How 'Jane the Virgin' Became a Sleeper Hit

Thanks to a Golden Globe win, the CW's over-the-top telenovela has become the season's little show that could

Gina Rodriguez and Justin Baldoni in 'Jane The Virgin.' Credit: Greg Gayne/CW

With its whimsical color palette and unorthodox premise, Jane the Virgin is striving to become the next primetime underdog to beat the odds. The rookie series, about a 23-year-old virgin (played by Gina Rodriguez) who is artificially inseminated by mistake, earned a steady stream of praise before it even premiered – an impressive feat for a show that airs on the oft-maligned CW network and is carried by three multi-generational, virtually unknown Latina actresses. But while critical acclaim doesn't always translate into mainstream success, it has definitely turned Jane into this season’s sleeper hit.

Despite struggling in the ratings, this loose adaptation of the 2002 Venezuelan telenovela Juana la Virgen was just picked up for a second season. And when the show returns tonight at 9pm EST, it will go into its next round of episodes with a boost courtesy of Rodriguez beating veterans such as Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Edie Falco for the Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Comedy. "Much of the show's success is due to the amazing response from the critics – people who were so supportive and vocal about their love for it," Rodriguez says the day after the awards show via email. "But 'the win' is awesome. I'm more motivated than ever to work hard to make sure I'm worthy of the recognition."

In truth, critics wouldn't have as much to rave about if Rodriguez wasn't so relentlessly likable as the lead. She does much of the heavy lifting when it comes to making an absurd premise believable, and her everygirl charm is the glue that successfully holds together a mix of romance, melodrama, offbeat humor and fantasy. Concurrently, the show itself both embraces and pokes fun at the telenovela format – complete with subtitles, artificial backdrops and an omnipresent Ricardo Montalban-esque narrator – while staying grounded in reality. It's an addictive combination that makes it easily accessible to Hispanic and non-Hispanic viewers alike.

The fast-paced pilot skillfully set the tone of the series: When Jane was little, her God-fearing grandmother (Ivonne Coll) taught her the importance of staying chaste by forcing Jane to crush a flower and then try to make it look perfect again. That mangled bud was framed and hung above Jane's bed, so that she wouldn’t make the same mistakes as her boy-crazy, pregnant-at-16 mother (Andrea Navedo). As if being accidentally inseminated during a routine exam by a distracted doctor isn't enough of a storyline, Jane is caught between two lovers – her patient boyfriend (Brett Dier) and her unwitting sperm donor (Justin Baldoni), a playboy-turned-unhappily married man who also happens to be her boss. Upon a positive pregnancy test, Jane's life promptly mirrors the topsy-turvy tropes of the telenovela she religiously tunes in to. There's a fine line between ridiculously over-the-top and ridiculously compelling TV, and Jane the Virgin masterfully walks it.

As for keeping that balance, the show's creator/writer-producer Jennie Snyder Urman is quick to credit the 30-year-old Puerto Rican-American actress. "Without her, there's no way it would work," Urman says of Rodriguez, who had previously starred in the 2012 film Filly Brown and appeared on the daytime soap The Bold & The Beautiful. "Gina was the third person who came in to read for the part, and she just made Jane smart, vulnerable, funny and human from the beginning. We auditioned hundreds – but from the first time that I saw her, I knew she was Jane."

Urman, who's worked on such CW shows as Gilmore Girls and the network's rebooted 90210, relied on "a soup of inspiration" to come up with Jane's unique concept. The original telenovela was "the blueprint," she says, but the producer also drew inspiration from the mother-daughter bond of Gilmore, the success of Ugly Betty and even the 2001 French rom-com Amelie, from which Urman got the idea for the show's "very stylized magical fantasy element. I wanted Jane to feel more like a fairytale and less like a teen drama."

As for the target audience, Rodriguez says, "The show is empowering to all who find a connection with it. But the effect that it has had on Latinos and women has been such a positive one. The diversity of the cast and the writing has opened up conversations about social issues in a way that I believe can help [us] make progressive leaps in our culture. With transgender actors, gay couples, interracial couples, pro-choice and pro-life debating, and conversations about different economic backgrounds and immigration reform, we've allowed people to weigh in with their opinions without shutting out others. It's a breath of fresh air."

"What I didn't understand until I did this project is just how important it is to see someone who looks like you on TV," Urman adds. "I'm white, so I see that representation all the time. It has been a moving experience to hear young girls who watch the show explain how important it is for them to see themselves onscreen, and to see a young Latina who is defined by her ambition and dreams. I have a daughter, which makes me conscious of creating good, smart people on the show that I hope she will emulate. A good person can be at the center of a show and still be compelling. I think that's been as much a reason for the show's success as anything."

So, where does Jane go from here? "She's going to have her baby in the season finale," the producer reveals, though she doesn't seem worried that the show will lose momentum once the pregnancy plotline reaches its inevitable conclusion. "We're not afraid to resolve problems – new ones will always come up. There will always be hard decisions to make and matters of the heart to address, and we can keep throwing in soapy and telenovela-inspired complications, because the show supports that. I feel like we have miles and miles to go."