Jane The Virgin is the best new show on TV.
This could sound like very, very faint praise — better than the already-canceled Manhattan Love Story? You don’t say! — but in a hot mess of comedies that aren’t funny and dramas that take themselves far too seriously, Jane is a refreshing, clever delight. (Think about it: you know television is seriously lacking when the hottest show of the season is a podcast.) It seems improbable that a show with “virgin” in the title could be sexy, or that one of the smartest hours going is on The CW, or that a series with “girl gets accidentally artificially inseminated and still goes through with her pregnancy” as its premise could be anything but bonkers. But Jane the Virgin does it all, does it well, and does it while having more fun than all the dramas too busy shilling themselves as “prestige TV” to remember the first rule of entertainment: be entertaining.
Jane the Virgin is to telenovelas what The Mindy Project is to romantic comedies: a gently-mocking but mostly-adoring twist on the genre. The telenovela DNA gives the show space for Scandal-style plot twists — she’s pregnant! They’re related! She’s cheating! He’s leading a double life! — while the writing, led by showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman, keeps all the characters recognizably human: flawed, passionate and real. It’s the writing that allows the show to get away with might be the biggest twist of all: the series is ostensibly about the sex life (or lack thereof) of its protagonist, but is really centered around the relationships between Jane and the other women in her family. It’s all very Rory-Lorelai-Emily, which makes sense; Urman was a writer for Gilmore Girls’ final season. I spoke with Urman about diversity on television, telenovela tropes, and why Jane isn’t “a sex-shaming show.”
Talk me through how you became involved in this show. How much liberty could you take with the original property?
It’s based on a Venezuelan telenovela [and when] I got the logline, I thought, “This is too crazy. I can’t do this.” And obviously, it’s such an outrageous logline. I thought about it over the weekend and it just started to emerge as a little bit of a fairy tale, fable quality. And as I started to think about the character and why she would make a choice — in the original, she was a 17 year old virgin, and ours is 23, so that’s a very different character — I thought about why she was making that choice, which led me to think about her mom, and it got into the multigenerational aspect. It’s about fate and what little things go wrong that lead you to where you end up. [I knew it could work] if I could make people buy into the initial premise, which is, obviously a huge mistake that sends all these people off on different trajectories in their life.
In addition to making it a little bit easier to believe the premise — the idea that a 23 year old would keep this accidental baby is marginally more believeable than that a 17 year old would — aging Jane up also frees you from sending her to high school. High school is such a weird, sometimes-limiting place for a show; you have to send them to class for no reason, and as a viewer, you get the sense no one knows what to do with the kids when they graduate, so they stay vaguely sophomores forever.
They told me the CW was looking not to only do high school. They’ve moved into a more mature programming. So they told me right away that it was going to be an older girl. And when you’re adapting something, if you’re not doing anything different from the original, than what’s the point? And I didn’t want to be writing a show where a high school virgin is such an unusual thing. I have a daughter. So that also goes into the math of it. I don’t want this to be a show that is a comment on anything. The fact that she’s a virgin is one of a hundred things that make this character who she is. That was the most important thing to me, we weren’t going to make this virgin and all of a sudden, that’s what her life is defined by. And it’s not only religious; it has religious tones to it, but it also has generational tones, and her family experience and the particulars of her family. I was just more interested in that.
For a show with the word “virgin” in the title, Jane the Virgin is one of the most sex-positive programs I’ve seen in a long, long time.
I think that goes to: she’s not a virgin because sex is bad. She’s a virgin because of all of these specific things in her life that have led to that decision. That was always important to me. When Gina [Rodriguez] came in to audition, it was so undeniable, she didn’t make Jane into some other, where she walked this distance. You still understand her. She’s a virgin but she’s not a prude. She has desires. It’s not an easy thing. She wants to have sex, but she’s made this one choice and she’s determined to keep it, and I think she sees the finish line so close now, and she doesn’t want to make a rash decision. But other people have sex, and she doesn’t judge other people for having sex. All of that is important to me. It’s not a sex-shaming show.
How do you decide what elements of telenovela to incorporate into Jane?
The biggest challenge, I think for us and for our show, I want to be able to have all of the fun of telenovelas. There’s a reason they’re such popular shows: they’re so dramatic, they’re funny, they’re twisted. But for our show, we can only go on those flights if we feel that the characters are grounded and are behaving in a way that we recognize, like if you were accidentally inseminated! You’d be all, “What the fuck? Holy shit!”
Yes! That would about sum it up. Those exact words.
The balance works if we allow the telenovela to take over in the plotting, but the emotional reality stays really grounded and appropriate.
One of the most signature telenovela tropes you’re using is this narrator. Voiceovers have, I think since Grey’s Anatomy, been creeping back into shows, and more often than not I find them to be sort of condescending and annoying: like the show doesn’t trust me to figure out what the theme of the episode is, or why I’m supposed to care. Or that the show doesn’t trust itself to be clear about its intentions. But the narrator here is one, actually really helpful and two, just very vibrant and passionate and self-aware.
The narrator is really the key for me to kind of, unlocking the pilot. I wanted to be able to nod to the genre, pay homage to the genre. It takes the pressure off the characters to do that; they can stay grounded and rooted in their lives. And one of the decisions I made was that the family in the show would love telenovelas. And there is a bigger connection that I have in the back of my mind to the narrator and the narrative. I think the narrator gives us allowance to understand where the comedy is coming and where the drama is coming. It helps guide the audience experience of the show. Without that and the typing, it could go too earnest and outlandish. The tone of the show switches really wildly, and he kind of helps the audience make those transitions. And Anthony Mendez, who does the voiceovers, I must have listened to hundreds, and his was the one I couldn’t get out of my head. I like giving the narrator a point of view. He’s not dispassionate. He’s not entirely objective.
Tell me more about figuring out the tone of the show. I would think the tone for a show like this — in which outlandish plot twists happen to normal people — is the trickiest thing to land.
“She’s not a virgin because sex is bad. She’s a virgin because of all of these specific things in her life that have led to that decision. It’s not a sex-shaming show.”
There were a bunch of things I was thinking about with the tone I wanted to it. I knew that if it didn’t hit the right place, it could be a mess. Early on, I was watching a lot of Almodóvar movies, [where] if things can go wrong, they will. My first inspiration in the fairy tale version of the world was Amélie. And then really, the shows that I really was thinking about a lot, obviously there was an Ugly Betty component, and I watched that first season. It was a great pilot, and it really had its own aesthetic. I really admired the way it had a sense of color and specificity in every frame. It became a little bit more stylized. That was part of it, and really Gilmore Girls was my deepest inspiration, because of that mother-daughter-grandmother dynamic, that matriarchy in the center. And as I started to think about Jane, and how her mom would have had her young and unmarried, and that’s part of the reason she’s making her choices, it’s impossible not to think about Gilmore Girls, because that was the central premise. And that was a show I got to write for at the end. I really love mother-daughter relationships.
I was so excited to see that the grandmother wasn’t just this figure from Jane’s past crumpling the flower in her hand; that she is an active part of Jane’s life and of Jane’s mother’s life. There really aren’t that many realistic depictions of those familial interactions on TV.
That to me is the linchpin. That’s the linchpin of the show. And expanding out to bring in her father, who is going to be a part of her life. These three women who have raised each other, and who are definitely the product of generational shifts, of cultural shifts, I thought that would be an interesting place to look at how language goes through families in second and third generation families, and the way religion goes through. I thought it would be a really interesting way to have a nice web of different opinions, so not all your characters think and feel the same way. And I’m a woman, but I’m not Latin American; am I the person to write this story? The more I thought about it, I think, I write men all day every day, and that’s more foreign to me than a 23 year old, ambitious, type-A girl who has mother issues. It’s all about finding your point of entry. I love writing women, I really do.
Do you love writing women because you’re a woman, or is there something else to what those characters are capable of doing and feeling that draws you in?
I think a lot has to do with point of view and experience and that you want to write experiences that you’ve had. Obviously, I’ve never been accidentally inseminated, but I have a complicated relationship with my mom. You look for things you can access. The trick is to have the big plot points but the small emotional moves that the audience can follow along with them. And I think there’s less women [on television] because there are less women creators. You write yourself a lot. You write your own experience, and gender is a huge one. Just the nuances of life as a woman and life as a man are very different. That’s usually where I enter characters from. I just like writing complicated women.
Have you ever experienced sexism in the industry? Even just the sense of, “Wow, I am the only woman in this writers room”?
Luckily, I have not. I’ve had really strong, female-driven rooms. My first job, Joanna Johnson ran, and she’s just incredible and amazing and really was amazing. I worked on Gilmore Girls, when David Rosenthal was running it but it obviously was a very strong female voice that was guiding that show. So those are the things I gravitate towards anyway. I’ve worked for a lot of women. My staffs are usually a little more female than male.
What does the Jane writers room look like?Jane’s writers room is four women and, right now, we have three men, and our writers assistant is a woman too. So five-to-three, and mostly female directors. The people I respond to, and the people I feel like are getting the character, is really what we look for. We’ve had great male directors, too. We have a lot of great men who have worked on it, but the first 13 [directors], I would say, is maybe eight women and four men.
Going back to this multigenerational aspect of the show, can you talk about how you decide when characters speak Spanish and when they speak English?
“Having a baby doesn’t stop you from being a romantic person or a sexual person or from hitting your goals.”
As I was getting into this and talking to people, that was the biggest thing in intergenerational households: usually the person who immigrated still speaks in their native tongue. The kids understand Spanish but they speak English back. With Alba, with our grandmother, it’s a little bit of stubbornness. It’s always more comfortable to speak in the language you were born in. [To speak another language], you have to think harder. You can’t express yourself as clearly. That was an early-on decision that we made. The more people I’ve talked to, the more they’ve said that feels nice and representational.
As a viewer, it’s also really distracting when two people who don’t speak English as their first language are alone in a room and speak English with accents, as if they wouldn’t just talk to each other in their native tongue.
It takes you out of it. And you’ll see, we have this twist where you learn Petra is Czech. She speaks in English with her mother, but it’s a specific choice because they’re putting their past behind them. But I totally agree. It just gives a little bit more distance from the audience. And we have a show with subtitles and text on screen. There’s a lot of reading. I think it gives us authenticity, I think it makes the family more authentic, and it’s different.
Are there any telenovela tropes that you think just wouldn’t work in the world of Jane? Or is nothing really off-limits, even evil twins?
I like them tweaked. I like it all. There’s always the basic premise of telenovelas — it’s sort of a deceiving word, because it can be a sitcom, it can be more of a dramedy or a straight drama; it’s just something that is on every night and is serialized — but there’s always a bit of a class thing, a poor girl and a rich guy or vice versa, and there’s always those tensions working. And there’s usually some kind of murder that gives you the omigosh element. And all of the things that you think about with telenovelas: evil twins and strange connections and everybody’s got pasts that are intertwined, that works beautifully for our show. It helps our tone, the more of those things we can do. We have to really carefully plot our arc, so that all of these details will pay off and not just be random. You want to respect and reward the audience; they remember details. Making sure it’s meticulously plotted. And we do that at the beginning so we know where we’re going and can make all these smaller emotional stories work, too.
Do you have any television-writing pet peeves?
Clunky exposition is the biggest thing. Luckily, we have our narrator and our typing, so that allows us to get exposition out in a more interesting way. I hate, “As you know, blah blah blah.” And I think there are certain things that you just feel like, when you start to hear a story pitched to you, if you know where it’s going to end by the second beat, it’s not going to work. Those are my two main things. And it just can’t be something that I feel like could be on any show. It has to have a Jane specificity, a combination of real heart, emotion and wacky stylings of telenovela. And if it hits those points, it works. If it’s wacky for the sake of wacky, it’s not our show. And that’s another big pet peeve: I never want to sell out the characters for the plot. I might not agree with what they do but I have to understand why they do this. I have to really be able to believe it.
The worst thing is when you see television siblings talk to each other, and one of them is like, “Listen, little brother, we have to talk.” Which siblings never say. And then the other is all, “You know that mom and dad haven’t been the same since the divorce.” As if they would ever need to explain that backstory to each other!
“I’m a woman, but I’m not Latin American; am I the person to write this story?”
You have to approach characters like they have history and they have shorthand, and they talk with that shorthand. And we get to use our typing to say things like, “she’s lying!” But yeah, that’s the biggest thing. “Don’t you remember the divorce?” You have to assume that all conversations are shaded by the divorce. And also, we understand a lot by looks. I’ve got these great actors, so I’ll write a line and see they’ve just done it with their expression and we don’t need it. Editing is a big step in our process.
How do you feel about the response the show has gotten? I was a bit amazed to see such critical acclaim, just because you’d expect a certain amount of brand snobbery about a show that’s on The CW and isn’t announcing itself as the hot new “prestige drama” kind of thing.
It’s amazing. Because you just as hard on a show that’s not received well as you do on one that is. You work seven days a week, close to 20 hours a day. So I’m up late reading and writing and I read people’s reviews and responses to it, and it’s affirming. You feel like people are appreciating what you’re doing. And I find the social media aspect, which I wasn’t really plugged into before this show, so interesting. It’s just a way to connect with your audience.
The most moving tweets to me are people who say, “Oh my god, this is just like my family!” I think I underestimated the response of, “It’s so nice to see someone who looks like me, who I can relate to.” Because I’m white, so it’s been my default on TV, when I grew up. I didn’t realize until this show how meaningful it is to see yourself on TV, not marginalized or stereotyped, not a token. That’s been really overwhelming and gratifying to me. And having critics like it, you can say all day long that you don’t care, but it matters so much! You feel like you’ve achieved what you set out to achieve. And all day long, you’re just working. People aren’t telling you all day long that this is awesome. You’re just dealing with the day-to-day.
I was also thinking about how strange it is to see someone get pregnant on a TV show and not be concerned, as a viewer, that this is where the fun, exciting part of the show ends. It’s always like, a girl gets pregnant and you basically are waiting for the convenient car crash or tumble down the stairs where she loses the baby or whatever because they don’t know what to do with her once she’s a mother. Or, the entire time she’s pregnant, she’s doing this incredibly stupid things, putting the remote control in the microwave and whatnot, because of “pregnancy brain.” Sometimes it feels like people who write that stuff have either never been pregnant or never known a single pregnant person in their life.
Yes! There’s other stuff going on in your life, and your life doesn’t stop when you have a kid. People say to me, “What happens when she has a baby?” And to me, so many things happen when she has the baby, because having a baby challenges your sense of self. That happened to me: I’m a mom, I love my kids, but not staying home with them at first, [spending all day] waiting for them to roll over, I wanted to get back to my writing. And not that I didn’t love that time and whatever, but I think there are interesting challenges. And Jane’s mother has that of, “I had this kid at 16 and my life took a sharp left turn.” And Jane is going to have those conflicts. She’s not going to have a baby on her hip in every scene. She’s going to have to deal with the practicalities of what it means, but she’s not giving up on her goals. She’ll have real parenting moments, the same way she’s having real pregnancy moments, but it doesn’t stop the clock. That surprises me: “What happens when she has the baby?” It’s this one thing that happens. You have to restructure how to do things well, but it doesn’t stop your life, it doesn’t stop you from being a romantic person or a sexual person or from hitting your goals. It’s going to bring a new and exciting and grounded and relatable.
Jane doesn’t become this completely different person.
Exactly! You’re still yourself. Being pregnant is a weird thing. I had a weird thing when I was pregnant that, the minute I had the baby — and I was so ready to not be pregnant — I felt so lonely. Because I felt like the baby and I had my own individual reality, and then the baby was out there, [not just mine anymore]. It was a very weird thing, and it’s something I haven’t seen on TV. I’m interested in the real nuances of that stuff. But of course, we have to keep the world fun and lively and all of that. We can do small little moments and do big, juicy, hopefully watercooler moments, too.