Essays · TV

How ‘Jane the Virgin’ Embraces Its Telenovela Legacy

Long lost twins, amnesia, love triangles, and acid attacks. Telenovelas have all the fun.
Jane the Virgin
The CW
By  · Published on April 22nd, 2019

This article is part of our One Perfect Archive project, a series of deep dives that explore the filmmaking craft behind some of our favorite shots. In this entry, we revisit Jane the Virgin.

Back in 2006, Ugly Betty broke barriers when it became the first successful American adaptation of a telenovela, and audiences were introduced to the over-the-top dramatics of the genre. Almost a decade later, with the premiere of Jane the Virgin, producers didn’t want to make just another telenovela adaptation. Instead, they aimed to honor the genre by directly incorporating all of the tropes and themes that make telenovelas great.

Inspired by the Venezuelan telenovela Juana Le Virgen, Jane the Virgin tells the story of Jane Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), an aspiring writer and devout Catholic who was accidentally artificially inseminated. Jane becomes pregnant with the child of Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni), owner of the hotel she works at, even though she is engaged to Michael (Brett Dier). All the drama that ensues afterward is the plot of the show.

Spoiler note: the following includes spoilers through season 5.

Calling a telenovela just a Spanish soap opera would be an understatement. Although both formats focus on wild plotlines with melodramatic acting, the telenovela is a thing all its own. It is much cheaper to produce than an American soap opera, with one report from The New York Times saying a 120-episode telenovela costs roughly the same amount to produce as one single episode of a primetime drama.

Traditionally, a telenovela focuses on the melodramatic love story of a naive girl. However, in recent years, the female protagonist has become more concerned with social issues while still maintaining the love story aspects. A staple of the genre is that the telenovela is meant to end. Rather than the American soaps that can go on for decades, telenovelas always plan to be finite from the beginning.

What makes telenovelas so unique are the genre’s classic tropes that emphasize the larger than life plots. Rather than incorporating one or two, Jane the Virgin makes sure to hit all of the twists. Long lost siblings? Look no further than season two when Anežka shows up claiming to be Petra’s (Yael Grobglas) identical twin who was sold by their mother, Madga (Priscilla Barnes). But of course, Anežka is working against Petra in the traditional evil twin fashion. Even Rafael gets reunited with his half-brother, Derek (Mat Vairo), only to be blackmailed by him.

Characters returning from the dead? The final scene in season four was revealing Michael was alive and well. Amnesia? Think about Michael, or now called Jason, in season five. Acid attack? Magda received the short end of this trope when she and Petra left the Czech Republic to escape her ex-boyfriend, Milos (Max Bird-Ridnell). Faking an injury? Magda again as she pretends to need a wheelchair.

The most notable trope, of course, is the endless supply of love triangles in the show. There’s the main one between Jane, her fiance Michael, and her baby daddy Rafael. Another one between Jane, Rafael, and Rafael’s wife Petra. Almost every character is in a love triangle at one point in the series, even Jane’s grandmother Alba (Ivonne Coll). A love story is the heart of a telenovela, and the drama of a love triangle is a perfect compliment to the format.

But the intention for using these tropes was never to mock the telenovela genre. Creator Jennie Snyder Urman makes it clear that she wants Jane the Virgin to be a “love letter to the telenovela” rather than satire. Essentially, this show is a hybrid of the classic telenovelas and American drama series. Urman establishes the tropes as appreciation through the meta-telenovela plotline where Jane’s father, Rogelio (Jamie Camil), is a telenovela star. His telenovela becomes an outlet for the show to explain the classic tropes when they are used in his show as well as the episode of Jane the Virgin.

In true telenovela fashion, Jane the Virgin will be ending as planned with exactly 100 episodes after season five. But the beauty of finite storytelling is letting the audience know they can say goodbye to their favorite characters after they complete their narrative arcs.

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