Firing Blanks

By: José Manuel Simián

For those of us who grew up in a culture dominated by telenovelas, they were always a complex affair. You could love them, hate them, mock them, watch them with several degrees of detachment—sometimes all of it at the same time—but you could never escape or destroy them. By being overtly ridiculous, by sticking to their exaggerated language of scandalous pregnancies and impossible romances between social classes, they were resistant to anybody’s attacks. No matter how hard you punched them, the unassuming telenovelas would always bounce back, shake the dust off their shoulders and walk away with a whitened smile.

All of this doesn’t mean that you can do whatever you want with the form. Precisely because telenovelas already contain their own mockery, you need to know exactly where your loyalties lie—if you’re inside or outside of the genre; if you’re loving it, mocking it or both. Which is precisely the problem with the CW’s Jane the Virgin, an adaptation of Venezuela’s Juana la Virgen that seems to be trying to walk the line between paying tribute to and mocking telenovelas without choosing a side.

The basic elements are all there, starting with the funny-yet-outlandish plot of a virginal working-class girl getting accidentally inseminated with the unfrozen semen of the millionaire hotel owner who (you guessed it) she used to have a crush on. The soap elements are all hyped (Miami! Extreme Catholicism! Juanes songs! Flamenco handclaps!) and simultaneously mocked by the heavy-accented narrator—yet the whole thing is not that far away from one of those stupid skits by Conan. Which leads one to ask, does Jane the Virgin know what it’s doing (i.e., trying to strike gold with the hole left by Ugly Betty), or is it just cluelessly pandering to the sophisticated Latino audiences of 2014? It’s too early to tell, but the first episode seemed to err on the side of firing blanks.

Which is not to say that Jane the Virgin is awful. Gina Rodríguez, to begin with, shines in the lead role, giving Jane Villanueva a heart and depth that may carry the show well beyond its conceptual problems. But it remains to be seen if it will raise any bar for the portrayal of Latinos on TV or, more to the point, if by the end of the season it will be praying for a miracle of its own.

LOGISTICS: Jane the Virgin, watch the first episode here

José Manuel Simián is the Executive Editor of Manero. He used to be a lawyer and is probably listening to Bob Dylan as you read this.