth keeping.