Considering the vastly improved representation of minorities on network TV this season—Empire, Black-ish, Cristela, Fresh Off the Boat, How to Get Away with Murder—it isn’t altogether surprising that the most delightful, dynamic, dimensional character to grace the small screen at present has emerged from the freshman pack. What did catch me off guard, I’ll be big enough to admit, is that it was the least likely character on the last show I expected.
After nearly a decade of identity crisis, anemic ratings, and critical indifference, The CW, bastion of star-crossed supernatural romance and small-screen superheroics, scored its first Golden Globe win this season—for an adaptation of a Venezuelan telenovela, no less: Jane the Virgin.
Jane offers something a little different than its Big Network counterparts—something harder to categorize: deftly written dramedy that concurrently satirizes and honors its telenovela heritage, complete with idiosyncratic flourishes like a whimsical narrator and on-screen text commentary. Some of its characters, like Jane’s father, telenovela superstar Rogelio de la Vega (portrayed by Mexican actor Jaime Camil), are as consciously absurd as the series’ plot twists. Yet in spite of his ostensible function as straight-faced comic relief, an analysis of Rogelio’s five traits shows him to be a case study in psychological complexity and originality.
TRAIT #1: ROGELIO IS CHARMING/CHARISMATIC
And, really, would we expect anything less from a telenovela star? He’s handsome and he’s smooth; he carries himself with effortless poise. Despite his star wattage, he’s not off-putting or unapproachable in the least. Rogelio is simply impossible to dislike.
TRAIT #2: ROGELIO IS SINCERE/STRAIGHTFORWARD
He is always on-the-level with others—what you see is what you get with this guy. He neither sugarcoats nor barbs his responses; he merely issues them precisely as he feels them.
There’s a very sweet innocence to Rogelio, as well: His soap-within-a-soap, The Passions of Santos, is full of the requisite double-dealing and backstabbing of serialized melodrama, and yet Rogelio’s worldview is unencumbered by such beguilement; by and large, he assumes everyone he meets is aboveboard as he is, and is genuinely hurt when his trust is betrayed, as when his assistant surreptitiously schemed to get him fired from The Passions of Santos (in “Chapter Twelve”).
TRAIT #3: ROGELIO IS GOOD-NATURED/WELL-MEANING (SOMETIMES TO THE POINT OF PRESUMPTUOUSNESS)
The man has a genuinely good heart. He cares for others and looks after them, occasionally arranging anonymous, unsolicited favors with only the best of intentions, such as when he secured Jane an internship in the writers room of his show, or when he orchestrated a “chance encounter” between Jane’s mother, Xiomara, and her childhood idol, Paulina Rubio.
So, so far we’ve got a character that’s charming, sincere, and good-natured. If we stopped here, we’d have a total cliché—and a pretty dull one, at that. But, wait!
TRAIT #4: ROGELIO IS PASSIONATE
Sincere and good-natured, taken by themselves, don’t make for a very interesting character, and charming just makes him a cardboard fantasy, but Rogelio’s passion helps give him some dimension—an intensity to balance his winsome qualities. He displays this characteristic in both his work and romantic pursuits, and it is even reflected in the ardent commitment he has made to bonding with his heretofore unknown adult daughter, Jane.
Though his passion rounds him out somewhat, we’re still looking at a credibility-straining cliché—an idealized Antonio Banderas clone (so much so that Rogelio even shares a surname, coincidence or not, with Banderas’ dashing hero from The Legend of Zorro). Now, here’s something you didn’t see coming…
TRAIT #5: ROGELIO IS NARCISSISTIC/VAIN
Is he ever! Almost cartoonishly so. But, this trait is so incongruously paired with the others—we just don’t typically associate narcissism with sincerity and benevolence—that it endows every word he utters with unexpected depth and originality. Pair charismatic and narcissistic by themselves and you’ve got a clichéd archetype; same goes for a grouping comprised strictly of sincere and good-natured; but if you assign all of those traits to the same character—one with infectious passion, to boot—there’s nothing archetypal or predictable about the things he says and does.
“I know this is very, very hard to believe, but up until five years ago, I was barely getting by.”—Rogelio’s sincerity and vanity on simultaneous display
I’ve never seen a character quite like this. He walks into a scene and before he says a word, I feel the corner of my lip curl into a smile, because I know he’ll bring a perspective to the proceedings that is wholly unique unto himself: He is often sincere, good-natured, and narcissistic in a single exchange! Case in point: During the most recent episode, “Chapter Fourteen,” Jane thanked Rogelio for coming to her boyfriend’s father’s funeral. Rogelio’s solemn response?
“Of course. In such sad days, it helps people to see a celebrity. And, like you said, we are a part of each other’s lives now. No matter what happens.”
Rogelio responds to external complications in consistent accordance with his elegantly arranged core traits, and those same characteristics are often the source of internal conflict, as well, such as when his sexual passion for Xiomara is thwarted by his well-meaning support for her vow of chastity. The accolades Jane the Virgin is generating aren’t merely, I suspect, for representing minorities—it’s in too much good company these days to score kudos for that alone—but rather its unexpectedly rich characterization is resonating with viewers and critics of all ethnicities.
BUT THERE’S A TWIST!
Take a moment now—assuming you’re familiar with the source material—to compare Rogelio in all of his glorious dimension to, say, Jane’s baby daddy, Rafael Solano (Justin Baldoni).
Got a nice, comparative picture in your mind? I’ll bet something about Rafael has now become rather obvious.
I mean, deathly milquetoast, no? He’s handsome, responsible, supportive and understanding, and perfectly decorous. He’s a Ken doll. And any insalubrious qualities he’s displayed—he was, in his day, a bit of a lothario—are pure backstory; he has been reformed to the point of lobotomization. He doesn’t even say anything worth quoting—I can’t recall a single specific line of dialogue from his mouth. And this is the series’ male lead!
Contrast Rafael with his sister, Luisa Alver: an emotional basket case, an alcoholic, a lesbian (carrying on an affair with her stepmother), an intermittent practitioner of New Age doctrine, and an OB/GYN—who accidently artificially inseminated Jane! Luisa’s got all that going for her and she’s only a recurring character. Why isn’t Rafael accorded with the kind of constitutional diversity with which Luisa and Rogelio have been endowed?
Notice how scenes between Jane and Rafael are typically the dullest in any given episode? She’s so pure and he’s so boring, there isn’t much room in that particular dynamic to create adequate intrigue or subtext. Rafael is definitely more of a problem than Jane—he needs some quirks or incongruous traits to round him out—but she could certainly stand to find herself torn between conflicting values now and again, like the way Jack Bauer’s patriotism and defiance would war with one another. Even Jane’s steadfastly loving grandmother, Alba—who never speaks a word of English!—finds herself in moral quandaries from time to time, struggling to reconcile the need to let Jane and particularly Xiomara live authentically with her own devout religious beliefs; she provides some of the most memorable scenes week to week, often through nothing more than revealing, character-specific facial expressions. All of which begs the question: Why are Jane’s secondary players so much more entertaining—more relatable—than its protagonists?
David E. Kelley, masterful creator of television dramedy (Ally McBeal, Boston Legal), understands that outlandish characters are generally the most interesting ones, and shouldn’t be relegated to mere supporting status; James Spader’s diabolical Alan Shore, for instance, revitalized the aging legal drama The Practice with his ethically dubious antics and proved popular enough to anchor his own offbeat spin-off with scene-stealing costar William Shatner, whose legendary attorney Denny Crane masked his own fear of obsolescence with wildly eccentric behavior. Spader and Shatner won numerous Emmy awards for playing those characters (on two different television series); Alan and Denny were so rich and psychologically complex that their Abbott-and-Costello shenanigans never undermined their capacity for genuine pathos. For some reason, however, there seems to be an inclination in telenovela adaptations to preserve the dignity of the central protagonists by keeping them earnest and noble, and foisting the comic-relief buffoonery off onto ancillary characters with unflattering traits like Rogelio.
That’s a mistake—just ask Ugly Betty. Initially a big hit for ABC when it premiered in 2006, that show’s audience had inexplicably fled by the third season—largely, I suspect, because Betty was such an insufferably moralistic killjoy. She became the least interesting facet of her own series—and worse, a Debbie Downer that spoiled the party for everyone else (viewers included). Jane isn’t in Betty territory yet (the innate appeal of actress Gina Rodriguez helps), but given how principled and wholesome she is, I could see it coming to that in a few seasons’ time: The writers would cling to her as the august compass amid all the (intentionally) inane plot developments and zany supporting players, potentially rendering her off-puttingly righteous in the process.
Sure, in the right context, there’s a place for a “straight man,” like, say, Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) on Arrested Development. But, that paradigm doesn’t apply to Jane: Michael’s purpose was to be the pillar of rational thinking amongst the otherwise unchecked dysfunction of the Bluth family; Jane and Rafael don’t serve an analogous function. Perhaps that archetype is a trope of telenovelas—I’m unfamiliar with the format beyond being aware of its existence—but, even if that is the case, those shows, unlike the American adaptations they’ve spawned, are typically designed to run their course within a year, making them less susceptible to wearing out their welcome as Ugly Betty did.
A show like Jane the Virgin doesn’t need a “token square”—it isn’t The Odd Couple. This is where the Save the Cat! narrative models can spare a writer from the headaches of wrongheaded story choices: The straight man can have prominent placement in Buddy Love (like The Odd Couple and Lethal Weapon), and often in Institutionalized (like Michael Bluth in Arrested and even Michael Corleone in The Godfather); Jane, however, is a Fool Triumphant—a “Sex Fool,” specifically (like The 40-Year-Old Virgin and Bridget Jones’s Diary)—and we should see her in positions of “foolishness” every so often. That would be perfectly consistent, conventionally speaking, with Jane’s genre.
WHAT TO DO?!
Rogelio’s character demonstrates how it only takes a single unconventional or unexpected trait to turn a clichéd grouping on its head: The same character, minus his narcissism, would be as upstanding—and boring—as Rafael is. It wouldn’t take much to apply the Rogelio lesson to Rafael by endowing him with one additional personality facet that opens up new possibilities, both dramatic and comedic, for his character.
There is precedent for that kind of post factum amendment to a serialized character: Consider how Indiana Jones’ wise and paternal mentor in Raiders of the Lost Ark, Marcus Brody, was expanded upon in Last Crusade by the inclusion of a theretofore unseen trait, two left feet, to his psychological profile—same character, but given more dimension with correspondingly more screen time (we’d never seen him in the field prior to the third film, so it was within the realm of credibility that the trait only made itself manifest once he was out of his academic element). Yes, it exposed the genteel, erudite museum curator to a certain degree of mockery, but that only humanized Brody—and made us love him more.
Jane the Virgin has quickly established itself as a televisional model in cultural and creative diversity. Given those accomplishments, it’s easy for both the show’s viewers and producers to overlook weakly drawn characters like Rafael when they are in the company of such scene-stealers like Rogelio—even David E. Kelley could be guilty of that from time to time. But, every character—certainly the leads—deserves to be realized with her own special pairing of personality traits that guide her decision-making process and, as is so often the case with Rogelio, Luisa, and Alba, complicate her choices by exposing incompatible, though not necessarily contradictory, values. We are all, in our confounding complexity, sinners and saints, fools and sages, harlots and virgins. Jane and Rafael’s saintly virtue is commendable; seeing it tested on occasion would be divine.