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Jane the Virgin Was a Fantasy, That’s Why It Felt So Real

Photo: Kevin Estrada/The CW

A year ago, I wrote an essay about stories of motherhood, and specifically the movie Tully, a film about a woman with kids and a new baby who’s rescued from the pits of domestic despair by a magical caregiver. There is a twist at the end of Tully, a revelatory transformation that turns it into both fairy tale and metaphor, and at the time, I was overcome by how correct that structure felt, how effective and right it was to mix motherhood’s mundanity with explicit magic. The argument of my essay was essentially this: that a grindingly realist depiction of parenting felt less true to life, less fully representative, than a story like Tully, where new motherhood goes hand in hand with fantasy.

In retrospect, it was an essay about Tully, and it was also an essay about myself (no surprise there). But more indirectly, it was an essay about Jane the Virgin.

The kind of transformative power I found in Tully has been pumping through episode after episode of Jane the Virgin for years. And now that Jane has reached its deservedly triumphant ending after five seasons and 100 episodes, all I can think about is how connected I feel to these characters, how gorgeous and meaningful their fictional lives have felt. It’s a connection that has happened not in spite of their outlandish telenovela stories, but precisely because of them.

From its beginning, Jane has run on an engine of emotional realism. It’s an idea I’ve written about in the context of this show a dozen times, and yet even in the finale, emotional realism as a defining characteristic still knocks me over a little. Jane the Virgin is a series about a young woman who is artificially inseminated by a distracted OB/GYN, and whose life is then shaped by kidnappings, epic love triangles, elaborate face-swapping criminal escapades, a return from the dead, mistaken identities, telenovela stars, evil twins, and mortal peril, and its primary storytelling mechanism works by taking those events seriously. Characters on Jane respond to these overwhelming events in the way a regular person would. They flip out, grieve, scream about unfairness, and experience residual trauma the way a human would. Jennie Snyder Urman, the show’s creator and showrunner, has said that one of the defining moments of Jane the Virgin, for her, was not the pilot, but the episode that came after it. Not Jane’s wildly implausible artificial insemination, that is, but the episode that came next, where Jane has to pause so she could grieve for the vision of her future that she had lost.

In thinking about Jane the Virgin for these past five years, I’ve also gotten stuck on how the show’s deep investment in human emotion grounded its many flights of telenovela fancy. Thinking about it that way, all of the realistic stuff — friendship, minor family disagreements, parenthood, money — makes up the core of the show. The telenovela stuff — the drug lords, the stalkers, the secret twins, and the show’s hyper-self-aware presentation of itself as a story — all that is decoration, an ornate and silly layer of shine and flash that ultimately helps dress up a story about typical, day-to-day life. In that light, the telenovela melodrama is just a delivery device, a sleek roller coaster that zips around and does loop the loops, while underneath, Jane can be a show about real things.

I still think that’s true. I still see so much of Jane the Virgin working exactly that way. Conversations about grief anchor the surreality of a husband coming back from the dead. Conversations about class and money anchor a story about being seduced by a wealthy, sexy hotelier. The boring, everyday details are a way to keep the silly absurdities rooted to the familiar.

But more and more, I’ve come to see that the reverse is also true. The reality grounds all of Jane’s implausible twists, but there’s something just as true, just as representative about those soap-opera-style tropes. It’s the same idea I grappled with when I writing about Tully. A mother’s fury when a bag of breast milk spills feels real, Jane’s debate about where Mateo should go to school feels real, but seeing those things portrayed faithfully onscreen doesn’t come anywhere close to the magnitude of how those stories loom in your life. In a counterintuitive way, the heightened premise of a telenovela feels more accurate than reality. A story about a young woman who’s been accidentally artificially inseminated, who’s presented with a baby out of absolutely nowhere, feels more true to life than a typical narrative about conception and birth. On some level, all babies feel as though they have arrived out of the blue, the life-changing product of an utterly implausible sequence of events. Most newborns are not kidnapped out of the hospital by a drug lord bent on revenge, but that epic scale feels closer to the truth of new-parent anxiety than a story about sleep deprivation ever could.

That’s not a new idea; that precise logic is why The Leftovers is such a truthful account of grief, and why horror movies often speak more directly to the hidden fears of life than any realist film ever could. But it’s a truth of Jane that’s often gotten muffled. Although it’s been critically acclaimed throughout its run, it never crested into a position of broad cultural conversation, and as it moved into its later seasons, some critics focused on the issues of its telenovela mechanisms, without considering them as one part of the show’s fuller identity. I’m convinced that part of why Jane has felt like a small show, chugging along in the background of the TV landscape, is because it’s refused to play along with the signifiers of “important TV,” and also because it’s been so rooted in female experience and in marginalized voices. And unlike horror, a genre slouching its way toward broader acceptance as a serious form, the soap-opera spine that holds Jane together is still a genre roundly dismissed as fluff. Yes, Jane’s telenovela life is preposterous and those stories are a fantasy. But it’s a fantasy that illuminates the real in a way that makes real life more visible to us.

It’s been hard for me to write about the end of Jane the Virgin, and I’ve realized that’s in part because the show has been so much a part of my own life. Jane is ending after five seasons; I have a 5-year-old and a 2-year-old, and one of my very first freelance writing bylines was a recap for Jane the Virgin. By my count, I’ve written 76 recaps of Jane; writing about the show is as much a part of my routine as packing snacks for summer camp and vacuuming crumbs. It’s hard to point to the things that feel so deeply embedded in life, to wrestle them out of the mundane constancy of everyday routine and hold them up for examination. It’s hard to get enough separation from life to see life clearly. It’s hard to write about the end of Jane the Virgin because, over the last five years, the show has been that distancing lens, supplying the fantasy that clarifies all the messy complexity of motherhood, friendship, marriage, career.

But happily, I don’t have to write about the end of Jane alone, because once again (and for the last time), Jane the Virgin is already there, ready and waiting, with a framework for how to think about its own end. The Jane finale is not about the perilous parts of a telenovela, the life-altering stakes or the surprise identities. Rafael’s parents, he discovers, were not drug lords or celebrities or familial relations to his future wife; they were regular people leading ordinary lives. Jane does not nearly miss her wedding because she’s flying in a hot-air balloon or commandeering a helicopter after arresting a criminal; she arrives on a city bus. It’s not that Jane excised its telenovela DNA in the end, discarding the fantasy in favor of something more believable. Jane herself makes the leap between the ordinary and the fantasy, becoming her own bridge between the mundane and the surreal: Her book is a demonstration of how Jane has forged her a connection between life and fiction, between the language of realism and the revelatory possibilities of a telenovela’s magical fairy-tale tropes. The finale is a story about learning to tell stories, about learning how to express the ferocity of real life through fantasy that can reflect back something even more genuine, more truthful than a direct, faithful mirror of the world.

Tomorrow, when I’m vacuuming crumbs and scheduling child care and desperately hunting down a size 5 black T-shirt for a kids’ dance recital, I will miss Jane’s willingness to harness ordinary life to such big, swooping, transcendent moments. In preparing for the show’s ending, I knew I would miss the show’s escapist pleasures, its saturated colors, its lovely symmetries, and its deep, unswerving sense of kindness. I was ready to miss its performances, its sense of humor, its comforting and sly narrative voice. But I’ve realized that just as much as any of that, I will miss the otherworldly, ultraheightened, silly, surprising twists, the internal telenovela logic that catapulted the show into strange, improbable new places. I will miss the parts that will absolutely never happen to me, the parts that, by watching Jane Villanueva and her family navigate them, have spoken so clearly to the experience of being a real person in the real world.

Jane the Virgin Was a Fantasy, That’s Why It Felt So Real