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The Anti-Prestige Showrunner

On set with Jane the Virgin creator Jennie Snyder Urman, who makes great TV by ignoring all the trends.

Photo: Nathaniel Wood
Photo: Nathaniel Wood

It’s a few days into filming the first episode of Jane the Virgin’s final season, and the show is on location at a cemetery in Los Angeles’s Morningside Park. Extras wander the grounds in elaborate Day of the Dead makeup. In the distance, striding briskly among the palm trees and headstones, is Jane’s showrunner, Jennie Snyder Urman, absorbed in a thick packet of paper. She’s approving the final script for the season’s second episode, occasionally popping over to weigh in on the minutiae of the set. How much greenery should we see in the bouquet? How long should a young actress pause before turning her head? The boxes for that character’s apartment look good, she scribbles on a package of images. Maybe we should also see a rolling suitcase? 

But Urman still has to get through this script, which she absolutely cannot do while sitting still. In the three days I spend with her, Urman rarely sits down for more than a minute or two and almost never on a chair. She sits on a rolling costume rack outside the studio to listen to a development call. She perches on a tiny kid’s chair inside the set of Jane’s son’s bedroom. When she reads and writes at home, often at night, she walks loops around her neighborhood. (If it’s too dark to see, she does it while wearing a headlamp.) But her most characteristic pose is a deep, ground-grazing squat, a way to pause without truly stopping, which she does most frequently when she’s watching a scene on the monitors. Jane the Virgin is a series that moves quickly, the pace having to do with turn-on-a-dime emotional beats, relentlessly efficient scene changes, rapid-fire dialogue, and layers of surprise and self-referentiality. The show must have a rhythm, something Urman describes as “a math,” and she can’t hear it as well if she’s not also moving.

The premise of Jane sounds (and is) absurd. Jane Gloriana Villanueva (Gina Rodriguez), 23, has a fiancé she loves, Michael (Brett Dier), a job as a waitress at a hotel, and dreams of being a romance novelist. She’s also sworn to remain a virgin until marriage, both a promise she made to her religious grandmother and a way to guard herself against her mother’s mistake: teenage pregnancy. But Jane the Virgin is a soap opera, a telenovela, so from the first moment of the story, Jane’s careful life is dramatically, preposterously demolished. Jane’s OB/GYN accidentally inseminates her during a checkup. Jane becomes a pregnant virgin, and she realizes that the father of her baby, Rafael (Justin Baldoni), owns the hotel where she works. At the same time, the father she never knew resurfaces and happens to now be a famous telenovela star. Much of the series is defined by a love triangle between Jane and safe, practical Michael and passionate, risky Rafael. There are additional complications — curlicues of plot that turn the whole premise into a tangle of overlapping allegiances and crossed motives — and the pace only accelerates from there.

The slate of current prestige television is large and suffocatingly uniform: dark, often humorless crime-centric shows about anti-heroic men and women. In that context, Jane the Virgin is anti-prestige in every way, a show about admirable women full of brilliant color, bone-rattling twists, and goofy, sly in-jokes that regularly dives into unabashed emotional sincerity. While it’s been a critical success since it premiered in 2014, it’s also struggled against the perception that its soapier, more melodramatic elements turn the whole thing into something merely lightweight or, worse, a guilty pleasure. But Urman is not interested in what she calls “the signifiers of deep, important television,” the kind of TV where “you’re going to talk really slow, and there’s going to be a lot of pauses, a lot of men. And they’re going to get really upset a lot.” On Jane, silliness can be a demonstration of intelligence rather than a negation of it, and the proud ownership of telenovela tropes is a way to claim the importance of women’s stories.

Though it’s never been a runaway ratings success, for the CW, a show like Jane, with its intensely devoted fans and strong vein of critical support, can still constitute a brand-defining hit. Urman herself has been crucial in building internal backing for her series, so much so that her network pitches for each season of Jane have become moderately famous. Gina Rodriguez describes them to me as hourlong events. “[Urman’s] performing the whole fucking thing,” she says. “It’s incredible. She’s seated, but it’s a table of 25 to 30 people that are just staring at her. And I’m sitting next to her, like, What the fuck? I always cry, because I’m super-invested. And then Jennie will be like, ‘And then, bang! They die!’ And I’m like, Nooo!” Several people tell me that the way she delivers the entire pitch (a nearly 40-page document), with such performative enthusiasm for every detail of the story, has been crucial in building network support for the show.

Urman is not usually on the Jane set — most of her time is spent writing and editing — but she’s always there for the beginning and end of the season. She’s gotten more efficient at running the show, but any time saved is immediately eaten up by all of her other responsibilities. She has at least six other projects in development. Today, her production partner is on set to talk through some mechanics for a sitcom idea. She takes a phone call about her upcoming project, the CW’s anticipated reboot of Charmed, while sitting on the grass next to one of the cemetery’s marble memorial stones. Urman is not the sole creative voice behind Charmed, so if she feels like the color should be more red and someone else thinks blue, the color should lean toward blue. But Jane is her show, and this is its fifth and final season. On Jane, Urman says, “I care about everything.”

On a show this fast-moving and multilayered, “everything” is a huge task. One of Jane’s writers, Deirdre Shaw, said when she was hired, she felt like she was entering Willy Wonka’s factory. When she got the chance to see inside, she found that most of that magic is powered by Jennie Snyder Urman.

Urman, left, and Gina Rodriguez. Photo: Jesse Giddings/Courtesy of The CW

When Urman came across the idea for Jane the Virgin, she had doubts. The show is based on a Venezuelan telenovela that the CW purchased to potentially adapt, and Urman knew an American version should be rooted in Latinx cultures. But she’s white, and she worried about her characters slipping into stereotypes and whether she could do justice to the idea of a telenovela for an American audience. “And then I went for a walk,” she recalls, perched on the sofa of a trailer during a break for lunch, “and a lot of the relationships lined up in my head.” By the end of the walk, she thought, I have to write this because it’s a story about mothers and daughters. “I am not a young Latina, but I can relate to being hardworking, driven, [and] having a complicated relationship with your mom.” From that walk, the idea of Jane emerged for Urman as “this fairy tale,” a story about “the relationship between the girl who loves telenovelas and her life turning into one.”

She knew she’d need to hire a writers’ room that could fill in the gaps in her own experience. (Jane’s writing staff is now made up of ten women and three men; four of them are Latinx, and one of Urman’s first hires was Carolina Rivera, who’s also written for Spanish-language telenovelas like Amor Cautivo.) As long as she could make Jane “very, very, very specific,” Urman says, she could keep her from becoming a stereotype. When I ask Rodriguez about the tension of having a white showrunner on a show about Latinx characters, she tells me about Urman’s focus on bringing other voices into the writers room and her constant awareness of her place in the world. “Not to mention, listen,” Rodriguez continues, “you can’t deny talent! You can’t argue it. … [The pilot] was a good piece of art, and [Jane] continued to be a good piece of art.”

Jane was also someone Urman could relate to, someone who’s “caught between wanting to live out dreams but also wanting to be practical.”

Urman grew up in Westchester, NY, where her father is a clothing manufacturer and her mother was an English teacher who later started a catering business. She became a TV writer almost by chance, after her college roommate, Victoria Webster, suggested the idea. Together they spent a month churning out scripts for every kind of show they could think of — Law & Order, Sex and the City, Everybody Loves Raymond. They decided to move to L.A. after the specs got them a few meetings with managers and agents. It was a difficult transition. Urman broke up with her boyfriend, a firefighter, a few days before the move; she arrived in L.A. on September 10, 2001, and the following day he died in 9/11. Urman spent the next several months waitressing, trying “not to cry the whole time” and struggling to pull it together for pitch meetings. “For that first half-year, I was a shell of a person,” she says. Eventually, she landed a position writing for Hope & Faith, an ABC sitcom starring Kelly Ripa and Faith Ford.

She went on to write for 90210, Lipstick Jungle, and Gilmore Girls, among other series, before selling her own show to the CW, a medical dramedy called Emily Owens, M.D. Urman loved the show, but her impetus for making it was practical. She wanted something she knew she could sell. When Emily Owens was canceled after its first season, Urman’s father told her, “I liked it, but maybe you’ll write something a little more original next time.” She was annoyed, but the comment sat with her, and she decided she couldn’t write the next thing “just to get on the air.” So despite her reticence about writing a telenovela, and the fact that Jane the Virgin looks like nothing else on TV, that was what Urman decided to make.

The story about Urman’s father pushing her to write something original doesn’t feel out of place with kinds of stories she likes to tell on Jane. She’s immensely proud of her parents. On the second day I visit the set, the first thing she does is show me a link to a New York Times piece with a glowing write-up of her mother’s catering business. But Jane is a show about loving relationships between mothers and daughters that are also complicated, and Urman’s conscious of how much of her identity was informed by, and formed in opposition to, her mother. For one, she refused to learn how to cook. This seems like a small thing, but Urman is a caterer’s daughter who doesn’t just “not cook” in the way that people who can only make a few meals “can’t cook.” Her refusal to learn was a conscious decision, something tied up with her adolescent relationship with her mother, which, like all adolescent relationships with one’s mother, was “fraught.” Urman’s now married, and has an 8-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter. Being a mother has deepened her fascination with that relationship, with the way your mother is “your first identification,” someone who “teaches you how to be in the world.”

It’s part of why mother-daughter relationships are at the heart of Jane the Virgin, and why she’s more interested in shows about families than about “people brandishing guns.” “I’m very conscious of what I want to put out into the world and what I want to add to,” she says. “I think about my kids watching, a lot.” Jane can love Xiomara, and respect her, and not want to be her, and worry about becoming her, and want her approval, and want to be like her, and want to not be like her, all at the same time. In the DNA of Jane the Virgin, there is room for all of it.

Bits of Jane’s DNA come from the Venezuelan telenovela it’s based on, Juana la Virgen, and legendary telenovelas like Cuna de Lobos and the original Ugly Betty. It has a defining love triangle, something that’s not so far from the Noel/Ben conundrum of Felicity (also a series about a young woman at a defining moment of her young adulthood). It’s obsessed with silly, navel-gazing jokes within jokes and has a farcical sense of humor that feels related to 30 Rock but also to Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century metafictional opus The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, one of Urman’s favorite books, which she discovered as an English major at Princeton.

At its core, Jane may be closest to Gilmore Girls, a show Urman credits with giving her the confidence to write about mothers and daughters. The two shows share a central grandmother-mother-daughter triad, and they walk the line between absurdism and sincerity. And like Gilmore, the world Jane inhabits is simultaneously a semi-surreal fantasy and a more grounded reality than TV often depicts. Jane and her family are working-class. Her abuela Alba’s home is small and unassuming. Her family struggles with the ongoing stress of Alba’s uncertain immigration status. Unbelievable things happen at every turn, but the hallmark of Jane the Virgin is the way its characters respond to those events realistically. Urman’s former boss on Gilmore Girls, David Rosenthal, is now a member of the Jane writers room. I ask him if it’s at all weird that he now works for Urman when their roles were previously reversed. “Nah,” he says. “That was always going to happen. That was just destiny. If I was going to keep working with her, I was going to end up having to work for her.” Rosenthal’s not surprised that Jane is the show that it is. “But I’m fucking impressed, you know?”

One of the driving questions of Jane is also one that immediately distinguishes it from the majority of “serious” TV. “When Jane started,” Urman says, “I was really, actively thinking, Can a protagonist be an interesting person if they’re also a really good person? Can their life be complicated if they’re not doing all these terrible things and forced into these extreme situations?” Jane is forced into extreme situations, but her dilemmas come from trying to be a good person in the middle of them. And from the beginning, Urman says, her “biggest watershed moment” about how to navigate from the show’s pilot to its second episode was in realizing she needed to treat Jane’s accidental pregnancy “like the trauma that it was.”

Balancing the show’s silliness with its serious side is one of the trickiest things Urman does. Because Jane uses so many postproduction storytelling elements (things like freezing a shot and adding typed-on captions or combining filmed footage with onscreen graphics), much of the show’s storytelling gets fine-tuned during the editing process. When Urman describes what editing feels like, she’s almost rhapsodic: When you edit a TV show, she says, “you shape it exactly to the song you have in your head.”

Gregg Featherman, one of Jane’s editors, tells me about cutting together a long dancing scene during his first day working for the show: “Jennie looked at the scene and said, ‘Well, you know, it’s really good, but now I only want the last three or four lines, and I want them to not be dancing.’ I wanted to turn around and go, ‘Lady, are you nuts?’ ” But Featherman did it, piecing together bits of footage from close-ups and from after the director had called “Cut.” “There’s a ratio,” Featherman tells me. “There’s what’s in Jennie’s head versus what’s on the screen. And our job in the cutting room is to get it as close as possible to what’s in Jennie’s head.” I ask him if that gets at least a little infuriating. “It has rarely infuriated me, I have to be honest with you,” he says. “I don’t know how to explain it, except, more than usual, I’m at Jennie’s service. I’m here to try to get what she wants to see. For some people, they’d hate this job, but I love working with her.”

The scene Featherman cut together on his first day.

Her vision of the series is clear and idiosyncratic, but Urman’s not interested in an image of herself as a one-man band. She’s delighted by good ideas, regardless of where they come from. She and everyone I talked to were quick to clarify that the show is just as much the product of Rodriguez’s talent as it is Urman’s; writers and cast members tend to refer to them in the same breath as “Jennie and Gina.” Rodriguez is directing the season-five premiere while also starring in it. Maybe half a dozen times, I watch Urman walk quickly over to the stage to give a note only to immediately turn back because Rodriguez is already giving the exact same note. When Rodriguez glances up from a monitor to ask Urman a question, she gets hardly three words out before Urman’s nodding, Yes, yes, yes. “Love, love, love,” Rodriguez echoes aloud, before dashing back to the stage. They’re in lockstep, and if it’s overwhelming to watch Urman juggle a dozen tasks at the same time, it’s maybe even more impressive to watch Rodriguez perform a scene full of complicated, finely tuned emotional cues, say “Cut,” dash back to the playback area to give specific instructions to the DP, give three encouraging directions to fellow castmates, and then fly back to the stage for another take. Urman pauses often to watch Rodriguez work. “It’s crazy that she can do that,” she whispers.

Their partnership forms the foundation of Jane, but it’s also extended beyond their work on the show. In the years since Jane began, Rodriguez has begun to develop a more high-profile movie career. And she has sought Urman’s help in choosing which outside projects to take on. She trusts her so much, in fact, that Urman “reads every single one of the movies that I do every summer.” And when Rodriguez has concerns about projects she’s signed on to, “[Urman] has helped fix the arcs of my characters; she has helped give notes to the writing of those scripts. She has watched cuts of those movies and given notes.” Of one recent film in particular, which Rodriguez won’t name, she says Urman “helped reconstruct the entire thing and made it substantially stronger … Really, she did it just under the radar, for me. With me, so that I could give my personal notes as though they were my own voice.” Urman did it, Rodriguez continues, “in the midst of all her chaos … without wanting anything in exchange, just my happiness and success. She is like family. She is like blood.” At this point in the conversation, Rodriguez, who’s in full makeup on her way to a premiere, stops herself briefly because she fears she’ll start crying.

Even outside their tightly knit partnership, the showrunner seems too friendly to fit inside the auteur model of the prickly, difficult visionary. The description I hear of Urman, again and again, is that she cares very much about the people who work on her show, and is uncannily good at casting and hiring people who contribute to a collaborative, supportive working environment. Rosenthal says she “specifically hired very sensitive, thoughtful people,” especially in comparison with comedy rooms he’s come from, where people tend to be “loud and aggressive.” “She has an incredible sense for people,” is how Yael Grobglas, who plays Rafael’s ex-wife Petra Solano, explains it, before calling Urman a “genius magician unicorn.” Brett Dier is more blunt: “Jennie did a good job at hiring non-assholes.” If Jane the Virgin is a show about the radical premise that good people can also be interesting, Urman may be a case study in the unusual idea that powerful, creative people can also be parents, caring colleagues, and empathetic leaders.

It’s 8:15 p.m., and Urman has been on set since before 9 a.m. It will be another hour until shooting wraps, and she has to return first thing the next morning. So Urman is tired, and she briefly stretches her face into a silent, bulging-eyed version of The Scream. Even as she makes the face, she’s smiling. But she has a lot to do. Also, her bag just broke.

I asked her about the bag the day before because it’s hard not to notice it. It’s a two-pocket tan leather pouch on a woven cross-body strap, fastened with brass hardware, and it’s so worn, so obviously about to fall to pieces, that it looks more like a much-beloved talisman than a functional object. Urman got it from one of her mentors, Joanna Johnson, the showrunner of Hope & Faith. She’s used it almost daily in the nearly 15 years since then. Urman holds up the bag, realizing the strap has frayed almost completely apart. “The bag!” Rodriguez shouts when she realizes we’re talking about it. “We should get it tszuj’d.” “I know!” Urman says, without sounding excited about it.

The bag could easily be a key prop on an episode of Jane the Virgin. It would be a beloved object Jane feels attached to, something she knows she should get fixed but can’t bring herself to alter in any way. Jane’s mom would chide her about getting it fixed, then the bag would collapse at a dramatic crisis point, and Jane would have to accede to making repairs so the bag could withstand future moments of crisis. It’d be a throwaway moment to tie into a bigger arc about Jane’s emotional journey. Sending the bag off to get fixed would be a kind of ending.

Jane has been designed all along with a particular ending in mind, something that feels almost quaintly out of step with the current cable-TV trend toward smaller, season-length arcs or Netflix’s push to extend established titles long beyond their natural end points. Stories should have ends, Urman believes, and she is nothing if not a passionate storyteller. One of Jane’s writers, Rafael Agustín, says the anecdote about how she reads at night while wearing a headlamp “defines Jennie. I’ve never met anybody who loved story that much, that she would do that.” Jane the Virgin has a narrator precisely because Urman wanted viewers “to feel like you were in the hands of storytelling.” She wanted a way to remind viewers that the big plot swings “were not random,” because “it was going to add up to something.”

She loves telling stories so much, she actually let me read her pitch document for Jane’s final season. She’s kept it a secret from most people, including much of the cast, and I had the sense that she was just thrilled at the chance to let someone read it. (When she saw my face as I reacted to a momentous twist, she ran over to see what part I was on.) Urman knows what the ending of Jane will be in thorough, meticulous detail. But she’s not yet at a place where she can reflect about the whole arc of the show, where she can process it as nearing completion. After all, for Urman, Jane really comes together in the editing bay, when all the footage is there and it just needs to be assembled exactly the way she imagines it in her head.

“When it ends, I’m going to be a wreck for sure,” she says. “I’m really not able to let go on Jane. On other projects I am.” She’s conscious that she’s been building the show as a love triangle for years, and it means that no matter how she ends it, some segment of Jane’s audience is going to be incensed. Viewer feedback, she says, “affects everything. You can’t take the good and then discount the bad. If you’re celebrating when people really like it, that means you have to open yourself up to feeling sad if they don’t.” She’s even gotten some pushback from the writers room about a detail of how the story will end. But she’s firm that it’s the right direction for her characters. The ending, she feels, is “intrinsic to the show.” “I’m okay with people not agreeing with choices,” she says. “I just want them to understand the journey.”

*A version of this article appears in the October 1, 2018, issue of New York Magazine. Subscribe Now!

The Anti-Prestige Showrunner