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Inside The Ambitious First Season Of TV’s Best New Show

CREDIT: PATRICK WYMORE/THE CW
CREDIT: PATRICK WYMORE/THE CW

Jane the Virgin closed out its fantastic, critically-obsessed-over debut season last night. Our beloved, accidentally-pregnant virgin had her baby, ending a run of episodes that covered the outrageous — murder! fake murder! evil twins! — to the real: immigration reform, class differences, single parenting. With a Golden Globe for star Gina Rodriguez and a recently-announced Peabody Entertainment Award to show for their effort, the team behind Jane is ending a banner first year. I spoke with showrunner Jennie Synder Urman at the start of the season — we called it “TV’s best new show” at the time and stand by that assessment 100 percent — and called her up again the day the finale aired. Read on for her thoughts on the show’s political boldness, writing characters with class differences, and what she’ll do when Jane the Virgin isn’t a virgin anymore.

Congratulations on the Peabody Award! What’s the critical response been like for you?The response from my parents has been overwhelming. The whole thing has been so incredible and so unexpected, from critics and all these institutions that you really look up to, has been really overwhelming. I’m so moved by emails and tweets that I get from people who talk about how seeing themselves, represented, as Gina said, as heroes, has been so important to them. That’s been the most moving of all.

Did any of that feedback influence the writing of the show? Or had you already written almost everything by the time this response started rolling in?We were probably around episode 10 by then, so we were pretty far down. I had a really, really detailed arc of the first 13 episodes that you go in and pitch to the studio, and we got the back nine [episodes] after our second episode aired in October. So we were able to plot the back half of the season as intensely as the first half. It stayed very, very true to what I pitched, early on.

What’s it been like working with The CW? Early on, I heard, they had you shoot scenes with Alba, Jane’s grandmother, in both English and Spanish, because they’d never had a character speaking Spanish on the network before and weren’t sure it would work. They asked me to shoot it as a backup plan; you should shoot it in English just to cover it, which I understood. It was a new thing. So we did five passes in Spanish and one in English, just to have it.

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But to their credit, once they saw the pilot, I never heard that again. They never asked for it. They really had an incredibly positive response right off the bat. They’ve continued to trust in our vision for the show. They respond to the same things I love about it: that it’s grounded, that it’s built around this strong matriarchy, these three women. And by grounding it there, we can take it on these telenovela flights of fancy.

It feels like you’ve become much bolder with the politics of the show as the season has gone on. Alba was always an undocumented immigrant, but the story addresses that fact in a much more overt way toward the middle and end of the season. Was that intentional?

I didn’t expect us to be as bold as we were. I didn’t expect us to do actual hashtags about immigration reform.

Yes, that was definitely a conscious choice. Our actors are Puerto Rican. I always knew they would be Venezuelan in the show because we wanted to do stories with immigration. I knew I wanted Alba here undocumented, and to explore what that does to a family and how you feel about it. I didn’t expect us to be as bold as we were. I expected us to explore it; I didn’t expect us to do actual hashtags about immigration reform. But we talked to people, and the more they found all this stuff meaningful, the more we decided to be more overt about our point of view.

Every show has a point of view. Every show has a gaze. Sometimes you’re aware of it, and sometimes you’re not. And the default is this white male gaze where the women are sidekicks and people of any color other than white are marginalized. So on our show, we decided to be more overt about our point of view.

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It’s been very heartening to see Gina step up as a real spokesperson for these issues. Often actors shy away from that political scene, which is understandable, but she really goes for it.

It’s been amazing. Gina spoke out at the TCAs last year, and she’s just so eloquent and she’s really passionate about what she believes in. It’s inspiring to fans and critics, but it’s really inspiring to us in the writers room as well. It just reinforces what we want to be doing, what kind of messages and images we want to put out there. It reminds us to be careful and eloquent as well. What you put on screen does matter. Gina and I bonded early, early on about wanting to have positive female role models on TV. I have a son and daughter and I want them to see those. And Gina, that’s just her mission. She’s so impressive and amazing. It’s hard to describe her, because she’s just as authentic, as humble, as smart, as interesting as inspiring as she comes off. She’s a really extraordinary person.

Jane has a couple of opportunities to take legal action — to file a lawsuit against the doctor who accidentally artificially inseminated her, to sue Rafael for full custody — but she backs away both times because of what those lawsuits could do to Alba. Do you feel boxed into a plot corner because of that: Jane will never seek legal recourse for the ways in which she’s been wronged because her grandmother is undocumented?

I think you’ll see after the finale, things are going to shift a little bit. It’s something we’re going to continue to explore. We’ve done the version where it stops her from taking certain actions, and I feel like to continue this journey, she’s going to have to start to change.

Let’s talk about class. As you’ve said before, one of the classic telenovela tropes is that poor girl/rich guy pairing, which we see with Jane and Rafael. How do you think about class differences while you’re writing these characters?

This season has been a lot about that line between fantasy and reality: what do you really want? We’re debunking fantasies in a lot of ways. For us, a lot of the first season is: we set up this guy, he’s rich with the world at his fingertips, he’s surrounded by wealth and he has access to everything. And then there’s Jane’s family, where the women are hardworking and focused and driven and determined, but have real people struggles. My intention over the course of the season was, ultimately, we would realize the fantasy is much more where Jane lives than where he lives: the warmth, the place we want to be the most, is in the Villanueva home with those three women. They have this spine of support that’s really unparalleled. Rafael’s life, for all its glamour and glitz, that’s where a lot of our crime stories start. You want to create something where this seems like the fantasy but really, where it’s all unpacked, she’s got the fantasy.

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Also, that’s where you find differences in what your expectation is. What can you afford? That’s where the practical comes in: are you going to public or private school? Are you going to live this life where people are taking care of you, or are you going to take care of yourself? I think sometimes it’s harder to achieve what you want to achieve when you have so much, because you don’t have that drive behind you. Jane has been taught to work hard from the get-go. That’s one really interesting place where we can find a lot of conflict.

CREDIT: Danny Feld/The CW
CREDIT: Danny Feld/The CW

It definitely seems like the class barrier with Rafael is a bigger deal than the race barrier with Michael, who is a white guy but comes from the same socioeconomic background as Jane. Is race an issue for Jane at all when she’s evaluating her compatibility with these two men?

It’s not. I think Michael has also grown up in more working class situation. I just feel like we’re at a point where, [race in relationships] just doesn’t matter. Or you want to believe that it doesn’t: you want to portray the most optimistic, that you fall in love with who you fall in love with. We’re looking at these specific characters and how they butt up against other people’s specific circumstances, and that’s where our conflict comes. There’s just a million different factors that go into making characters: religion, the geography of where they grew up, socioeconomic status. You hope by making them more and more specific, their problems can be authentic to who they are and not emblematic of a group.

So on Veep, the titular Veep is actually the President now. Does Jane have the same freedom from her title? Does she have to be Jane the Virgin for as long as the show is on the air?

Once she isn’t a virgin anymore, we’ll stamp Jane the Virgin onscreen and put a line through the word “virgin.”

For Jane, staying a virgin until marriage was an important choice. She had two moments where it was a challenge for her, one with Michael early on when she’s like, “I’m already pregnant, let’s do it!” And the other one with Rafael. And in those moments, it was important to show the challenge and it’s important to this character that she keeps a promise to her grandmother and herself. It feels to me authentic that she’d wait until marriage. And she won’t remain unmarried for the duration of the show.

Jane has this opportunity to achieve a version of her fantasy: the father of her baby proposes to her. And she turns him down; she actively chooses to be a single parent instead of go that traditional route. Was there any backlash to that?

We got backlash like, “Why wouldn’t she marry Rafael? He’s perfect!” But it wasn’t about the betterment of the child, I think, because we’ve shown a really successful version of single parenthood. I think viewers feel that as long as Jane has those people in her life, the baby will be okay. And for Jane, she wants to get married once. She really does. It was feeling too quick and too rushed, and she wanted to go in steps a little more. And probably we didn’t get as much backlash because she didn’t get pregnant with her boyfriend. It wasn’t Michael. It was Rafael, who she’d just met again. With Jane, we’ve established a character who is pretty thoughtful and deliberate and who is thoughtful and deliberate, even to a fault. She’s a planner.

Rafael also imagines himself to be someone who will parent so well and he tells Jane they’ll work everything out, that he’ll be awesome at it, and there’s definitely this sense of: “Will you be awesome at it, though?”

Exactly. He sees Jane as: if i’m with her, everything is going to be all right. For him, parenting is like, “I’ll be a great dad!” For Jane, it’s, “What does that LOOK like to you? Will I be the default parent because I’m the mom?” Those are the practical concerns she’s worried about.

Jane’s concerns and Rafael’s enthusiasm are very on-theme for their generation: millennial men are more likely to say they want kids than women are.

When you’re a working woman, you constantly get, “What is the work-life balance for you?” Which is a totally legitimate question because it’s really hard, but you never hear them ask a showrunner who is a man that question.

And when you’re a working woman, you constantly get, “What is the work-life balance for you?” Which is a totally legitimate question because it’s really hard, but you never hear them ask a showrunner who is a man that question. And they almost all have kids! It’s hard, is the answer. It’s hard for women and I hope it’s hard for men, too. I have a very progressive family, and my husband is home much more with the kids than I am, and he had to do that because this job took up so much time and we can’t both be working at this pace at the same moment. I feel lucky to have that, but I recognize that it’s not the norm. It’s a hard thing to wrap your mind around, and if you’re pregnant young, the default-to-the-mother aspect is a difficult thing to grapple with if you don’t fit into that box as a family. And I’m excited to explore that with Jane, because she is someone who was young and not planning to have a kid yet. So she’s struggling to maintain who she is, as a writer and as a woman and as a human being, besides being a mom. She doesn’t want to only be defined as that. That’s not her only identity.

I just read that one actress from the cast said she’d worked with more female directors in one season on Jane than in 10 years of her career prior.

Yes! Gosh, that’s so crazy and sad! I’ve been asked if I set out to hire more women, and I haven’t, but that’s who spoke to me. You sit down with people and you talk about the shows, and you’re hiring people who seem to get it and who you connect with. So male showrunners connect with men who remind them of their best friend from college, and I’m connecting with women who feel that way for me — and I don’t have the bias of, “Oh, but they’re women.”

It’s always who is in charge who gets hired, because you’re picking people who you relate to, and who you feel understand the material. We’ve had some fantastic male directors, but the majority have been women and I’m bringing most of them back for multiple episodes.

It’s like how Colin Trevorrow got hired to direct Jurassic World, because Brad Bird actually said, “There is this guy that reminds me of me.

This is the problem! If Shonda Rhimes is in power, think of the people who will remind her of a young her, versus that. But it’s almost unconscious: you’re not thinking, “I’m bringing up other women.” You want to be conscious of that, but it’s also about people who you relate to, people who have a connection to what you’re writing. I’m thrilled that we’ve had so many female directors and they’ve done an incredible job. That said, our pilot director was Brad Silberling, and he crushed it. I think it just depends on the person and their sensitivity to the material, their take on it. Probably, it’s easier on the surface for women and especially mothers to understand, so there’s an access point there. But we have male characters, too; you want directors and writers to access all the characters.

CREDIT: Aaron Epstein/The CW
CREDIT: Aaron Epstein/The CW

This brings me to the zoom-out question: how do you feel about the landscape for women on television generally? Is it an exceptionally good time for women on TV, or does it just seem that way because these excellent outliers — you, Amy Schumer, Broad City — get a lot of press?

Well, I think it is a great time. There’s a lot of complicated, interesting, different kinds women on TV, in front and behind the camera. You have Jenji Kohan and Jill Soloway and Shonda Rhimes and Lena Dunham and Jenni Konner, real auteurs. There’s just a lot of really specific voices that you can identify. It’s not just the same four male writers. These are people who have had a cultural impact as well, and they’re doing really interesting, difficult work.

One of my favorite shows is The Americans. I’m obsessed with it! And it’s run by two men, but it has these incredible stories about relationships and an incredible parenting story.

The Americans is just so good.

I never have time for anything, but I watch The Americans live. I live tweet it, too. It really has this delicate parenting dilemma in big, broad, high stakes terms. But at the center of it is: is your kid like you?

How old are your kids? Do they watch the show?

My kids are five and three-and-a-half. My daughter is obsessed with Gina. She wants shoes with Gina’s face on them. So I feel like my job as a mom is complete: she wants Gina, not Cinderella.

I was surprised to hear Jane’s friend assume Jane would be having a C-section because a natural birth would mean Jane was “losing her virginity” to a baby.

It felt a little icky: are we preserving this sacred hymen?

In the writers room, we kept going back and forth. And it’s like, is sex just this biological breaking of the hymen? It became this philosophical conversation for us. and her baby was breech and that would be the easy way to have a C-section. I decided I didn’t want that.

Why?

It felt a little icky: are we preserving this sacred hymen? She’s still a virgin. She’s never had sex. You have a baby; things go back afterwards. She can still have that experience. We’re dealing with these religious overtones — the virgin birth — and it felt too biological to me: the preservation of her vagina, honestly. I’ve had two C-sections and it’s major surgery. It’s hard to recover. My baby was breech; I had no choice. But I don’t think Jane would choose to have surgery if she didn’t need to, and a C-section is surgery. The other thing is, after it, you can’t really move. And we needed her on the move.

What’s coming up in season two?

This season is about the accidental pregnancy. The next season starts with Jane’s new journey: the woman who wasn’t prepared to be a mom and now she has a baby. It’s going to be a lot about how to balance your life as a mom and as a woman. And within that frame, we’ll have all our telenovela twists and turns. We’ve pretty much gone through the next 22 episodes and have a LOT of plot. People who are scared that we’re burning through plot too quickly, don’t worry.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.