A confession: I haven’t watched The Handmaid’s Tale since the first episode of season two. After that harrowing mock-execution, I couldn’t face more relentless cruelty.
Not many people are having a good time on TV right now, at least not in shows deemed ‘important’. It has become something of a prerequisite both that so-called prestige television makes a political point, and that it does so by exhausting us emotionally, psychologically and visually.
And it makes sense: pop culture reflects turbulent times, like a shattered mirror promising a lot more than seven years of bad luck. Whether it’s Years and Years propelling us into a near-future nightmare at whiplash speed, or the painstaking drip of doom that infuses every scene of Chernobyl, current programming has been described as “peak bleak”. These are the kind of shows that leave you unblinking as the credits roll, before wordlessly heading off for a sleepless night mulling over the crucial question: are we not entertained? Or have we been beaten into submission, just like the characters we’re watching? The alternative tends to be TV that distracts us from crushing current affairs, either in the form of a Parks and Recreation palate cleanser or cosy comfort food like Bake Off.
But there is a middle ground, and Jane the Virgin is it.
Coming to the end of a near-perfect five-season run this week, first impressions might suggest that this is just a trifling slice of lightweight fluff. Jane doesn’t scrimp on a candy-coloured aesthetic, knowing narrator, magical realism and absurd plot twists, charging full throttle into the zaniest components of telenovelas (Latin American soap operas). In other words, it embraces all those unfashionable ingredients that usually earmark a show as aimed at women … and therefore probably inconsequential. But created by showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman, with a majority female writer’s room and director roster, many of whom are also Latinx, this sweeping, soapy epic, with a trio of working class Venezuelan women at its heart, has stealthily become one of the most organically political, feminist and relevant shows in recent years.
Jane Villanueva is a young Miami waitress, aspiring writer and, crucially, a virgin, who gets pregnant after being accidentally artificially inseminated in a fairly major mishap at the gynaecologist’s office. But the ludicrous premise is a Trojan horse for the empathetic handling of themes of intimacy, grief, parenthood, sexuality, financial hardship, identity and the immigrant experience, all told through the voices of the women of colour. The strokes may look broad but they are as finessed as they come – and the very existence of Jane is as inherently provocative as anything in Black Mirror or The Handmaid’s Tale.
More overtly political television responds to the real world burning by heightening our worries to ghoulish proportions. Jane the Virgin responds by tackling complex issues from unexpected angles: plots about abortion, postnatal depression or the grief of losing a partner don’t necessarily happen to the characters you might expect. There is probably more sex content in Jane than Game of Thrones, but it is delivered through the lens of its female characters, who talk about their desires, bodies and fantasies with each other and their partners. What other show would depict a granddaughter helping her grandmother get back in touch with her sexuality by going shopping for the perfect vibrator?
Political messaging is woven into every scene, even if it is not explicit – a visual gag of twin six-year-old girls happily reading Lean In, or the fact that Jane’s grandmother Alba can speak perfect English but mostly doesn’t have to; when she’s at home with her family, why wouldn’t she speak Spanish instead? And it’s difficult to think of another recent show that has dealt so carefully with faith (possibly with the exception of the Sopranos), as religion is interrogated and challenged, but never mocked.
It is timely and brave to tell stories about undocumented immigrants as Trump rages in the White House, or professional standards in the TV industry as the #MeToo movement swells, or women’s right to choose when abortion clinics are being routinely shut down. And it is skillful to tell them without lecturing or patronising the audience. Even more so to do it with humour and without rendering the audience numb with dystopian brutality. It turns out that a perfectly effective way to address the race-based wage gap is to bring in Brooke Shields, playing a character called River Fields, who has a spectacular accident involving her eyebrows. The overblown telenovela elements – the murder(s), evil twins and face-swapping – serve as a backdrop for subtle political commentary and stories that speak to the real experiences of real people. It might seem preposterous to have a villainous character with an eye patch and a hook for a hand, but Jane always sticks the landing when it comes to highlighting injustice: proof that TV doesn’t need to be an unremitting nightmare of dog massacres, genital mutilation and death by murderous robotic bees to say something profound.