'Jane the Virgin' takes 'wacky' telenovela premise for a spin

'Jane the Virgin' takes 'wacky' telenovela premise for a spin
Gina Rodriguez is the star of the new CW show "Jane the Virgin," based on a Venezuelan telenovela. (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times)

The premise of the CW's latest entrant, "Jane the Virgin," sounds like the stuff of mega-million-dollar lawsuits.

The hourlong dramedy presents viewers with a not-so-immaculate conception. Its heroine is a conscientious twentysomething virgin named Jane Villanueva (played by indie ingénue Gina Rodriguez) who is accidentally artificially inseminated during a routine gynecological exam.

If it sounds like something straight out of a telenovela, that's because it is. The series, which launches Oct. 13, is based on the Venezuelan telenovela "Juana la Virgen."

"I've learned, after I say the title and explain the premise, to stay quiet for a bit so the other person can process it," Rodriguez said recently during a break from shooting at the show's Manhattan Beach soundstage.

The series marks yet another important gamble for the show's co-developer and executive producer, Ben Silverman, the veteran TV show maker whose adaptations have included broadcast hits "Ugly Betty" and "The Office." But more than that, the show is a bold, somewhat off-brand move for the often-overlooked CW at a time when it has significantly ramped up its genre programming — to moderate ratings success — with such shows as "The Vampire Diaries" and male-skewing "Arrow."

"We're still a broadcaster, so it's important for us to mix it up," said CW President Mark Pedowitz, who headed ABC Studios during "Ugly Betty's" run. "This fits with what we like at the network, which is high-concept, serialized drama or, in this case, comedy too. And it was a way to further balance out female viewership."

To bring the show stateside, Silverman teamed with Jennie Snyder Urman, who already had a deal with CBS Studios (which produces the show) and a long history with the CW as the creator of its short-lived 2012 drama "Emily Owens, M.D." and as a writer on "90210."

"The premise was kind of wacky to me — OK, really wacky," Snyder Urman said. "I just thought if there was a world I could create that wouldn't cause viewers to automatically turn off their TVs or close their laptops, this would be cool."

The result is an American show that's more akin to a fraternal twin to its Venezuelan predecessor than an identical one.

"The hook was so high-concept, and I had a visceral reaction similar to the way I felt when first hearing about 'Ugly Betty,'" Silverman said. "But I thought we should take a different approach to it and sort of make it an hommage to the telenovela but still be uniquely American and play to a general market."

The CW's take is set in Miami and has a brighter look and more bubbly tone than the original. The pace of the storytelling, in line with the American viewer's hunger for breakneck momentum, is sped up significantly. Another striking difference is the aging of the show's Latina heroine so that she's not a teenager — and, in turn, not another statistic.

At its heart, it remains a story of a young woman as she navigates her relationships with her single mother and her religious grandmother — the latter of whom puts a heavy premium on virginity — as well as the complications that her newfound pregnancy have on her work and personal life. Snyder Urman likens it to "Ugly Betty" meets "Gilmore Girls."

"I wanted to treat it a little bit like a fairy tale and give it moments of magical realism with daydreaming sequences that play up telenovela qualities," said Snyder Urman, who worked on the "Gilmore Girls" writing staff. "Finding the right tone has been challenging. It takes me a lot longer in the editing room than past shows I've done. It's such a fine line to go from deep comedy to deep drama."

To take advantage of its telenovela feel and American audiences' penchant for binge-viewing, thought had been given to launching the show over the summer and airing episodes over multiple nights a week. But the network felt it would be a strong fall contender in its roster, paired with "The Originals."

The push for a fall rollout puts the show in the company of a handful of other broadcast shows with minority leads landing this season. The family's Latino-ness in "Jane the Virgin" is a plot device mostly in their love of telenovelas and the occasional use of Spanish. Of the seven members of the writing staff, Snyder Urman said two are Latino (one of whom has a background in telenovelas.)

But Rodriguez advises against viewing it as a story that will resonate only with Latinos.

"Yeah, Jane is the first-, second-, third-generation Latino story," she said. "But all of us are living the same kind of life, essentially. The only thing that separates ourselves is our skin tone and the fact that my family speaks Spanish and that I may like to eat arroz con gandules. We all want love. We all want our dreams to come true. We all are afraid of failure. This is a human story. Granted, it's a little nutty. But once you get past that, it's a human story, not just a Latino story."

While "Jane the Virgin" has already been winning largely positive reviews from critics, others are worried the show is taking a not-so-subtle antiabortion stance in the national debate on abortion.

But the show's creative team doesn't see it that way.

"The show is not trying to push an agenda about pro-life or pro-choice," Silverman said. "It's more about this girl's crazy situation and how she handles it. There's no intended larger message. All I can say is, watch for yourself."

Twitter: @villarrealy