Where Were We?

Jane the Virgin is the (delicious) fruit of 70+ years of telenovelas

If you’re not watching Jane the Virgin, you probably know someone who’s told you to watch it. Listen to them, they know what they’re talking about. Returning after a winter hiatus on January 25, Jane the Virgin is a loose adaptation of the Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen, and tells the story of the overachieving teaching student Jane Villanueva, who becomes pregnant after being accidentally artificially inseminated.

This outlandish premise leads to one of the most diverse, emotionally resonant, and politically aware shows on TV today. The show features winning details like a hilarious narrator and the scene-stealing  Jaime Camil as larger-than-life telenovela star Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime is a telenovela star irl; he made his name in the show that inspired Ugly Betty.)  These elements and others allow it to be both a self-indulgent soap opera and a send-up of the genre. In a word, Jane the Virgin is brilliant. See also: effervescent star Gina Rodriguez’ various awards.

The bubbly dramedy owes its genius to a long history of both North American and Latin-American melodrama. Soap operas began in the 1930s as radio dramas, meant to help sell cleaning products to house wives (who knew???) and these same companies established programs in Cuba as well. After American companies stopped sponsoring the Cuban dramas, a talented base of artists and writers spread throughout Latin America.

While English-speaking Americans have their own long-running daytime soaps such as Days of Our Lives and General Hospital,  Latin America answers with an overwhelming catalog of wildly dramatic, wonderfully romantic telenovelas. Usually running for no more than a few months, these Spanish language soaps range from the silly to the tragic to the pointedly political. They’ve made relative unknowns into stars and inspired many a U.S. and international series. Plus, they’re wildly popular with both viewers and advertisers, who love that shows play several times a week.

Anyway, where were we? Ah, yes. Jane the Virgin has the benefit of accessing such a vast artistic and cultural heritage — and uses it brilliantly. It utilizes and subverts familiar tropes (including murder, espionage, secret lovers, mistaken identities and many more) in a way that feels fresh and sometimes shocking. The writers also explore complex aspects of Latina femininity by exposing layers from the Villanueva women, who at first glance appear to fit neatly into the madonna/whore dichotomy. Instead, the female characters are the cornerstone of the show, anchoring the heart of the plot with all their messy, loving, flawed humanity. The CW, long a bastion of soapy but somewhat vapid teen dramas, has turned out to be the perfect network for a show so fresh, over-the-top, and delightful.

Not to mention its gorgeous cast and an adorable behind-the-scenes bromance.

Season 1 is on Netflix, the first portion of Season 2 is on CWTV.com, and both seasons are available on Amazon. You have until January 25 to catch up, so get to binge watching!

Love and theatre (and #teamrafael),


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