Friends, let me begin by telling you a little story.
A few years ago, my mother was diagnosed with cancer. Every weekend, I would pack my bags and take the train from Toronto to visit her in Ottawa, and then do the return trip every Sunday. It meant spending around 10 hours every weekend in limbo, away from my friends, family and seemingly the real world. The cell reception was spotty and so was the wifi—and in that vacuum, my thoughts would often wander into dangerous territory, worrying about my mother’s illness and all of the “what ifs” that came with it.
In an effort to shut my brain off, I decided I needed to binge a new show. Something happy and heartwarming, that could distract me from what I was either traveling towards or leaving behind. And after watching Gina Rodriguez’s 2015 Golden Globes acceptance speech—which still brings me to tears—I opted to give Jane the Virgin a try.
For those who haven’t yet seen the hit CW show, Jane the Virgin is loosely based on a Venezuelan telenovela and tells the story of Jane Villanueva, a young celibate woman who is accidentally artificially inseminated. I hear you rolling your eyes, and trust, based on this description alone, I too would’ve easily overlooked this show—but this series is so much more than its soap opera roots.
“It is a deeply heartfelt production, sweet without being saccharine, as well as sophisticated about and truly interested in all the varieties of love, from familial to carnal. It’s a smart show that parents and teenagers can watch together—which, in a better world, might be a recommendation to a larger audience. Although it employs all the tools of high melodrama—evil twins, gaslighting—it doesn’t have a camp sensibility. Instead, it ballasts the most outrageous twists with realistic emotional responses,” wrote Pulitzer award-winning TV critic Emily Nussbaum in the New Yorker.
In fact, a lot of what makes Jane the Virgin so great is what I also love about This Is Us: the show’s close-knit family and its earnest exploration of those connections.
OK, yes. This Is Us storylines don’t include criminal masterminds or telenovela-inspired plot twists, but hear me out. What these shows have in common is a family of layered and well-explored characters that viewers cannot help but love. Jane may be more of a soap-inspired dramedy than the cinematic tear-jerker that is This Is Us, but both share an ability to pull your at your heartstrings, make you laugh and make you think—all in the span of a single episode.
The Pearsons and the Villanuevas are written like real people, dealing with real issues (even if sometimes those issues, like that time when Jane’s ex-boyfriend was being framed for murder, seem slightly far-fetched). Through these families, the writers have also expertly brought social issues—such as This Is Us’s exploration of race, addiction and adoption and Jane the Virgin’s timely discussions about immigration, culture and religion—to the forefront. By tapping into this wide array of challenges faced by family members of all generations, both This Is Us and Jane the Virgin become relatable to a wide audience.
And because the characters are so well developed in both shows, it’s easy to have your feels tugged along with the storylines—and trust, there are feels. Both shows deal with the loss of a central character, and delve into the grief that the family experiences not just in the immediate aftermath but in the years following. It’s those quiet moments like when Kate misses her father at her wedding, or (*spoiler alert*) when Jane tries to get back into the dating game after becoming a widow, that still make me well up when I think about them.
Where Jane differs from This Is Us is in the fact that it is largely a female-driven show. Unlike the Pearsons, the Villanuevas are a matriarchy comprised of three generations of fiercely strong women living under one roof—and tbh, that alone makes this series worth a watch.
Though This Is Us has wrapped its second season, Jane the Virgin will continue to run until the end of April—with all episodes airing on the CW on Fridays and available afterwards on Netflix. And based on last week’s episode, we’re in for lots of This Is Us-style weeping.
Since I first started watching Jane the Virgin on that train to Ottawa in 2015, my mother has passed away. But when I need something that feels like home, I find comfort in the Villaneuva and Pearson families—and I think you will too.
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