Jane the Virgin was the breakout show for the CW this year that, along with The Flash, placed the network on a newfound course of critical acclaim and cultural buzz in the increasingly packed landscape of television starting to be known as "peak TV," where it's becoming harder than ever to be caught up with anything and everything that just might be worth watching out there. But yes, this is another series that's definitely worth your time, since it's a fast moving, highly inventive riff on telenovelas and an addictive soap in and of itself, mixing campiness and earnestness at equal levels, and filled with a game cast that mostly does its job, with one particular standout on another level entirely, but we'll get to him in a minute. Overall, it's a delightful lark.
Like Ugly Betty about ten years ago, Jane the Virgin is based on an actual telenovela that Jennie Snyder Urman and her writers adapted to a 22-episode network series, but thankfully, unlike Ugly Betty, which began running out of steam and plotlines near the end of its first season, this one shows no signs of fatigue or story burnout despite the rapid pace at which the show is wrought. Gina Rodriguez plays Jane, a 24-year-old devoutly religious young woman who was raised by her mother Xo (Andrea Navedo), who had her as a teenager, and her grandmother, who instilled in her the special virtue of her, well virtue. So Jane has managed to hold out despite being engaged to her boyfriend of two years, Michael (Brett Dier), and despite having the hots for former playboy Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who owns the hotel she works at in Miami, and happens to be the father of the baby she was accidentally inseminated with (a crazy premise, yes, but played for laughs and even sweetness that actually manages to make it work). The setup of the hotel allows for Rafael and his madcap wife and family members to run ragged with plots dragged straight out of telenovelas involving murder, adultery, drug smuggling, scandal, you name it, while the show both acknowledges and embraces the over the top soapiness of it all as it tries to play in those waters.
It does this via the extremely creative use of an all-knowing third person narrator (Anthony Mendez), probably the best and funniest one on TV, who's so involved in the goings on of each and every episode that he feels like a character himself, the most developed one since Ron Howard on Arrested Development (who also got some of the very best punchlines). The jokes come fast and furious from him, but also from the superimposed text onscreen at any and all moments that will tell you who someone is and a sarcastic version of their backstory in quick succession, and then of course there's the fantasy sequences, flashback scenes, Jane's daydreams and/or novels...it can sound exhausting, but this is not a show that you casually watch while doing something else, it actually does demand your attention for forty minutes so as not to miss anything, even as it flies by.
All of those things about the show make it funny and fun, and innovative in the way it mixes genres, and for once I'm going to say that the way this show is put together may actually supercede the cast itself, which is a bit unusual for soap operas. Most of the good ones really require an investment in the characters, and though I like everyone on Jane the Virgin, I'm not sure that I can pick out a favorite character. Wait, strike that, yes I absolutely can. This is probably the place to sing the praises of Jaime Camil, Jane's long lost father Rogelio de la Vega, now a famous telenovela star and one of the funniest and biggest scene-stealers on television. Seriously, people were upset that Gina Rodriguez got snubbed for an Emmy nod, but if there was any justice in the world or those voters were actually watching this series, Jaime Camil would not only be nominated in a heartbeat but would win hands down over anyone else in the category. Rogelio is simultaneously a blowhard, an egomaniac and an overearnest manchild who delivers not just punchlines but random lines of dialogue that would probably never be funny coming out of anyone else's mouth but his- he makes you laugh just by walking on screen before even saying anything. That kind of presence is truly special, and invites comparisons in my mind to one of the great lovable chumps of all time- Ted Baxter himself from The Mary Tyler Moore Show (yes, that's who he reminds me of).
The show doesn't overdo Rogelio's role, as Camil is still firmly a supporting player, but that's going to be extremely hard to resist in the coming seasons, trust me, as he pretty much blows everyone else off the screen. Gina Rodriguez is a kind, spirited and confident Jane, although I sometimes wonder if she may be limited by being a little bit too perfect and good (this is a soap after all), and her relationships with her family members Xo and Abuela are the heart of the series, but the one problem I have with the overarching storyline that drives the plot of the show- that is the love triangle between Jane and her two boyfriends- is pretty major. It would be fine if Jane had chemistry with either of these guys, but the truth is she doesn't. And it would also help if at least one of them was interesting, but unfortunately, they aren't. Michael, the do-gooder detective, is nice and sweet, but incredibly boring (although Dier at least tries to play him with a little bit of humor), and Rafael should be a lot more interesting, considering his rehabilitated playboy past and associations with potential criminal organizations all over his hotel, but Baldoni plays him so flat at times and with so little humor that I sometimes wonder if this role was mistakenly cast in the first place. Especially because I get the feeling he's supposed to be "the one," considering he was the guy from the original telenovela and he's the incidental father of Jane's baby and everything.
So yeah, when you're centering a show around a love triangle, you have to have one of three things going for it. First, our lead should have chemistry with at least one of these guys. Second, the winner in the triangle is so obvious that no one bothers to care about the relationship with the loser, or third, which is the one most people hope for- that there are significant investments in both relationships so that no one knows who she will or should choose and there's real suspense involved (the best example of the latter would be the Felicity/Ben/Noel question that ended the famous cliffhanger first season finale of that show back in 1999- I couldn't sleep for months). The worst possible scenario would be that both guys are lame and there's no interest in the outcome of this contest at all, which is a little bit where this show is headed, I'm afraid. At that point, I think it's best to just pick the guy who wins and go forward with him based on how much drama you can wring from the character's external situation (in which case Rafael is still the better choice because he's tied to the drama of the hotel and the other nefarious characters involved there, while Michael is kind of a pointless outsider to everything). That's too bad, since if we're talking romances, frankly I'd rather watch a show about Rogelio trying to seduce Jane's mom- he's the best.
But the show is still so cleverly written and played out that even something as potentially devastating as a complete dud of a love triangle doesn't really hurt it that much. You know a show is good when it can overcome a hurdle like that and you still look forward to watching it just because it's so much fun. As it stands now, I think that Jane the Virgin is a great comedy that deserves every bit of the critical praise it's earned this year, and everyone should check it out, since the second season is premiering in October and I'm definitely along for the ride.