vulture tv awards

The Best Show on TV Is Jane the Virgin

Vulture’s fifth annual TV Awards honor the best in television from the past year in three major categories: Actor, Actress, and Show. Eligible contenders had to be ongoing, which disqualifies limited series and series that ended their runs in the past year. They also must have premiered before June 29, 2018.

Until very recently, I was a Jane the Virgin virgin. I knew that the CW’s telenovela-inspired drama about a woman who gets artificially inseminated by accident was supposed to be a great show, and that a lot of smart TV critics and writers have championed it over the course of its four seasons. But I just hadn’t gotten around to watching it. Every time I tried to carve out the time, Netflix would release another 358 originals and I’d have to put my Jane plans on hold to watch something else so I could meet a deadline.

Well, I finally stopped procrastinating and did the deed, just in time to declare that Jane the Virgin is the best show on television in the year of our Lord, 2018. It feels right to put a halo on it, in part because it seems to me that the culture at large has been doing for far too long what I myself did to this miracle of a show: neglected and overlooked it.

Certainly there is a loyal, core Jane the Virgin fan base. But Jane doesn’t seem to get the kind of wider mainstream acclaim that other series have earned more easily, without sticking the kinds of landings Jane the Virgin sticks on a regular basis.

Game of Thrones is revered for telling a sweeping story about rivalries and family and characters who occasionally rip off their faces to reveal that they are actually other people. Jane the Virgin does that on the regular with much more humanity and less overly gratuitous sex and violence. Westworld became one of the buzzier new dramas of the past couple of years because of its fixation on mystery and the way that stories are spun. But guess what? Jane the Virgin was fixated on all that first and examines the concept of narrative on levels that resonate much more deeply. Westworld may be playing chess, but Jane the Virgin is playing chess and Jenga, and doing it in four dimensions, multiple languages, and several cultural contexts, all while wearing heels and dancing a salsa backwards.

This Is Us is lauded for its teary-eyed, full-hearted portrait of family members working to solidify their bonds after coping with tragedy. After a single season, it earned 11 Emmy nominations and two wins. After three, Jane the Virgin — which, as it certainly proved in its fourth season, is just as much of a weeper — has gotten just two Emmy nods, both of which were for the enthusiastic narration delivered by Anthony Mendez. He lost both times, to narrators of PBS documentaries, which means that Jane the Virgin remains Emmy-less. That is an outrage. (Narrator voice: “I know, right?”)

The success of the Roseanne reboot suggested to some observers of the television industry, as well as those within it, that there’s been a lack of representation of Americans in low-income brackets. But hola, Jane the Virgin has long dealt very directly with the realities of living paycheck to paycheck and highlighted the gulf between haves and have-nots by placing those who are struggling in the same world with wealthy people who own hotels or telenovela stars who brazenly throw around their cash. Jane the Virgin doesn’t merely feature people talking about money problems and how their economic concerns informed their political choices. It shows us what it really looks like when you live on a tight budget. You take the bus. You use an alternate address so your kid can go to a public school in a decent district. Like Rafael (Justin Baldoni), who lost his riches and wound up working as a bartender at the hotel he once ran, you take the jobs you have to take to make ends meet. Often, you may wind up working more than one job, like our Jane (Gina Rodriguez), while still pursuing your dreams on the side. It is to Jane the Virgin’s ceaseless credit that finally writing her first book didn’t turn Jane into an overnight publishing sensation who’s rolling in residual checks. It simply meant that she achieved part one of a goal, and still has more to accomplish.

Jane the Virgin is also something that Roseanne was not, as that show made clear in its most dismissive joke: a show about a family of color. The members of the Venezuelan Villanueva clan, particularly Alba (Ivonne Coll), speak Spanish often; but in broader ways, Jane the Virgin is speaking Latinx language, in its embrace of the telenovela as a framing device, the importance of Catholicism in the home, and the way that multiple generations honor each other. At a time when immigrants are being vilified, here is a show that values them and their experiences. That has always been one of the best qualities Jane the Virgin possesses. But especially right now, given the Trump administration’s appalling treatment of people who come to America from elsewhere, it feels vital. Indeed, seeing Alba, Jane’s abuela, finally receive her U.S. citizenship, is one of the more uplifting moments in the recent season four, the best season of Jane the Virgin so far.

And while Jane the Virgin is many things, it is, above all else, a romance, and one whose central tension has historically relied on the love triangle between Jane, Rafael, the sexy, not-always-ethical businessman who unwittingly fathered her child, and Michael (Brett Dier), the fundamentally decent, handsome cop to whom she was engaged before becoming pregnant in a freak insemination accident. Love triangles can get stale very quickly, but because Jane the Virgin has always done so many other things — murder mystery, satire, family drama, cultural commentary — the tug-of-war between those characters functioned as an anchor that grounded the series and prevented it from feeling as though it were flying off in too many directions. That triangle was a constant.

After Jane married Michael and, certainly, after he died during the third season, that constant disappeared. And honestly, as sad as it was to lose Michael, it felt right for the show to move in a different direction. While Jane developed feelings for other men — Fabian, Adam — who prevented her from being with Rafael, and Rafael did the same with other women, the show seemed destined to pair up Mateo’s parents for good. Season four heavily implied that would finally happen, in the form of a finale-episode marriage proposal … until it pulled the rug out from under us in the closing scene and revealed that Michael is not dead. The triangle we thought had been dissolved was back.

It was a bold move because it was so unexpected, but also because it announced that, in its forthcoming fifth and final season, Jane the Virgin will go back to a well that had seemingly run dry and presumably force Jane to again choose between Rafael and Michael, a choice she has already made multiple times. In that final reveal, Jane the Virgin leaned into a classic telenovela trope — the dead character who somehow comes back to life — and, at the same time, blew itself up. In a way, it was doing what Lost did at the end of its penultimate season: detonating a nuclear bomb that would reset the narrative for its last season.

The fact that I could see an apt parallel between these two shows speaks to how layered Jane the Virgin is. Yes, it’s a soap opera that believes in love, passionate kisses, and magical realism that sometimes involves tiny paper cranes spontaneously taking flight in hurricane-force winds. But it can pull off a big twist as powerful as a sci-fi drama steeped in mythology and ready-made to be dissected by a massive team of Redditors.

That’s why Jane the Virgin has earned the title best show on television. Because it contains multitudes. Like a soul mate, it’s initially enticing because of its surface charms. But after you start to fall in love with it, that’s when it really reveals its depths.

The Case for Jane the Virgin

The Private School Conversation (Episode 2, “Chapter Sixty-Six”)

This whole episode smartly takes a staple of the telenovela — the double — and weaves it through every story line, including Jane’s relationship with Adam (Fun Jane versus Mom Jane); Rogelio’s on-set squabbles with Fabian; Petra’s ongoing conflict with her twin sister Anezka; and the decision to give Mateo dual addresses: one where he lives and another, belonging to Jane’s parents, that he can use to attend a better public school.

That last subject — how to handle Mateo’s schooling — is tackled in a gem of a scene in which Jane and Rafael put Mateo to bed while arguing via text message over whether it makes sense to send him to Catholic school.

The scene is funny because of its incongruity: While rubbing their son’s back in a soothing manner, they shout at each other via mobile phone, all without making a sound. The fact that the whole exchange is wordless gives the moment a real silent-movie quality, which Baldoni and, especially Rodriguez, lean into beautifully with their facial expressions and irritated — but still quiet! — body language.

This exchange also serves at least three other functions at the same time. It highlights the religious differences between these two characters, an issue the series has touched on before and clearly not forgotten. It places an emphasis on class — they can only send Mateo to Catholic school if they borrow $8,000 from Jane’s father, but Rafael is convinced he’ll regain control of his hotel, and his finances, which means they can send Mateo to any private school they want. The implication in both scenarios, as stated earlier in the episode, is that only the privileged have access to a truly high-quality American education. Jane the Virgin makes this point but illustrates it naturally, in a moment that is amusing, relatable, and wonderfully concise. (The whole sequence lasts just over a minute.)

But the most striking thing about this scene is the way it incorporates digital communication into the moment, a skill at which Jane the Virgin truly excels. Jane and Rafael fling text messages at each other that appear in pop-up boxes on the screen and land with the same ferocity that rapid-fire dialogue in a screwball comedy does. Quickly, the conversation devolves from a discussion about Mateo into an argument about whether a text counts as yelling when it’s typed in all caps.

This is an example of Jane the Virgin speaking another language — modern technology — more fluently, playfully, and with greater visual flair than any other show on television. A brief text-based back-and-forth between Jane and Rafael mirrors what all of us do too often in the modern world: carry on conversations with each other as if we’re far away when we’re really so close.

Jane’s “One Out of Many” Epiphany (Episode 17, “Chapter Eighty-One”)

This scene marks a creative breakthrough for Jane, as well as a confirmation of Jane the Virgin’s status as a work of metafiction, and a hint at what’s to come in season five.

After a comment that Alba makes — “When each person loves the other as much as herself, it makes one out of many”— Jane realizes that the separate novels she’s been working on could be more compelling as a sweeping, single work of fiction.

“I just had an epiphany about my new book,” Jane tells her mother. “I want to combine it with ideas from my others and turn it into this big multigenerational story with romance and heartache and crime even. All of the lightness and all of the darkness.”

Of course, what Jane is describing here is actually … Jane the Virgin. Both this reworking of Jane’s novel and Rogelio’s Americanized adaptation of The Passions of Santos The Passions of Steve and Brenda, a deliberately whitewashed and ridiculous name — have been running subjects throughout season four. Both of these projects take shape near the end of the season, which tells us that both will finally come to fruition, most likely in a significant way in, season five. Ends aren’t being tied just yet, but in this scene, you can start to see what the bow on the end of this series might look like, at least in part.

This scene does some other key things, too. Just like that text argument, it demonstrates the visual fun that accompanies some of the more significant moments on Jane the Virgin. As Jane has that realization about turning multiple works of fiction into one, the papers in Jane’s separate manuscript piles soar into the air, swirl around her head and reshuffle themselves into a single, neat pile. It’s a lovely piece of imagery worthy of a Disney film. It actually reminded me of the moment in the animated Cinderella, when fairy dust swoops around Cinderella and transforms her rags into a beautiful ball gown. Given the way that Jane the Virgin both celebrates and subverts fairy tales, it’s fitting that a transformational makeover for Jane would be one that involves her mind and not the dress she must wear to impress a prince. Many films and TV shows attempt to capture the excitement of that moment in the creative process, when all the synapses finally fire in the same, purposeful direction. Jane the Virgin manages to do so in a single, whimsical moment that’s uplifting to witness and very, very meta.

When other shows go meta, their efforts tend to register more on a cerebral level than an emotional one. When George and Jerry pitch a show about nothing on Seinfeld, or Riverdale references the teen fare that came before it, or the rom-com Crazy Ex-Girlfriend acknowledges the extent to which rom-coms mess with the female psyche, it’s clever and funny and worthy of admiration. On Jane the Virgin, a moment like this one is all of those things, but it’s also filled with heart.

And on second viewing, it’s filled with foreboding. Because just when it seems like Jane’s life trajectory has pumped the brakes on unexpected twists so that she can actually reflect on where she’s been and write about it, along comes another one.

Surprise! (Episode 17, “Chapter Eighty-One”)

I refer, of course, to this mega-gasper of a twist, the reveal that Michael is still alive.

What’s remarkable about this moment is that, as Maggie Fremont noted in this piece, there are all kinds of hints that a big shock may be coming in this episode and that it may involve a classic telenovela trope. The possibility that Rafael has learned that he and Jane are actually brother and sister is raised in a way that makes you think … well, maybe?

We are able to consider the show in this way because it’s been training us all along to spot these tropes, especially in season four, which goes out of its way to school us one more time on the mechanics of the telenovela and narrative in general. We get a reminder, in the first episode, of the importance of reliable narration; a tutorial on doubles, a running thread throughout the season; an episode devoted to the perspectives of side characters; a reminder of what it means to frame a narrative; and, finally, the classic reincarnation of the supposedly dead character. If Jane the Virgin is setting us up for one last, deep deconstruction of telenovela narrative forms in season five, then season four functions as a final study guide to the genre in which it’s working. Seeing what it looks like to pull off a truly surprising twist — bringing back Michael even though he seemingly died right before taking a test of his own that he had studied hard for, the LSATs — is the ultimate example of what a really good telenovela can do. It’s a moment that takes the breath away.

That’s because, after four seasons, we have grown to care for these characters. Many fans of Jane the Virgin were terribly sad when Michael died, so to see him again is not just a surprise, it’s a rush of blood into all the coronary arteries. We immediately feel happiness for Jane, sadness that what she has with Rafael is going to be thwarted, and admiration for Rafael for bringing Michael back to the woman both of them love.

As our Matt Zoller Seitz recently noted, audiences often watch certain kinds of shows expecting twists and pre-anticipating them. They approach the viewing experience as though it’s a chess match or an intricate scavenger hunt in which the  reward is figuring out which path the writers are going to take before they even turn the steering wheel. I certainly watch TV that way sometimes – guessing games are fun! But they can also reduce the concept of a twist into a purely intellectual exercise, a puzzle to be solved that suggests you, the viewer, are as smart as, if not smarter than, the people making the show you’re watching. That may feel good, in the same way that winning an argument feels good. But it’s not nearly as satisfying as having your mind blown by a twist that really blindsides you.

This is what’s so remarkable about the Michael twist: Jane the Virgin has blatantly flagged the fact that a twist will likely land with a bang at the end of this season finale. Yet most of us still don’t see Michael’s return coming until it happens. Even those who somehow did figure it out were still probably gobsmacked by the moment because of all the implications it has for the people involved. That twist isn’t only about using your head to see what’s coming, it’s about how it stings and thrills and hurts a little when it finally happens.

That’s how a twist should be: rewarding on multiple levels and legitimately surprising. Jane the Virgin is able to regularly pull that off to a degree that’s even more brilliant than the celebrated twists in recent seasons of Westworld, Mr. Robot, and This Is Us. That’s partly because the JTV audience may not be quite as vocal online about parsing what’s coming next. But I also think the people who work on this show have, like our Jane, quietly kept their heads down and done solid work to lay out a story that can still, four seasons in, catch us off guard.

Why We Chose It

Jane the Virgin distinguished itself as the best show on television for one big reason: because it’s doing more things well, all at once, than any other series out there.

That’s a pretty big claim to make considering that over the past year, a number of ongoing shows have done a lot of things well, including The Crown, One Day at a Time, Barry, BoJack Horseman, Black-ish, Killing Eve, The Handmaid’s Tale, The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, Game of Thrones, Big Mouth, This Is Us, and many, many others. (Since shows that ended their run are disqualified here that also leaves out some other outstanding works of television from the past year, most notably, The Americans.)

But let’s get even even more specific. Atlanta came very, very close to winning this honor because it basically tossed out all the rules about TV in its Robbin’ Season and delivered 11 stand-alone but also completely interconnected episodes that wrestle with race, fame, and making tough decisions when life provides few options. Like Jane the Virgin, Atlanta is deceptive; it’s easy to take in its low-key, unstructured approach and make a knee-jerk assumption that it’s not really saying anything, when it’s actually saying quite a lot. Also like Jane the Virgin, Atlanta effortlessly glides between genres: horror, comedy, satire of celebrity culture. The “Teddy Perkins” episode alone was one of the more audacious and bold TV achievements of the past year for many reasons, including a sneak attack of a performance by a prosthetically disguised Donald Glover.

But when the TV landscape is this vast, the criteria for choosing the best show become even more hyperspecific and, frankly, subjective. In deciding on a best show this year, we were certainly focusing on things like craftsmanship and entertainment value. At this incredibly fraught time in American culture, we also felt the resonance of shows that speak to the current moment (though not necessarily ones that depict dystopian landscapes or invoke politics in a blatant way). Atlanta does this. But with its focus on Alba’s citizenship, class divisions, and the immigrant experience in general, Jane the Virgin ticked off that box with a slightly more pronounced check mark.

Jane the Virgin is also really funny, and not in the sly way that Atlanta is, but in an unapologetically accessible way. (Rogelio accidentally burning off the eyebrows of River Fields, the actress played by Brooke Shields, is funny in the absolute broadest sense.) Given the tension and stress that has become even more omnipresent in the daily lives of many Americans, there’s a potency to a solid mainstream comedy that simply makes us laugh at the end of the day. Of course, great television should also be sophisticated and smart, and Jane the Virgin is that, too. On the New York Magazine Approval Matrix, this show is in the “brilliant” quadrant and right on the line between high and lowbrow, which is basically smack in the Vulture wheelhouse.

This could also be said of The Good Place, which falls a bit more on the highbrow side but sure as hell knows a thing or two about pulling off a twist, and is also incredibly smart, funny, and punny. It also speaks to this cultural moment by inviting its audience to consider what constitutes ethical behavior in a way that acts as both an antidote to our current political nightmare and a prism through which to learn something from it. But The Good Place doesn’t wear its emotions and sentimentality on its sleeve to the extent that Jane the Virgin does, and I would argue that draws you in closer. This Is Us has been held up as the quintessential example of the hunger for heartstring-pulling TV, but Jane the Virgin satisfies that urge just as deftly — don’t get me started on Xo’s cancer diagnosis, because there’s no crying in best TV show essay-writing — while, again, achieving multiple other things at the same time.

In short, there are a lot of wonderful series that do some of what Jane the Virgin does without quite doing all of it, and that’s what really tips the scales in its favor.

During the past year, no issue has been more important in the entertainment industry than the need to allow women to tell their stories, both in real life and in the pretend realm. Jane the Virgin was developed by a woman, Jennie Snyder Urman, and puts a notable emphasis behind the scenes on female voices. More than half of every season’s episodes have been directed by women and a majority have been written or co-written by women. In season four, only three of the 17 were scripted solely by a man; about half were directed by Latinx filmmakers, including Rodriguez herself. The show simply wouldn’t work if the people making it didn’t have an inkling of what it’s like to be a Venezuelan-American woman like Jane.

You can feel the presence of that perspective in every story beat, whether it involves a fraught, somewhat uncomfortable discussion of sexual pleasure between a granddaughter and her grandmother, or the instinct to kneel next to family and pray to Dios in the midst of a crisis. There is a generosity of spirit in Jane the Virgin and an embrace of the beautiful and hyperreal — snowflakes, fireworks, paper cranes, and pages of manuscripts that know how to fly — that is authentically feminine and magically real just like some of Latin America’s best literature.

Lastly, Jane the Virgin does what might have sounded impossible to do on mainstream television just a few short years ago, and what sometimes still is impossible. (Remember the show Telenovela, that got canceled after one season?) It successfully brings the telenovela form — a mode of storytelling that, like the soap opera, has often been dismissed as something only women care about — to an American audience and confirms that the genre can pull off soapy shocks as well as surprising layers of depth. It tells us that the telenovela can be an academic exercise as well as a thrilling piece of rom-com escapism, and that it can Westworld as well as, if not better than, Westworld does. It is a pleasure that is too intelligently made to be accompanied by any guilt.

The Best Show on TV Is Jane the Virgin