How much money does anyone on TV have? For the most part, we never know, and sometimes the disconnect between someone’s likely financial situation and their apparent creature comforts is so obvious it becomes part of the joke of the show: The Friends apartment, Carrie Bradshaw’s shoes. Today’s series that are ostensibly about real life manage to avoid ever discussing one of the most pressing concerns of real life, instead existing in a nebulous state where there’s plenty of money to go around but no one is ever, really, described as “rich.” As Wesley Morris put it in the New York Times, “on TV, no matter your actual job, almost everybody belongs to the same generic, vaguely upper-class class.”
This is the suburban bliss of Modern Family and Black-ish, the impressive Main Line homes of Pretty Little Liars. All the doctors on The Mindy Project go home to improbably swanky digs — an OB-GYN in her early thirties is not getting that gorgeous square-footage, sorry — and the Jennings family lives in a nice-enough house on a nice-enough street on The Americans, bankrolled by Mother Russia (and, one assumes, whatever they earn at that travel agency). How does Felix pay for that massive loft on Orphan Black? A policy we decided was too brutal for our military is employed all over TV: Don’t ask, don’t tell.
The bottom extreme, too, gets its due, usually for comedic value: In the cramped, behind-the-nail-salon offices on Better Call Saul, the shabby apartments Abbi and Ilana call home on Broad City, the asbestos-ridden dwelling where Kimmy Schmidt finds herself in New York, barely a step up from the bunker.
But what about that middle? The middle class seems to be fading from American life like the McFly family from Marty’s photograph, and fading from our screens along with it. Money, obviously, dictates a great deal about people’s lives: Only half of Americans feel financially secure, according to a 2015 Pew Survey; more than half said they feel “unprepared for a financial emergency,” and many reported that they spend more than they earn each month.
But there is one show that deals with money in a mostly-realistic way, that includes characters from different socioeconomic backgrounds, and shows the play-by-play of how these characters earn, spend, and save: Jane the Virgin.
The middle class seems to be fading from American life like the McFly family from Marty’s photograph, and fading from our screens along with it.
Jane exists in that slightly-heightened, telenovela-style plane, where the occasional flights of fancy are part of the fun; there are plenty of evil twins, secret identities, and ¡dios mio!-inducing plot twists in the big-hearted CW comedy. But that craziness is grounded, in part, by its characters’ real circumstances, which don’t get glossed over or conveniently tossed aside. When someone can’t afford to do something, they really can’t afford to do that something, unless they change their finances through hard work, good fortune, or — it is a telenovela, after all — some criminal activity.
The series is dedicated to obeying the logic of its own internal universe, which means reckoning with financial limitations, the costs and benefits of single parenthood, and navigating uncomfortable class differences within professional and romantic relationships.
Jane was raised by a single mother who made ends meet by teaching dance classes while pursuing an acting career. The beginning of the series saw Jane obtain a teaching degree while waiting tables at a swanky hotel, only to push herself to get a master’s degree to start a career as a romance novelist. Now, she works as a teaching assistant to subsidize the cost of her tuition.
Jane’s fiancé, Michael, was a police officer — he lost his job because of some murder-case-fumbling stuff; it’s a long story — and their modest, shared income is a source of both pride and anxiety, as they try to provide for a baby, buy a house, and plan a wedding. Jane has to take on more shifts as a waitress to cover for Michael’s lost income, which eats away at her time with her son, but of course is something she is only doing because she cares for her son, a lose-lose conundrum millions of working mothers experience but rarely see reflected on television.
The craziness is grounded, in part, by characters’ real circumstances, which don’t get glossed over or conveniently tossed aside.
Meanwhile, Jane’s baby daddy, Rafael, is do-a-double-take wealthy. The way he thinks about money — careless when he wants to be, vigilant when the words “trust fund” work their way into the conversation — comes up in a significant share of his conversations with Jane, both about their compatibility and their decisions as parents. They realize they have different understandings for concepts whose definitions they thought were clear, like “providing for a family.” Though Jane recovers from one setback after another, her path to her professional goal is stalled, almost always, by the need to scrape together more money.
Jane’s financial limitations give her an aura of virtue and (delightful as she is) a sense of superiority that is only half-earned, as Petra is all too quick to notice. Petra is the mother of Rafael’s other children, twin baby girls. Born into poverty in the Czech Republic, she hustled her way into the one percent and enjoys the luxuries her new life affords her; she has internalized the belief that the more expensive option will always be better than the less expensive option.
Jane integrates money and finances into the storyline in a way that is authentic to the characters’ life situations, as a framework for how these characters make decisions and why they have the values that they do. It almost makes the constant — and I really do mean constant — product placement for Target inoffensive; at least it seems plausible that Target is the type of place Jane, her mom, and her abuela would want to shop. (Then again, if that sponsorship deal is what it takes to keep a show this sweet on the air, I’ll take it.)
As showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman told ThinkProgress at the end of Jane’s first season, class differences are built into the DNA of the show. The “rich guy/poor girl” pairing of Rafael and Jane is a telenovela trope. “We’re debunking fantasies in a lot of ways,” she said. “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.”
“That’s where you find differences in what your expectation is,” Urman went on. “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.”
The dynamic goes up to Jane’s father who, as fate would have it, is telenovela star Rogelio De La Vega, a celebrity with buckets of money (well, compared to Jane and her mom, anyway). When Jane’s dream of getting married in the home in which she grew up gets shattered — technically, flooded — Rogelio swoops in to have a set built that looks identical to the Villanueva home. It’s a bit of a fantasy touch, but even that financial decision has consequences, with Rogelio forced to work with his show’s writers to build scenes around the totally mundane living room set he insisted they construct.
And when he, too, wound up with money troubles, his daughter and his ex had to help him go on a budget. It wasn’t that hard to see what he needed to cut. He was spending $10,000 on “smile maintenance.”