NEW YORK (CNS) — Viewers familiar with telenovelas know that many of these salacious serial dramas shelve realism for overcooked eroticism — to laughable results.
Bed-hopping can be a form of cardio in these shows, which might explain why they’re so popular.
The CW’s controversial new comedy-drama “Jane the Virgin” — airing Mondays at 9 p.m. EST — is adapted from the Venezuelan telenovela “Juana La Virgen.” The English-language version toys with the genre’s themes without losing its focus. What we’re left with is a thoughtful, though at times troubling, look at family, love and resilience.
Fresh-faced Gina Rodriguez leads the ensemble cast as Jane, an aspiring teacher and hotel waitress living with her mother (Andrea Navedo) — who became pregnant with her when she was only 16 — and a loving but firm grandmother (Ivonne Coll). Jane’s virginity, as her grandmother explained to her when she was young, is like a delicate flower to be guarded.
That’s a lesson Jane has carried with her into her two-year relationship with Michael, played by Brett Dier. Michael wants to take the relationship a step further. Jane wants to wait for marriage.
Here’s where the plot thickens: On a routine gynecological visit, Jane is accidentally inseminated by a distracted doctor. To complicate matters further, the sperm sample belongs to Rafael (Justin Baldoni), the owner of the hotel where Jane works. He’s a cancer survivor with whom she once shared a kiss years prior.
Suddenly Jane is thrust into a world of uncertainties: Should she keep the baby or have an abortion? Should she give the baby to Rafael and his wife? Will the pregnancy derail her relationship with Michael?
The colorful characters who surround Jane react with varying degrees of horror. Michael doesn’t want to raise another man’s baby. Jane’s mother and grandmother, no strangers to unwed pregnancy, differ on how to advise the young mom-to-be.
When Jane decides to carry the baby to term and give it to Rafael, however, relationships are tested. Peppering this freshman series are slapstick moments of telenovela-inspired quirkiness that bring levity to the weighty proceedings.
“Jane the Virgin” has its charms, but is not without significant problems. Since the show first aired, writers in the Catholic blogosphere have cried foul at its treatment of morally questionable subject matter.
Artificial insemination — accidental or otherwise — is handled with far too light a touch here. Without delving into the consequences of morally objectionable reproductive practices, viewers, especially the young women the show is seeking to hook, aren’t given every side of the issue. In a disconcertingly comedic way, the show treats Jane’s insemination and ensuing pregnancy as hiccups in an otherwise uneventful day.
Though Jane has vowed to remain chaste until marriage — which, in this hyper-sexualized TV culture, is certainly refreshing — several of the secondary characters engage in behavior that will trouble viewers of faith. The doctor who accidentally inseminated Jane is a lesbian with a history of alcoholism. Infidelity and promiscuity factor into the series as well, and distract from the central story.
Perhaps most jarring about the series is the whimsicality with which it treats its heroine’s thorny predicament. Jane has a support system in place, yes, but that’s a luxury for many young, unwed mothers in this country.
The writers would do well to infuse Jane’s character with a bit more genuine angst. Pregnancy, regardless of the mother’s situation, is a life-changing experience. Women who give their babies up for adoption are making a selfless, loving choice. But the emotional scarring from the separation can linger for a lifetime. Jane is written a bit too cheerful, too optimistic about the road ahead.
But the show does have faith-affirming takeaways as well. Jane, naive to the world but still holding on to the goodness of it, chooses life, even when the alternative is all too widely available.
When Jane decides to put aside what is convenient for what is just, what we’re seeing isn’t merely an act of self-sacrificing love, but the final steps of a girl’s journey into womanhood, in all its imperfect glory.
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