The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg links the CW’s “Jane the Virgin” and “The Flash” as part of what she calls TV’s return to “niceness”. Although both comic-book stories and telenovelas normally require villains to match their heroes, she says that both manage without them. There are people who do bad things, but they do them in response to outside pressures; they’re not evil, just flawed.
There’s something else that links “Jane” and “The Flash”: They’re both shows about heroes. Jane, magnificently played by Gina Rodriguez, can’t cling to walls or shoot fire from her eyes, but she possesses a quality that’s nearly as rare: honesty. “Jane,” which is based on a Venezuelan telenovela called “Juana la virgen,” gives its characters ample reasons to lie, and nearly all of them succumb to the temptation. Jane’s mother, Xiomara (Andrea Navedo) concealed the identity of Jane’s father for decades; her grandmother, Alba (Ivonne Coll) let stand the falsehood that she was the one who convinced Xiomara to have a daughter out of wedlock at 16, when she was actually advocating for her to have an abortion. Her father, who turns out to be a self-loving telenovela star named Rogelio de la Vega (Jaime Camil), trafficks in falsehoods for a living: By way of getting Jane up to speed, he hands her a book, explaining, “It says ‘unauthorized biography,’ but, actually, one of my many publicists wrote it.” Even Jane’s fiancée, straight-arrow police detective Michael (Brett Dier), has a wayward brother who keeps threatening to divulge his vaguely criminal past.
What gets Jane in trouble is her unflagging commitment to telling the truth, even if it means informing Michael, who she’s meant to marry in a week, that she had a sex dream about another man. The marvel of Rodriguez’s performance is how she plays Jane’s honesty as something she’s helpless against: She tells the truth the way most people lie, not as the result of a complicated moral struggle but because she can’t help herself. Her Catholic upbringing plays a part — in a sequence set at a Sunday service, the choir and the Virgin Mary herself remind her that lying is a sin — but that’s the weakest and least satisfying explanation. Mostly, she’s honest because that’s who she is. What’s virginal about Jane isn’t that she’s 23 and hasn’t had sex (although there is that) but that she seems immune to the urges that so often lead the rest us astray. She struggles, but she wins. Although Jane’s immaculate conception, the result of an accidental insemination by a distraught ob-gyn, puts one in mind of the Blessed Virgin, the Biblical figure she more closely resembles is Job, constantly tested and yet ever faithful.
With its wry narrator and self-conscious framing devices, “Jane” does everything it can to disguise the sincerity at its core, but it’s as insightful, and several orders of magnitude less ponderous, than the Big Shows About Series Themes that dominate so much of the critical conversation about TV. As the New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum writes, the telenovela, “like melodrama and the much mocked soap opera, embraces the irrational: one expects high emotion, outrageous twists, and escapist fun. Instead, ‘Jane the Virgin’ takes a forthright approach, allowing its characters to respond with logic and empathy, even when confronted with the most absurd events.”
It’s also, not to bury the lede, fantastically enjoyable, with a confidence that’s shocking in a first-season show. Its tone, part melodrama, part romantic comedy (it frequently reminds me of “Clueless”), is a tricky blend executed with such effortlessness that you hardly notice (though if it didn’t work, you surely would). Like “Transparent,” another one of the year’s best shows, it’s populated with characters who are straight and gay, white and nonwhite, religious and profane, wealthy and working-class, and it’s matter-of-fact about their differences: With a half-dozen plot twists every week, you barely have time to parse the the fact that Jane’s OB, who turns out to be the sister of the wealthy playboy whose baby she’s carrying, is carrying on an affair with their father’s second (or third or fourth) wife. The world is a turbulent place, and everyone is so busy trying to keep their footing that they don’t have time to judge — or if they do, those judgements come back to bite them in the ass. It has the wit and heart of a classic romantic comedy, but it also feels more like 2014 than anything on the air.
P.S.: I’ll be discussing “Jane the Virgin” at the University of Pennsylvania’s “Writing About TV: Girls” at 6 p.m. on Thursday, November 13. You should totally come!