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 toward 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 miniseries. 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 predetermined 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 marquee 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 canceled and Disney's SOAPNet channel 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 ingenue 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?
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 golddigger wife, Petra, is cheating on him with his best friend, who is mysteriously murdered in Episode 2. Jane's fiance 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 of 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 a 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 lovable 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.
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 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.
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 until 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 4, Jane The Virgin seems to be teetering toward 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.
Correction: November 14, 2014 12:00 am — A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the character Rafael's wife as Olivia. She is Petra.