All this week, we’re taking a look at the past, present, and future of Peak TV, the current, overabundant TV golden age in which we live.
Watching season two of Jane the Virgin, I started to realize just what a difficult job Gina Rodriguez has. Her performance marries Old Hollywood movie star charisma with a keen understanding of comedy. But it’s not the kind of performance audiences and critics always take seriously. Looking at today’s television landscape, you start to notice a pattern in the most beloved female performances. These women are anti-heroes, rougher on the edges to the point of seeming cold, and rely on a kind of acting that privileges subtlety above all else.
No actress embodies this growing trend quite like Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings on The Americans, an exceptionally trained KGB officer posing as a housewife in the D.C. suburbs during the height of the Cold War. The greatness of Russell’s performance is undeniable. She can communicate a powerful shift in emotion with just a furrowed brow while taking on a variety of identities. While I love Russell’s work and many of the morally complex anti-heroines that populate TV today, we shouldn’t lose sight of the kind of characters on the opposite end of the spectrum. If Russell’s performance makes the labor of her acting visible, Rodriguez’s skill is in making what she does look deceptively easy.
In the episode “Chapter Twenty-Four,” Rodriguez plays essentially two roles — Jane, new to motherhood and still trying to figure out the love triangle she finds herself in and Bachelorette Jane. Bachelorette Jane is a rhinestone-loving, tight dress-wearing dramatic figment of Jane’s imagination. She tosses off bon mots with ease. Her physicality veers toward slapstick and she seems to only view love through the lens of the sort of reality TV shows where love isn’t a factor, but lust definitely is.
This isn’t the first time we’ve seen this happen on the show. A recurring motif involves Jane’s imaginary selves coming to life, sometimes to bestow advice, other times to provide visual representation of her internal life. They’re outlandish, bold, and more willing to go after their desires than the somewhat prim, morally grounded Jane. In the hands of a less capable actor, the sheer ridiculousness of the show’s premise and fantastical devices would overpower the performance — edging what should be joyful and heartfelt into utter farce.
What makes Rodriguez’s work unlike anything else on television is her ability to deftly move between comedy, drama, and the fantastical, metafictional qualities of Jane the Virgin’s take on a telenovela. While her skills make the performance revelatory, the nature of the show’s genre and network it is on often leads audiences not to treat it as “important television.” It’s as if her work may be fun to watch, but doesn’t deserve to be the source of serious study the way Keri Russell in The Americans or Claire Danes in Homeland are.
No one expected Jane the Virgin, whose third season premieres this fall, to be as good as it is. The premise — in which the titular character is accidentally artificially inseminated by her gynecologist leading to a heated love triangle and various hijinks — is ridiculous, the telenovela style an unfamiliar one to many reviewers, and Rodriguez was pretty much an unknown. While her performance has since been lauded, including a Golden Globe win for Best Actress in 2015, much of the conversation around the show continues to be colored by the idea that a series with this premise shouldn’t be this good. Or how it fits into the far too slow rise in diversity on television.
While the show’s understanding of the character’s Venezuelan culture and what it means to be a Latina in America through different generations of women is definitely one of its greatest strengths, its pleasures extend far beyond that. Much of the credit belongs to the acting, which not only has to create emotional honesty within storylines with ever increasing twists, but also are subverting archetypes associated with the telenovela — with Yael Grobglas as Petra and Jaime Camil as Rogelio being particular highlights.