'Jane the Virgin': TV Review
The fall's best broadcast pilot also features fall's breakout star in Gina Rodriguez but sports a telenovela-inspired premise that's difficult to pull off, yet addictive when done right
Viewers who want to watch the fall's best new broadcast drama will have to do something that, for many of them, will likely be unfamiliar. They will have to find the CW. (On the other hand, plenty of new viewers discovered the channel with The Flash last week.)
In any case, newbies are welcome and encouraged tonight to get themselves somehow to the CW when Jane the Virgin makes its debut. One of the most buzzed-about fall shows features, hands-down, the breakout star of the fall with Gina Rodriguez.
Talented, magnetic, sexy and above all else extremely likable, Rodriguez is the glue that holds together the tonally difficult-to-pull-off Jane the Virgin series.
Based on a Venezuelan telenovela, Jane Villanueva (Rodriguez) is a 23-year-old who is hyper-focused on doing everything in her life just right. Her strident Catholic grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll) has — rather dramatically and hilariously — hammered home the theme of virginity to her since Jane could barely understand the concept. In theory, this is to offset how Jane's mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) started her own life. Xiomara, with her killer legs and lust for life, is meant to be the poster mom for getting knocked up too early. Jane is the next generation autocorrect. (And, among the many little things I like about this series, it really understands the generational differences — from having Alba speak in Spanish to Xiomara be someone testing boundaries to Jane's modern vision for her life).
But, this being a series based on and channeling the love of telenovelas, Jane is about to have something improbable happen to her, offsetting her best-laid plans. She gets accidentally inseminated by a female doctor who is completely distracted by a soap-opera turn in her own life.
Absurd — sure, but also told with just the right touch of funny and believable. Series creator Jennie Snyder Urman and her staff of writers manage to blend drama, comedy and bits of magical thinking into the show in ways that are consistently impressive. In fact, such a tonal balancing act is the biggest worry going forward with Jane, but it's done so expertly in the pilot that it gives you confidence the staff knows what's it doing. For her part, Urman is clear on the one part that seems simple — Jane and her family absolutely adore melodramatic telenovelas. They all watch together and relate to the soapy, escapist fantasy. But almost instantly, Jane's real life turns into one.
She has a boyfriend, Michael (Brett Dier) who is a police detective who wants to marry Jane. The, um, accidental sperm donor turns out to be Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who is a cancer survivor and that "donation" was his first and last chance to be a father. Of course, Rafael is a great-looking, super rich hotel owner who just happens to be married. And, when they were very young, Rafael and Jane shared a first kiss. Oh, and Rafael's current wife is more than a bit of a schemer.
Cue the telenovela music! Let the soap waft around you!
All of this leaves out a nice little twist at the end of the pilot that brings things full circle. It also does almost no justice to how magnificent Rodriguez is — once you watch you'll understand how she ended up being almost everyone's pick for breakout star.
Rodriguez is happily not a cookie-cutter CW actress. She understands she'll be a role model for lots of girls who are "normal" but who don't feel that way looking at the standard CW skinny supermodels. But this is also no Ugly Betty type situation, either. Rodriguez is a real beauty — no getting around that — who conveys an every-girl mentality along with smarts, toughness (she understands that her grandmother's anti-sex rule is archaic and can also go toe-to-toe with anyone giving her lip) and this indescribable sense of sweetness that makes you want to be her BFF.
That's a casting coup, people.
That Rodriguez can skillfully pull off what's asked of her in this challenging Jane role is also impressive, since telenovelas are not exactly grounded, and it would be easy just to go all-in on one emotion. By the end of the pilot, the writers have put Rodriguez through a number of funny and dramatic and even silly situations, and she nails each one. That's right about the time audiences will likely decide that they'll need a lot more Jane in their life. It's also the beginning of the show's biggest test — keeping the greatness of that pilot alive and delivering on its promise.