Arts & Entertainment

Is America ready to fall in love with the telenovela?

Ivonne Coll, Gina Rodriguez, and Andrea Navedo in <em>Jane The Virgin</em> from The CW.
Ivonne Coll, Gina Rodriguez, and Andrea Navedo in Jane The Virgin from The CW.
Tyler Golden/The CW

Most reviews of the CW's "Jane The Virgin" mention that it was loosely adapted from a Venezuelan "telenovela" called "Juana La Virgen." Then they predictably misrepresent a "telenovela" as a Latin-American soap opera.

True, "telenovelas" and soap operas are daily shows targeted towards child-bearing women. They also tend to rely on amnesia and other questionable plots. But their formats and their roles in popular culture are completely different. To understand why "Jane The Virgin" feels so refreshing, you have to understand why "telenovelas" are unlike anything else on American TV.

Don't Call It A Soap Opera

To start, "telenovelas" are mini-series. Writers always have an ending in sight, and that ending is almost entirely predictable. The viewer's delight lies in watching the clueless characters' twists and turns before arriving at their pre-determined fate. If a "telenovela" is getting particularly good ratings, writers will add a few dozen episodes to prolong the series' eventual ending, which is usually an over-the-top wedding between the two leads. In contrast, "Days of Our Lives" has been on the air since 1965 and nobody knows what it's actually about.

The other big difference is airtime. Though daytime "telenovelas" exist, the big TV networks run their marqueé "telenovelas" on prime time, finishing just early enough that your mamá can monopolize the phone dissecting them with her friends. Some countries have even exploited the cultural obsession to address public health topics like domestic violence.

Lastly, "telenovelas" are much more popular than soap operas. Long-running soaps like Guiding Light are getting cancelled and Soap Net is no more. Nielsen estimates there are 2.9 million soap opera viewers, while more than 5.6 million people tune in to their nightly "telenovela" – and that's just in the U.S.

Are You A Ranchera Or Poor-Girl-Meets-Rich-Man?

To truly understand the spirit of "telenovelas" you have to understand the two types: the first being the "ranchera." The "ranchera" takes place on a large hacienda, and its pretty ingénue is usually a rich orphan. There are beautiful horses, a farmhand with cut abs and a Vincente Fernandez song in the opening credits. This is why Latinos love "Dallas."

The second type of "telenovela" is the working-class-girl-meets-a-rich-man story. In this case the winsome protagonist is pretty, but not too pretty, and the rich guy falls for her first. In fact, she's not even interested in him for his money, she's just a good-natured girl looking for true love. Think J-Lo in "Maid In Manhattan," which is probably running on TBS right now.

"Jane The Virgin" falls squarely in the second category. Though Jane doesn't actually meet Rafael (of course his name is Rafael) – rather, his sperm meets her uterus in a medical accident. That's right. Jane got artificially inseminated with a rich man's sperm. A rich man who happens to be her boss. By a doctor who happens to be that rich man's lesbian sister. Caught up?

There's more.

Rafael can't have any more babies because he had cancer and Jane was inseminated with his only sample (because why would they have multiple samples?). His gold-digger wife Olivia is cheating on him with his best friend who is mysteriously murdered in episode two. Jane's fiancé is the detective on the case. Her long-lost father is a "telenovela" star named "El Presidente."

Jane's life wasn't always this way. Before getting pregnant, Jane was an everywoman living with her flamboyant mother and puritanical grandmother in Miami. Now her life has turned into one the soap operas they watch together. So explains the all-seeing narrator who uses text-speak with an accent.

A Telenovela For The Modern Age

Despite its "telenovela" heart, "Jane the Virgin" is an unmistakably modern show. It's shot in HD, dialogue happens between characters via text bubble à la "House of Cards" and there are plenty of pop culture references.

Our heroine is modern as well: she's sweet but she always speaks her mind. As the narrator likes to remind us, she may be a virgin, but she's not a saint. When Jane mentions that she dreams of being a writer, we have a feeling that she is writing this story for herself.

"Jane the Virgin" satirizes "telenovelas," particularly with Jane's vain but loveable dad who always appears in a lavender military uniform. When he tells Jane's mom that he wants his daughter "to have the pleasure of knowing" him, the line is delivered with such sweetness that you want to give him a hug. The fact that even secondary characters are written and performed with such depth lies at the heart of the show's success.

But the writers also rely on "telenovela" tropes. There's a distinct classical guitar melody every time Rafael gets near Jane. There are hints that everyone around Jane is hiding secrets. There are fireflies and flower metaphors.

But "telenovelas" are literally television novels. The future-knowing narrator seems torn from the pages of a Gabriel García Marquéz book. Each episode is named after a chapter and ends with "to be continued..." in typewriter font.

A Telenovela Heart

Right, this show sounds completely over-the-top. But it's completely self-aware of its campiness. Every detail in the show is thought-out, particularly because it relates to at least two separate plot lines.

"Jane The Virgin" is a compelling show because it doesn't feel ridiculous while also being totally ridiculous. When you're completely immersed in its world, it doesn't feel as tedious as it should. The plot points are implausible, but the characters are heartfelt. That's the sign of a great "telenovela." It makes you think – against your better judgment – "If it could happen to Jane, it could happen to me."

It's clear that it's possible to capture the spirit of a "telenovela" for an American audience, but will that audience respond? It follows in the footsteps of "Ugly Betty," another show adapted from a Latin American soap by executive producer Ben Silverman. But while "Ugly Betty" shied away from its "telenovela" roots, "Jane The Virgin" crashes into them head-on.

But despite the DNA running through its veins, "Jane The Virgin" differs from a proper "telenovela" in key ways. It runs only once a week and it's already been renewed for a new season. If it were a true "telenovela," the story arc would be perfectly contained in just one.

Watching an addictive "telenovela" requires less patience than a sitcom but more than a Netflix binge. You just have to wait to tomorrow to see what happens next. But many "telenovelas" fall into a similar trap: the plot twists are so complicated that half of each episode is devoted to recapping the last episode. So you can actually watch every other episode and stay afloat. By chapter four, "Jane The Virgin" seems to be teetering towards this territory.

Perhaps the show's writers would be better off creating one addictive season and unlocking an episode every 24 hours. That way they could introduce Americans to binge watching television Latin-American style.

Next season they could focus on another miracle.

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