SHAMELESSLY WATCHING… Jane the Virgin
Illustration by Erin McPhee
To accompany our new Mental Health issue, we asked writers to share the guilty pleasure TV that brings them solace when the world gets them down. This is the second instalment in our series. Read the first instalment.
In recent months I have found myself pursuing more lighthearted scripted hour-long television series in a way to offset the deeply problematic trends developing across the globe. This winter I binge-watched Jane the Virgin as one of those shows. Subconsciously, I wanted to surround myself with engaging TV series about families. About worlds that are filled with gentler characters that let me into their lives and their relationships.
The only issue? These series rarely remain lighthearted and at some point stop being an escape. In order to remain relevant and engaging, even the fluffiest of scripted television must throw wrenches in the mix to keep plots turning; writers must develop obstacles for the characters so that the plot can evolve. Sometimes this is achieved through a “shock” event, such as a major character’s death or a time-jump. [Death is, naturally, the highest of stakes when it comes to drama.]
The rest of this post will contain spoilers for Jane the Virgin. If you do not wish to learn about significant plot points several seasons in the show, please stop reading now.
In season three of Jane the Virgin, creator and showrunner Jennie Snyder Urman followed through with their decision to kill off one of the shows’ main characters, Michael Cordero - the love interest and husband of titular character, Jane. As a loving interracial couple that, even though they were inhabitants of a telenovela world, felt quite real and down to earth, it was quite emotionally devastating for me to have them be ripped apart by death. Following a season two cliffhanger ending in which Michael was shot, the writers showed him recovering until he suddenly died in the middle of season three from a heart attack.
The writers foreshadowed Michael’s death as early as episode 10 in season one, giving lines to the narrator like “for as long as Michael lived” or “until he drew his very last breath.” Despite this, it never felt as though the character would die at the time in the show when he and Jane had just had a pregnancy scare and realized they were ready for more children. Urman has noted: “I put that line in Episode 10 for two reasons: first, to prepare everyone, because I knew it would be devastating. And second, to make sure we followed through with it in the writers (sic) room (because I knew it would be hard to do, and we’d be looking for ways/reasons to circumvent it). So yes, it was always part of the larger story we were telling; it was an integral step of Jane’s arc and her relationship to romance and to the idea of ‘happily ever after.’”
As the showrunner for Fear the Walking Dead, Dave Erickson asks, “How does that death spin the rest of the story, and how does it impact the characters?”. I cannot fault the creator and writers of Jane the Virgin for a plot development they always had in the works. My biggest distrust and disappointment with the series following this character death came from the decision to jump three years into the future. I felt that by doing so the true emotional ramifications of Michael’s death were never felt. We were given minor flashbacks over the following episodes that showed the fallout. But over all, the show tried its hardest to return to its upbeat telenovela heartbeat. As a viewer, I was left with a hole in my heart (sorry), and no place to mourn the loss of the relationship unlike many others on television. Overall, I felt that my reaction was pushed aside by Jane the Virgin’s writers – not allowing any real time for me to work through my grief alongside the fictional narrative (which I was using as a means to escape the real world).
As you can imagine, I felt even more betrayed when I started to surf the web to see if anyone else felt the same way and came across an interview in which Urman acknowledged that grief following an unexpected death requires time and that they actively chose to “jump” over that period in order to re-enter Jane’s life at a point that she – and by extension they – would not have to deal with the emotional ramifications of their actions: “We’ll be flashing back to those three years and filling in gaps, but mining emotions realistically is something we work hard on and we knew the immediate pain of that loss would overwhelm our storytelling. After talking to grief counselors, this felt like the right time to reenter Jane’s journey. She’ll always feel Michael’s absence (and trust me, we will too), but it opens up our storytelling in new and exciting ways, while allowing for the light and bright Jane world that we love to write.”
I would like to disagree that they have “mined emotions realistically”. Though I have not lost a partner, the loss of anyone close to you is a significant life event. It cannot be realistically explored through limited flashbacks. In fact, it took Jane the Virgin six episodes before it allowed the character of Rogelio, Jane’s father and Michael’s friend, an opportunity to even mention any of his feels regarding Michael’s passing. His grief was never expressed in flashbacks. A ‘bromance’ that was celebrated by the show was simply tossed aside in favour of other plots set three years in the future. By jumping over the period it would have taken Jane and others to process their grief (not to mention Rafael’s jail sentence), the show lost its magic for me. I was deeply invested in the previously compelling narratives they disregarded in order to pursue an alternative agenda three-years into the character’s future.
Life is filled with both magical joy and terrible tragedy. For writers to skip over the fallout of either category is the true tragedy. Whether in our own lives or through those of fictional characters on television, we want to think that actions and events have meaning and weight. Our own morality and mortality can become tied to those of the fictional characters we spend time with. As Todd VanDerWerff writes, “We want to believe that our fictional characters will be mourned, even if they died in a sudden, random accident, because we hope that we, too, will be mourned. And that’s what TV too often misses – the mourning. The loss. The sorrow. It exchanges that hollow, haunting feeling at the bottom of despair for something more shallow as it moves on to the next plot development, the next episode.” Here is where I feel Jane the Virgin failed.