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.
Rodriguez’s acting stands out amongst other actors of her generation like Rami Malek, Rooney Mara, and Gugu Mbatha-Raw, who specialize in restraint and understatement. As Shonni Enelow writes in a recent Film Comment piece, “We can see the same kind of emotional retrenchment and wariness in a number of performances by the most popular young actors of the last several years.” Rodriguez’s work on Jane the Virgin is the antithesis to this trend in acting. As an actor, Rodriguez excels in the moments that call for big emotions. Her gestures are broad. She embodies the character with a wide-eyed wonder and hopefulness that can seem almost retrograde on television where even in comedies the characters veer toward the morose and morally gray.
This doesn’t mean Rodriguez doesn’t find subtle notes for her character. There are moments of quiet intensity that show a range I’m eager to see Rodriguez explore further: When her voice cracks during an argument, the way he her face lights up with a smile, and a slight furrowing of her brow when she realizes the weight of expectations upon her.
It’s that last aspect of her performance that I’ve been thinking about a lot. Being one of the few somewhat high-profile shows to star Latino actors and deal with their cultural experience put perhaps an unfair weight on Jane the Virgin. When shows starring minorities premiere, they arrive with undue pressure on leads like Rodriguez to represent all things to all Latinos.
Beyond that, Rodriguez occupies an interesting place in the television landscape where the roles for women are changing dramatically. Jane is a character that is essentially good-hearted, incredibly moral, and usually chooses the right thing to do. She’s almost uncomplicated when you stack her against the other characters on the show who veer toward villainy and selfishness at times with cartoon abandon. But this doesn’t mean her character is simple. The way Jane wrestles with cultural expectations and her own desires makes her fascinating. It’s easy to see how Rodriguez’s work could have gone wrong.
Her performance could have easily turned into a camp punchline that looked down upon telenovelas or the boring straight man to the more naturally comedic roles around her. Through her skill, the heart of the show becomes a coming-of-age story as Jane figures out what success as a mother, writer, and woman means to her separate from the cultural expectations that sometimes constrict her. This makes her role have both visceral pleasures and operate as modern commentary on Latina womanhood.
Even then, characters like Jane usually get overshadowed by their more complicated, morally gray peers. Take a look at the most lauded and discussed female characters on television today and you’ll notice a rise in female anti-heroes — no matter the genre. Examples include: How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, The Girlfriend Experience, UnREAL, and The Fall. Even within comedy you’ll find female characters with complicated senses of morality, some grappling with mental health issues in shows like You’re the Worst, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, and Lady Dynamite. The closest comparison to Jane when it comes to the sheer amount of joy she carries herself with is the titular lead of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. But her gleeful buoyancy at times seems less like her natural personality and more like a way to shield herself from the pain of her past.
To make a character as grounded and moral as Jane seem this fascinating is a triumph in and of itself. Place Jane Villanueva against these other characters (despite the sheer madness of everything happening around her on the show) and she seems almost quaint. But Rodriguez’s performance finds a way to imbue the character with complexity and honesty. Episode “Chapter Twenty-Eight” which spans over three months, has plenty moments that highlight this. Toward the end when she’s wrestling with what her son stands to inherit from Rafael and shares a brief moment with him even as she admits she isn’t over Michael romantically. It’s a subtle moment where Rodriguez straddles many emotions — longing, regret, hope — that lasts for only a few seconds, yet leaves quite an impact.
Watching Jane the Virgin, I wonder how Rodriguez would be in a classic Hollywood musical comedy which often relied on the skills she shows as a performer on Jane the Virgin — undeniable charisma, keen understanding of her own physicality, the ability to be gorgeous and ridiculous in the same scene. With upcoming films like Deepwater Horizon and Annihilation, it will be interesting to see how Rodriguez translates her skills as a performer into different genres, projects that will challenge her to push outside of the good natured, joyful characterization of Jane. I’m not too worried about her career since Rodriguez has proven that she’s capable of moving through multiple genres by taking on one of the trickiest jobs on TV and making it look easy.
Jane The Virgin returns for its third season on October 17